2013 Ford Focus Electric Road Test

Like Pinocchio, the Ford Focus Electric declares, "I'm a real car!"

What It Is
As close to an unobtrusive electric motoring experience as possible.
Best Thing
Oodles of acceleration, supremely quiet, compelling styling that won't make you feel like a techno-weenie.
Worst Thing
Twitchy controls, grating pedestrian warning sounds. Still waiting for humanity to fix this whole range anxiety thing.
Snap Judgment
For better or worse, it's one of the best electric vehicles you can buy today.

It's indicative of our casually dismissive attitude towards electric cars when the highest praise we can afford is, "It drives like a real car!"

A real car in this case, of course, is a vehicle propelled by massive walloping hunks of metal spinning at dizzying speeds, forcibly shoved by a series of fiery explosions that expunge a campfire's worth of smoke out the back and into Mrs. Nightingale's azaleas. That's what a real car has been for the last 100 years. It's absurd, if you think, how human development has deemed the extraction of liquefied dinosaur carcasses as the most efficient way to get around. But then again, we're the only species in Christendom that invented both Congress and L.A.'s 405 freeway.

The Ford Focus Electric drives like a real car much like Pinocchio is a real boy. It produces forward movement via vulcanized discs, known as "tires." It features two pedals controlled by lower appendages: one for initiating momentum, and one for reducing velocity. Directional controls are altered by a wheel-like device; seats are of the glute-supporting type. And so on, and so forth.

But that's about it. Because other than that, the Focus Electric imparts a level of commonality shared more with a Phillips Norelco Ultimate Bodygroomer than, say, an F-150: its 107-kw electric motor (the equivalent of 143 horsepower, says Ford) and 23kWh lithium-ion battery pack are the acme of Ford's long push to electrification, and it has come a long way. The company only started dabbling with hybrids in 2004 with the Escape, exactly seven years after Toyota first started developing the Prius -- yet Ford now has a fully electric vehicle and the Toyota juggernaut doesn't.

Put that in your next jingoistic Billboard hit, Toby Keith.

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What We Drove

This Electric variant marks the third Focus we've driven. The first one was a Titanium model with a $2,000 sport suspension and tire package. The second was an SFE, a fuel-sipper that returned us 28 mpg. This one comes with a 102 MPGe rating and Michelin Energy Saver tires. Evidently, the more we drive them, the more efficient our Foci get.

The Focus Electric comes as one well equipped model, with a $39,995 price tag that includes the $795 destination charge. Ford equips the Focus Electric close to (but not exactly at) the loaded Titanium trim. Which means Sony 9-speaker audio, standard, coupled with SYNC and MyFord Touch. It means dual-zone climate controls, a leather steering wheel, and ambient lighting. It also means heated front cloth seats -- leather is a $995 extra -- that are hewn from bio-based foam and recycled seat fabric. Rumors that they are an edible source of nutrients during sudden avalanche conditions are still unsubstantiated. Note that the price is before any government incentives -- the feds are still doling out $7,500 per EV -- and before any spiffs Ford lays on the hood. As of this writing (January, 2013), Ford is throwing in a healthy $10,750 cash back to Focus EV buyers. Do the math, and suddenly this EV isn't so expensive.

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The Commute

Ford rates the Focus Electric at a 76-mile range -- more than enough, it says, for an average one-way commute to work. The idea with all electric cars is that you waddle along stop-and-go traffic, the toxic environment in which electric cars are the happiest, and plug it into the nearest charging station or Starbucks outlet when you get to work. Then, after your eight-hour workday, your car is ready to drive you home again to your TV dinners and Big Bang Theory reruns.

For these commuting purposes -- zoning out on NPR's Morning Edition, waiting for the Folgers to kick in -- the Focus Electric rides smoothly atop its wave of electric torque. Acceleration builds and builds at a decent pace, finally cresting at whatever speed you deem is safe or legal. When it's time to slow down the brakes are touchy and grabby, much like the gas ped...uh, throttle...um, electric motor rheostat...whatever. The long pedal on the right. In fact, brake feel is improved over earlier regenerative braking systems found in hybrids and other EVs, but still an on-off switch instead of the dimmers we're used to in, well, real cars. Ride comfort is stellar, if only because the 3,691-lb Focus EV flat packs its batteries, IKEA style, to be as low to the ground as possible. You can replicate the same effect by filling an F-150 with either a ton of bricks, or a ton of feathers.

As befitting an electric car the interior is serene, a veritable mausoleum. You'll hear every whomp whomp whomp of the tires smacking the pavement and thwocka thwocka thwocka over freeway aberrations, not because the Focus EV isn't particularly well-insulated against noise, but that there's nothing else to drown it out. The Energy Saver tires are the loudest part of the driving experience; roadway grooves start to take on the aural qualities of Mahler's Fifth. Acceleration produces a whirrrrreeeeeeeeee sound reminiscent of the way spaceships move in sci-fi movies: sleek, impenetrable, and literally awesome. But at low speeds, pedestrians will hear a buzzy klaxon horn that's less spaceship than '78 Monte Carlo with a fritzing wiring harness. Couldn't Ford have fitted a more appealing pedestrian warning sound to the Focus Electric? A babbling brook, perhaps? The Three's Company theme song? Why not the obvious choice: the "be-be-be-be-be" of George Jetson's aircar?

Fortunately, the Sony audio system -- standard on the Focus Electric -- sounds better than the warning buzzer. That alone is worth the price of admission.

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The Grocery Run

Given the peculiarities of electric vehicle engineering, cargo space is understandably small. Ford nestles the battery pack directly behind the rear seats, taking up approximately a third of cargo area between the rear wheel cutouts. There's a giant storage organizer taking up the cargo area and introducing some semblance of grocery-carrying practicality into what would otherwise allow Kroger bags to float around with wild abandon. It's removable, but weighs as much as your average Great Dane.

