Driven: 2012 Ford Focus Electric

By Brandon Turkus

August 21, 2012

—Lake Orion, Michigan
Perhaps the biggest issue with past and present electric cars is one of image. The General Motors EV1 looked like the offspring of a Geo Metro and Citroen DS, while the reigning poster car for modern EVs, the Nissan Leaf, looks like someone took a machete to a Nissan Versa. Why can’t these cars just look normal? Well, with the Ford Focus Electric, normal looks come standard.
It’s this normal-car vibe that allows the Ford Focus Electric to blend in to its landscape. With the exception of its slightly different fascia, front-fender-mounted charge port, and lack of a tailpipe, it looks like every other 2012 Focus on the roads. That’s great if you are put off by the relative shoutiness of the current crop of fuel sippers and EVs.
[Click here to read our review of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt]
More important than how it looks on the outside, is how the cabin is laid out. The Leaf is a beautiful place to spend time, but whoever designed its instrument cluster and center stack deserves a pie in the face. It’s a convoluted mess of lights and buttons that is difficult to learn and even more difficult to decode information from. Climb in the Focus, and it’s, well, a Focus.
Driven: 2012 Ford Focus ElectricIt uses the same four-spoke steering wheel, with a pair of five-way pads on two spokes along with the assorted Bluetooth, Sync, and cruise control buttons found on the normal Focus. The center stack comes from the highest-end Focus Titanium and is finished in a fine piano black. Ford’s designers have even resisted the urge to fit some ridiculous shifting mechanism in place of the trusty PRNDL shifter that comes with every other automatic Focus.
What Ford has done with the interior and exterior design of the Focus Electric is to strip away the intimidation factor and make this the first truly approachable electric vehicle. It doesn’t look like the bleeding-edge piece of technology that the Leaf is or the EV1 was. It’s just a Focus that happens to have a seriously advanced drivetrain.
Like all pure EVs, the Focus is Das Boot quiet. We repeatedly ferried friends around who weren’t even aware the car was on until we let off the brake. The idle speed is rather fast, particularly in reverse, which can take some getting used to. The other thing that is difficult to acclimate to is the sluggish throttle response. Like the Eco settings on other vehicles, this throttle retardation is designed to save electrons by preventing overexuberance on the part of the driver’s right foot.
It’s hard not to get excited the first time you really dig into the Focus Electric’s throttle, though. It packs only 184 pound-feet of torque, but it’s available instantaneously at the slightest touch of the throttle. When reviewing sports cars, we talk about linear power curves and how readily available torque is. The Focus Electric (and indeed, all electric vehicles) just obliterate this idea. Torque is available from zero rpm, and unlike normal cars, it remains perfectly flat throughout the rev range. It doesn’t matter what speed you’re going; bury the throttle, and the Focus Electric will redefine what the phrase “smooth acceleration” means. It is utterly, utterly addicting.
The cocaine-like addiction that comes with EV torque is not, however, a good idea if you are interested in getting anywhere far away. The Focus Electric still suffers from the two biggest drawbacks to electric vehicles: range and charging time. During our week with the Ford, a fully charged battery peaked at 80 to 82 miles. Ford claims charge times on a 120-volt outlet to be in the neighborhood of 20 hours. We worked the battery down to about 25 percent and were given a charge time of just over 15 hours, so it was pretty much in line with manufacturer claims. Had we had access to a 240v “fast charger,” we’d have been able to charge from empty to 100 percent in about 4 hours.
80 miles doesn’t sound like a lot, but the suite of telemetry tools in the Focus allowed us to successfully extend beyond that. The instrument cluster features a centrally mounted speedometer, which is flanked by a pair of color displays (just like on other Ford products). The screen on the right, controlled by the right D-pad on the wheel, covers climate, navigation, and entertainment. It also has an efficiency display that, like in the Fusion Hybrid, presents a graphical representation of how efficiently we were driving, replacing the Fusion’s flowers with butterflies (here’s hoping the C-Max Hybrid uses rainbows).
Driven: 2012 Ford Focus ElectricThe left screen is the one that delivers the most relevant information. When we started the Focus, we were presented with a Budget Number that correlated with the current charge level. If we started with 80 miles of battery, we were given a budget of 80 miles. If we started with 50 miles, our budget was 50 miles.
As miles accrued, the Budget Number dropped in real-time with the actual number of miles we covered. The Battery Number displayed the current charge level of the battery. Between these two graphics was a plus-minus number, showing how far above or below budget we were. It’s this number that is used to measure how successfully we were driving (it also directly correlated to how many butterflies we could “grow” on the right display, one butterfly per mile above budget).
This is exactly the sort of metric that sets the Focus Electric apart. It turns the entire driving experience into a game. We were just as frustrated to return home with a minus number as we would be on a particularly tough level of Angry Birds. Only instead of getting mad at the birds, we got mad at the butterflies. Screw you, butterflies.
There were a number of other metrics available, including one that showed our throttle inputs on a simple graph, allowing us to fine tune how we handled the skinny pedal in order to improve range. We also took advantage of a graph that showed the power draw of various vehicle systems. One level was dedicated to the climate controls (HVAC, heated seats, defrosters), and another dedicated to other systems (headlights, taillights, entertainment). These graphs really allow the driver to maximize the amount of energy available in the battery by tweaking the driving style for improved efficiency. It seems knowledge is literally power, in this car.
Despite the added heft that comes with the Focus Electric (up to 3624 pounds from 2948), it was still a decent handler. We’d argue the biggest knock is the lack of grip from the low-rolling-resistance tires. There’s a fair bit of body roll, but fore and aft damping were impressive. Steering, as is the case with the standard car, is an electric setup, and is rather lacking in terms of overall feedback.
To be fair, we don’t anticipate a lot of Focus Electrics being autocrossed, though. This is, after all, not meant to be a dynamic vehicle. Most will just trundle down the freeway. For that use, it’s completely inoffensive. The ride is compliant and reasonably comfortable, absorbing bumps and imperfections well. It should go without saying that engine noise is completely nonexistent. Road and wind noise are also very well controlled, making this Focus a quiet, calming place to spend the afternoon commute.
Of course, the final big hurdle for EVs is price. The Focus is not immune to this, starting at $39,200. That’s a lot of coin for a smaller vehicle that can only cover 80 miles. Considering that an auto-equipped Focus Titanium starts at just under $25,000 (and can cover over 300 miles per tank), the Electric’s price is hard to swallow. It does come with a $7500 federal tax credit, cutting the price down to $31,700, which is still $6700 more than a gas Focus.
The good news is that Ford dealers seem to be sticking to the MSRP, and aren’t inflating the prices with dealer markups. As of this writing, we’ve found 117 Focus Electrics nationwide, although the vast majority are in California. There are pockets on the East Coast as well, mainly in New York City and New Jersey. Those located between the coasts are mostly out of luck.
The Focus Electric is a big step forward for EVs. Its familiar looks and unassuming manner make it a more approachable EV for first-time adopters, while its drivetrain is every bit as advanced as the competition. It’s still a compromise in the car world, with a higher price and lower mileage, but if you absolutely need to get into an EV, you’d be well served with a Focus Electric.
2012 Ford Focus Electric
Motor: Electric motor, lithium-ion battery
Output: 143 hp/184 lb-ft
Weight: 3624 lb
Range: 82 miles
Base Price: $39,200