Test Drive: 2012 Ford Focus Electric

Don’t believe what you’ve heard, ‘twas Ford that killed the electric car.

A century ago the Model T ushered in a new era of affordable motoring that offered literally limitless possibilities, and pushed the short-range electric cars of the day to the sidelines where they have remained until only recently.

Now, on the cusp of a new era of zero-emissions motoring, Ford is joining the fray and introducing the first battery-powered vehicle it has ever produced in house: the Focus Electric.

Based on the conventional five-door Focus, the Focus Electric has an electric motor driving the front wheels and a 23 kWh battery pack located behind and underneath the rear seats. Starting price is $39,995, but you can call it $32,495 after the $7,500 federal tax credit that the car qualifies for.

The battery pack, which itself contributes between $12,000 and $15,000 to that price, is climate controlled to keep it at optimum operating temperature at all times, and delivers an EPA-rated 76 miles per charge, 3 “mpc” more than the Focus’ main competitor, the Nissan Leaf.

Visual changes vis a vis the gas guzzling Focus are limited to a newly designed, but phony, radiator grille, some minor aerodynamic tweaks, a few “E-lectric” badges and a circular cover for the charging port on the left front fender. Plugged into a 110-volt outlet, a full charge takes up to 20 hours, but that drops to less than four hours when using a dedicated 240-volt charger that Ford will be happy to set you up with for $1,495.

Inside, the car is also largely standard-issue Focus, with only the big box in the cargo bay covering the battery pack an immediate hint that something is amiss, or aright, depending on your perspective.

Hit the start button and you’ll notice a few tweaks to the many LCD screens of the MyFord touch infotainment system that are specific to the battery-powered model. They offer a variety of ways to display how much juice you have left, and one screen that awards environmentally friendly driving with a growing rabble of butterflies that dissipates whenever you succumb to your lead foot.

Don’t worry, they don’t die, just fly away to greener pastures.

A traditional gear selector in the center console engages drive modes, and getting underway is as simple as slipping it into “D” and pressing your right foot down on the object formerly known as the gas pedal.

As you do, the car steps off smartly and smoothly with a disappointing absence of futuristic motor whine. The electric Focus is about 700 pounds heavier than the gasoline-powered version, but with more torque on tap, doesn’t feel it around town. Get closer to its artificially limited 84 mph top speed, however, and the left lane looks less and less inviting.

In any event, the ride is quite pleasant, with that extra bulk helping to smooth out the bumps and the lack of mechanical noise raising the overall refinement of what is already a near-premium compact car. I didn’t have the opportunity to go far enough to put the EPA rating to the test, but over the course of my brief test drive the car lost less range than the distance it covered, thanks in part to an extremely efficient regenerative braking system that uses the electric motor to recapture energy as the car slows down.

One of the selectable feedback screens issues a report card every time you come to a stop, telling you what percentage of the available energy you actually recovered, in an effort to retrain you to glide slowly to a stop to maximize efficiency. Switching the transmission into “L” increases the level of regeneration, and slows you more forcibly whenever you lift off of the accelerator.

Ford tips its hat further to the environment through the use of renewable and recycled materials throughout the Focus Electric. These include coconut-based plastics, seat foam derived from soybeans, cloth upholstery manufactured from old water bottles and sound insulation created from used denim jeans. Leather seats are a $1,000 option, the only one.

Cattle are renewable, after all.

Navigation comes standard on the Focus Electric and loaded with the locations of public charging stations. A mobile app for Apple and Android phones lets you remotely monitor the vitals of your vehicle, schedule home charging times and precondition the cabin temperature while it's still plugged-in, in an effort to reserve more battery life for the ride.

Compared to the Nissan Leaf – and right now there’s not much else to compare it to among mainstream automakers – the Focus Electric looks strong. It feels more impressive and matches up well on features and price. It’s also more energy efficient, delivering the equivalent of 105 mpg.

The biggest difference between the two is the availability of a superfast 480-volt charge port on the Leaf that can replenish the battery pack to 80 percent full in just 30 mins. Of course, there aren’t many places around the country to plug it into right now and on a 240-volt outlet the Leaf takes about twice as long as the Focus to recharge, but is getting an upgrade next year to match the Focus’ speed.

Ford will only be offering the Focus Electric in California and the New York City metro area to start, so sales won’t be going through the roof anytime soon, but Ford’s director of sustainability, John Viera, says the car is priced to turn a profit and that they’ll build as many, or little, as the market warrants.

Ironically, Viera notes that it’s not so much cars like the Leaf that pose the greatest challenge to the Focus Electric, but Ford’s conventional and hybrid vehicles, several of which already deliver more than 40 mpg at a much lower price.

The scions of the Model T may have their last laugh yet.