Ford chose an auspicious moment to dazzle the world with the engineering talent and savvy product planning behind the 2012 Focus Electric. Bad news about electric cars had been cascading in the days before the car's press launch in Southern California. Production of the Chevrolet Volt remained suspended, the recall of one leading battery maker's products threatened that company's very existence, and an exploding lithium-ion battery injured two workers at the GM Tech Center.
Furthermore, sales of the Nissan Leaf aren't even approaching predictions for that model in 2012.
Nevertheless, awaiting us in a briefing room, the Focus Electric, wearing a pale coat of celadon like a Chinese vase, was plugged into a charger, no more concerned about the above calamities than a hound dog faced with a cat food shortage. And after our briefing and drive, we were more or less dazzled -- as much as anyone could be by a compact five-door weighing 3624 lb and motivated by 144 hp (105 kW) and 188 lb-ft of torque.
While the dynamic performance of Ford's first-ever electric car can best be described as adequate, Ford has done a superior job of integrating electric propulsion into a normal package. In other words, the Focus Electric doesn't look like a previously undiscovered larva scraped from beneath a thick mat of rainforest duff.
If the Electric exudes any trademark characteristic, it's of quotidian utility with a dash of sportiness -- not so different from a Focus with a gas engine.
A new front-end aims at optimal efficiency
Besides the charging cord sticking out of the left front flank, we immediately noticed the Electric's completely different face. Rather than the basic Focus's single-bar grille, gaping mouth, and bold twin-triangle intakes, the Electric is mutely masked in favor of aero efficiency. The new grille displays delicate horizontal crossbars with another more discreet opening beneath the bumper bar.
As there's no compelling need to evacuate hot air from beneath the hood, the triangular intakes are gone, taking along their visual drama. And the Electric peers at the world through all-new HID headlamps, drawing less power than halogen lamps.
"Energy's extremely precious," said Chuck Gray, Ford's engineering chief for hybrids and electrics. "We scrutinized every amp at every moment to determine whether it's important."
Other than the charging port, the delicate and lovely fifteen-spoke alloy wheels, and the blatant but not tasteless badging to distinguish this Electric, there's nothing externally that isn't found on a basic Focus. Be it noted, however, that the Electric will be sold only in this five-door body style and only in one trim level, so there can be no dithering over the lack of leather upholstery. (In fact, the seats are covered with fabric boasting a high content of recycled polyethylene and other waste.) Seat heaters are included.
Under the hood, beneath a shroud of black plastic that's alongside the power inverter, is the permanent-magnet motor, which is bereft of any internal-combustion companionship. The current for this unit is supplied by a liquid-cooled and -heated pack of lithium-ion cells with capacity of 23kW hours. These cells -- manufactured by LG Chem and assembled in a pack by Piston Automotive Group, the enterprise started by former Detroit Piston Vinnie Johnson -- form a recumbent L-shaped 600-pound-plus mass that reposes under the rear seat and between the rear wheels.
Ford claims the advantage in recharging time: four hours, or half that of a Nissan Leaf. Of disadvantage to the owner is the Focus Electric's battery pack. Alas, it impinges upon the cargo area, where inserting two golf bags would seriously discompose the mashies and niblicks. But the Electric surrenders no backseat positions. It remains a five-passenger car.
Driving with refinement, assurance, and efficiency
If nothing is outwardly exceptional about the Focus Electric, it sure helps that the basis for this exercise in electrification is an already satisfying car. The cabin is anything but cramped, there's great outward visibility, and a comfortable driving position is achieved before we pull away on our test drive. The motor yanks us happily along in suburban traffic. This tester is so quiet that we realize how much a normal car suppresses unavoidable tire noise and wind rush, which here seem more prominent in the absence of a gas engine's mutterings and sputterings.
Flowing along, we kept waiting for the single-speed transmission to change ratios, as the driver of a horse-drawn surrey would expect to jolt over a bump, but soon we forgot about it.
So the Electric's EPA-certified range is 76 miles, although Ford says up to 100 miles can be eked out. Our experience verifies there's enough range to run errands, commute to work, or combine some of both, although achieving the top speed of 84 mph and holding it will hasten battery depletion.
Efficiency of 110 MPGe city/99 MPGe highway is astonishing, considering the nonchalance with which the Electric achieves such a figure. In every other way, the Electric's driving experience is unexceptional. Press the accelerator, and the car goes. Press the brake, and it stops without undue hissing and humming from the regenerative system that sends new current to the batteries. With the independent multilink rear suspension, no untoward body motions are observed. The ride is perfectly acceptable, thanks to recalibrations made necessary by the extra weight.
If anything surprises, it's this newbie's level of refinement. Imagine a space vehicle that shrugs off passage through a dense belt of asteroids as no big deal. We can only picture today's world if New Coke had been as successful on its first attempt.
An important part of the Electric's story is the exclusive instrument panel that displays information about range and performance, throwing in atta-boys for efficient travel and energy recapture during braking. This data can be posted to Facebook as a challenge to other Electric drivers to do better.
The marriage of car and smart phone
Almost as important as the Electric's on-road performance is its interaction with our smart phone and the cloud. MyFord Mobile serves as the intermediary. This app lets us shape the charging profile, biasing this operation in favor of low-cost off-peak current. Preheating the Electric's interior before unplugging in the morning is another discretionary function. An accessory 240-volt charger and solar rooftop array are available.
At first, the Electric will account for only a small percentage of Focus sales, but Ford says it gives customers a choice today. Although the Electric is expensive at $39,995, some geeks might see the value equation when the three-phase launch starts with May sales in California, New York, and New Jersey.
Ford names the Nissan Leaf as chief competitor, but we see the Electric giving the comparably priced Chevrolet Volt fits. It's so uncompromised, so clear about its mission. Given the right marketing, this car could be responsible for establishing the Blue Oval as the go-to brand for electric propulsion.
2012 Ford Focus Electric
Motor: Permanent-magnet electric
Power: 141 hp/105 kW
Torque: 188 lb-ft/255 Nm
Steering: Electric power-assisted
Suspension, Front: Independent MacPherson strut with stabilizer bar
Suspension, Rear: Independent multiple link with stabilizer bar
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS and regenerative braking
L x W x H: 172.9 x 71.8 x 58.2 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Track F/R: 60.5/59.6 in
Weight: 3624 lb
0-60 MPH: N/A
Top Speed: 84 mph
EPA Mileage: 110/99 MPGe