DANA POINT, CA – We get on the expressway and edge left into the nearly empty high-occupancy vehicle lane.

In seconds, our battery-powered Focus Electric whooshes to its top speed of 84 mph (136 km/h) and cruises effortlessly, like it is being sucked through a giant vacuum tube.

At the same time, we are whistling past a huge traffic jam in the regular lanes to our right, a hellish reserve packed with solo drivers and environmental sinners.

For a few glorious moments, we savor the benefits of driving an electric vehicle: Besides access to low-traffic commuter heaven, special parking spots and helping the environment, there is a quiet, Zen-like cabin, zero gasoline consumption and the prospect of thousands of dollars of free money from federal, state and local governments.

It sounds like a value proposition everyone could love. Then our little pink cloud evaporates when we remember we are driving a Ford Focus that costs $40,000. And, despite the lofty sticker, the car’s 600-lb. (272 kg) battery pack provides only about 75 miles (121 km) of range.

Unless there is a 240V plug at the destination, it means outbound trips as short as 30 miles (48 km) can induce serious range anxiety on the way home, especially if conditions are not ideal.

Despite their much-touted potential, soaring gas prices and big government incentives, mainstream EVs still are not catching on.  

Chevrolet Volt sales hit a new high in March with deliveries of 2,289 units, but they still are far less than what parent General Motors originally was hoping for. Nissan Leaf sales also have been disappointing, with only 579 deliveries in March and 1,733 through the first quarter, according to WardsAuto data.

Some independent EV producers already have gone out of business, many others are struggling.

High price tags, $40,000 for the Volt and $35,000 for the Leaf, are major stumbling blocks, despite a $7,500 federal income tax incentive and, in some cases, thousands more in state and local spiffs. Limited electric range, small cabins and bland styling are other complaints.

Now Ford is entering this dicey market with a battery-electric Focus that looks the same as a gasoline-powered version that costs less than half as much. Critics already are wondering if the Focus Electric can compete.

In a brief meeting with reporters here, Ford CEO Alan Mulally argues that basing EVs on standard global architectures rather than special bespoke platforms is a positive not a negative, because it maximizes resources, improves quality and cuts costs.

By offering hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid and battery-electric powertrains on its global, high-volume C- and CD platforms, which include the Focus and Fusion, Ford is giving customers the opportunity to choose a product that best suits their needs, Mulally says.  

It’s too soon to tell if he is right. Production of the Focus Electric began in December at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI. After selling a handlful of cars to fleet customers, the auto maker now is ramping up retail production for dealership availability in California, New York and New Jersey. By the end of the year, the Focus Electric will be available in 19 markets across the U.S.

Ford engineers say the car has significant technical advantages over the Leaf in particular. They boast the Focus is roomier and more efficient. With an equivalent fuel-economy rating of 110/99 mpg (2.1-2.4 L/100 km) city/highway, it is the most fuel-efficient 5-passenger sedan on the planet, Ford says.

What’s more, its big battery can be fully charged in three to four hours with a 240V charger, about half the time it takes to charge a Leaf, yet it offers slightly better range than the Leaf’s 73 miles (117 km).

However, with a standard 110V household outlet, the Focus takes 20 hours to charge fully, the same as the Leaf.

When it comes to accurately estimating range while driving, the Focus Electric is as problematic as other EVs. The Leaf’s computer is overly pessimistic: It immediately takes off 10 miles (16 km) of range when the heater is turned on and quickly knocks off big chunks of range immediately following aggressive acceleration.

We found the Focus EV to be the reverse. After negotiating a hilly, 27-mile (43-km) drive mapped out by Ford, we actually returned to our starting point at about the same state of charge as when we left.

Part of that miracle is due to the car’s onboard “braking coach” that uses a graphic interface to provide feedback on braking pressure to help drivers maximize the recharging potential of the regenerative brakes.

However, a Ford engineer says our astonishing feat most likely is the result of the computer recalibrating upward after a previous driver who drove more aggressively.

Aside from the range issue, the car is fun to drive. With 141 hp and a hefty 188 lb.-ft. (255 Nm) of torque, acceleration is brisk and we frequently chirped the tires without meaning to. There is plenty of power to accelerate hard on freeway on ramps.

Steering response is precise and sharp, although the added weight of the battery is evident during cornering. Brakes are smooth, progressive and lack the “grabbiness” of previous-generation regenerative braking systems.

A key feature that distinguishes the Focus Electric from the Leaf and Volt is the way sound is handled inside and out. Both competitors opt for Sci-Fi-like noises during startup and when interacting with the driver, and both emit a high-tech whine while under way. Our test car is much quieter inside and out.  

Like its competitors, the Focus Electric has myriad electronic and infotainment options that allow owners to check vehicle status, alter charge states and communicate with fellow owners on social networks via their smartphone.

With the EV market so young, it’s difficult to predict who ultimately will win or lose. Lack of a unique design will not win the Focus Electric many fans among EV enthusiasts, but its roominess and fast-charging capabilities may give it an advantage in the fleet market.

The Focus Electric and its upcoming C-platform plug-in electric siblings also may benefit from the continuing politicization of the Chevy Volt.

The bottom line is that the Focus Electric is unlikely to be a leader if the nascent segment takes off, but it also presents far less risk to Ford’s bottom line if EVs fall flat, as they already have done once before. 

dwinter@wardsauto.com

 

’12 Ford Focus Electric
Vehicle type 5-door FWD sedan
Engine Permanent magnetic electric traction
Power (SAE net) 141 hp/105 kW
Torque 188 lb.-ft. <255 Nm/td>
Transmission Single-speed automatic
Wheelbase 104.3 ins. (264 cm)
Overall length 172.9 ins. (439 cm)
Overall width 71.8 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height 58.2 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight 3,624 lbs. (1,644 kg)
Base price $39,995
Fuel economy 110/99 mpg (2.1-2.4 L/100 km)
Competition Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt
Pros Cons
3-4 hour 240V charging 20-hour 110V charging
Seating for 5 Limited cargo space
Priced like Volt No range-extender like Volt