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USA: Test driving the Ford Focus Electric

(MoneyWatch) I hit the accelerator hard and the car jumps ahead, but there is no roar of the engine. This is the new Ford Focus Electric with only a silent electric motor and the tremendous torque that provides for takeoff.

Ford’s entry in the electric car derby goes on sale next month to compete with the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt (which also has a backup gasoline engine). Originally it will be sold only in green-car hotbeds of California, New York and New Jersey but will expand to another 16 markets by the end of 2012. I got a chance to test drive the Focus Electric at an event in New York last week.

The kind of lead-foot acceleration I was trying out is not, however, how Ford or the car itself encourages you to drive. By driving gently and braking carefully, you help preserve and slightly increase the charge you need to get where you are going and back. Executives say the car has a range of 77 miles before needing a plug-in charge. On this day, that would have been no problem. A couple of taps on the navigation screen showed five Manhattan charging stations within a one-mile radius, mostly in parking garages. Here are some other impressions:

The dashboard constantly encourages you to drive for energy efficiency. Once you have set your destination into the navigation system, the car constantly measures how you are doing in keeping up sufficient charge. If you have a surplus, butterfly icons show up on the dashboard. When you brake the car, a battery icon flashes a percentage number to show how much of the energy you captured from the regenerative braking that helps recharge the battery.
It’s not complicated. Those specialized brakes are very sensitive. But after one too-quick stop, it is easy to change to slow, steady braking that gives maximum recharge. The navigation system and the controls for music and cell phone connections are the same as in any well-equipped gasoline Focus.
The car recharges pretty quickly. I didn’t get to try this feature, but Ford executives say a full recharge will take only three to four hours if you have a special 240-volt home charging station or find a similar public station. Ford is boasting that amounts to about half the full-charge time of the Nissan Leaf. On the other hand, if you just plug the Focus Electric into a 110-volt wall socket using the built-in charger, it will take 18 to 20 hours.
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