And, as it turns out, the charging plug is stored underneath this bin, below a lid where the spare tire would normally go. The backseat is pushed forward, pushing infant carriers uncomfortably against the front seatback. They do fold down to reveal an unfinished battery pack cover of thin sheetmetal and orange wiring, more akin to a college FSAE project than a product from one of the largest companies on Earth.

Anyone familiar with a larger (and more expensive) Ford or Lincoln product will recognize the gauge cluster: a large, intricate speedometer in the middle, flanked by two crisp screens. The Focus Electric adds a barrage of constantly trickling data. How do you want your range showcased -- in a bar graph, in a chart, in a series of numbers? It can quickly become overwhelming, an information deluge. But the most useful feature is right there in front of you: a "STATUS" readout shows how many miles you deviate from the estimated remaining range, based on your driving style.

And then there are the ever-judgemental butterflies, which -- as Jacob Brown found out -- can build a heady level of hubris: "At first, I thought that was gimmicky, the sort of thing Al Gore would swoon over. Then, about 10 miles into driving the car, I started yelling to myself, 'Damn right, I got another effin' butterfly!'"

Otherwise, the rest of the Focus interior isn't any different from a standard Focus: same rubber dashboard, same crisp navigation screen with SYNC and MyFord Touch (much improved in this iteration), same lack of practical storage in the front center console, same three-chime bong when you leave the keys in that must have NBC's lawyers scrambling for the books.

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The Weekend Fun

I blasted up the 405's carpool lane -- which I could, one of the Californian perks to driving a zero-emissions vehicle -- to the Valley to pick up my girlfriend, with whom I was seeing a concert later that night. Linkin Park and Incubus, two bands torn straight from my middle-school psyche, seemingly defying expected longevity by still being around. Eighth-grade memories would come flooding back. "Are we seeing them ironically?" my girlfriend asked.

I hope not. The concert was at the Home Depot Center in Carson, more than 36 miles away from Van Nuys. The range was down to 30, and blinking fast. I could possibly make it there -- but how would I make it back? I couldn't hunt around the arena looking for an outlet, a concert faux pas worse than wearing the band's t-shirt to the show. In the end, it didn't even matter: I wimped out, parked the Focus Electric at the Automotive.com offices in El Segundo, 15 miles away from Carson, and took my car to the show. You know, a real car.

Yes, Virginia, there is a thing called range anxiety, and it is very real: not just a right-wing conspiracy to sabotage the Nissan Leaf, it's as nail-biting as running out of gasoline in that '68 Beetle you had in high school. Only here, your day's about to be ruined: even with a 240-volt charge, it'll take 4 hours to arrive at full -- enough time to complete John Belushi's memoirs, for example, or refresh your memory with the Hungarian tax code. You'll find yourself pulling out the charging cable at every Safeway and Pizza Hut you stop at, searching for outdoor outlets and apologizing profusely.

"I had the windows up, air conditioning off, and all other on-board electronics off to try and stretch out the range," said Associate Editor Trevor Dorchies, who actually did get the range down to zero miles. "I also timed every light so that I never had to come to a complete stop or otherwise, the EV would've probably died."

Dorchies reckoned that the Focus Electric could, if you're feeling hypermiley, get up to 94 miles on a charge. The EPA cites an official range of 76 miles, exactly 3 miles more than the Nissan Leaf, an arguably inferior machine to behold. This says more about the contemporary state of electric cars than it does about Ford's engineers. The technology is sound, but they're only working with what we have today, across all manufacturers, as a whole. If we gave Isambard Kingdom Brunel the blueprints to the Shinkansen, we'd be halfway to the stars.

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If you load a Focus with everything from Active Park Assist to a dual-screen rear DVD entertainment system and possibly a neck massager, you can drive off the dealer lot after being relieved of $30,692 of your shekels. At $31,000 after government incentives, the Focus Electric nudges precariously against this numerical wall. California, one of the few states where the Focus Electric is sold, offers an additional $2,500 in rebates, bringing the price below $29,000.

But then again, that's a lot to pay for what is essentially a second car. Electric cars may be the inevitable future we're all sliding toward, but if the masses aren't too enthused about it, that's not a surprise. Human nature leans towards the pragmatic side of things more than the grandiose. If everyone drove a Focus Electric we'd reduce greenhouse gas emissions almost immediately, which would benefit everybody, but if I'm sitting here for hours waiting to charge it, how would that benefit me?

It's a shame, because the Focus Electric marks the most advanced electric car we have today for the price: more fun to drive than the Nissan Leaf, roomier than the Honda Fit EV, more attainable than a Fisker or Tesla, less likely than the Mitsubishi MiEV to incur the teasing of high schoolers. It, in essence, is the real car we've been looking for, and we are simply waiting for the technology to catch up.

And if you're wondering, 10 years after I left middle school, Linkin Park still puts on a hell of a show.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $39,200
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 110 MPGe
EPA Highway: 99 MPGe
EPA Combined: 105 MPGe
Estimated Combined Range: 76 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

This is the best EV no one is talking about. This felt like a car with real smooth acceleration; this is what a more refined Leaf would feel like. I think the Focus EV would take off and leave the Leaf and the dopey Mitsu i in the dust. -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
So what's it like to drive? Not terrible. The electric power steering feels like it's fighting you at times with slightly stiffening and lightening heft. The brake pedal doesn't really feel connected, though -- it's almost as if the brake pedal has to take a split moment to process. "Oh, hey there, you want the brakes! Cool. Right away, sir! Oh yeah, how was your day? Wait, that's right, that braking thing." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

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