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The Battery-Driven Car Just Got a Lot More Normal

The Battery-Driven Car Just Got a Lot More Normal

Bradley Berman for The New York Times
STAR POWER As handsome as its gasoline-powered siblings, the Ford Focus Electric is identifiable mainly by discreet badges. More Photos »
Published: May 4, 2012


Slide Show
Going Green, Incognito

Pointing the Way to Where E.V. Drivers Can Plug In (May 6, 2012)
CRITICS of electric vehicles say they are too expensive and lack sufficient driving range. But I wonder if those gripes would disappear if the E.V.’s on sale weren’t so — let’s not mince words — homely. I adore my all-electric Nissan Leaf, but its wide rear end, bulging headlights and odd proportions evoke a Japanese gizmo aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily appeal to mainstream American car buyers.

Enter the handsome 2012 Ford Focus Electric, the first all-electric car from an American automaker in the 21st century. Ford will begin selling the electric version of the new Focus in the next few weeks in California, New York and New Jersey, followed by 19 additional markets in the fall.

The Focus Electric looks nearly identical to the gas version, a small “Electric” badge the only clue that internal combustion has been supplanted by swift and silent electric propulsion. Sit in the low-slung, well-conforming seats and you feel oh-so normal. There are no circuit-board motifs, techno start-up sounds, weird shifter knobs or special Eco modes. The driver chooses among standard gear selections: park, reverse, neutral, drive and low.

E.V.’s are highly regarded for their high torque at zero r.p.m. — allowing zippy departures from red lights. In my week with the Focus Electric in the San Francisco Bay Area — the first multiday test of the car by a journalist — the powertrain felt as if it had been tailored for highway driving, offering rapid bursts of acceleration from 30 to 50 m.p.h., and from 55 to 75, with oomph left in reserve.

That’s one of many ways Ford engineers aimed this electric auto at drivers accustomed to the road manners of a gasoline car. “We wanted the Focus Electric to be a vehicle first, that just happened to be electric,” said Eric Kuehn, Ford’s chief engineer for global electrified programs.

Battery-powered cars are intrinsically quiet, the motor sound falling between a whir and a whisper. But the Focus is deep-space silent, the quietest of the many electric cars I’ve driven. The engineers told me they used extra insulation and sound damping.

The extra benefit of quieting the 107-kilowatt (143 horsepower) motor is a reduction of all road noise to ultraluxury levels, whether on city streets or while briskly accelerating to the maximum speed of 85 m.p.h. The single-speed transmission provides direct linear velocity, with no hint of cylinders firing or gears waiting to engage. The concomitant high efficiency means that fuel costs just a third as much as filling up the gas-powered Focus, according to These days that’s the equivalent of about $1.30 a gallon.

In my week with the Focus, I was E.V.-incognito. Not once did I receive a curious glance from a pedestrian or fellow roadway denizen. Focus Electric drivers desperately seeking green cred can find a prominent public charging location to plug in. When I juiced up outside a Walgreens in Pleasanton, Calif., 40 miles east of San Francisco, strip-mall shoppers gawked at the charging cord dangling from my Ford.

One woman said, “I didn’t know electric cars existed.” A father told his son: “Look. That’s the wave of the future.” If I’d wanted, I could have preached E.V. religion all day to potential acolytes.

Thankfully, I didn’t need all day to charge because the Focus Electric uses a 6.6-kilowatt charger capable of replenishing the batteries at twice the rate of a Leaf. This equates to a full recharge from empty to full in a little more than four hours when pulling 240 volts — adding about 20 miles of driving range in an hour, instead of 10 miles for each hour with the Leaf.

There were three or four trips during my week when I would have been forced to leave the Leaf, with its 3.3-kilowatt charger, at home. But I was able to take the Focus Electric because, for example, an hour-and-a-half charge at the Walgreens allowed me to make the 35-mile return to my home charger. I had lunch while I waited at a fast-food joint nearby. Charging at half the rate would have exceeded the limits of my schedule and my patience.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s estimated driving range of 76 miles is spot-on. The farthest I ventured was 83 miles, with the dashboard indicating use of 19 kilowatt-hours from the 23-kilowatt-hour pack. Batteries always keep a kilowatt or two in reserve, so I probably could have pushed the range beyond 90 miles with careful driving.


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