Test Driving the Ford Focus EV

May 6, 2012

Mark D Larsen

Silver Lining
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Besides taking a test drive in a Coda at EVS26, I also wanted to get in line to take a turn behind the wheel of a Ford Focus EV. I will state up front that, despite over a year of marketing hype about this vehicle, I have yet to witness a serious commitment from Ford to bring it to market. Originally slated for release at the end of 2011, the company “fulfilled” that promise by delivering merely eight Focus EVs to select utilities —all with the strict condition that no auto journalist or consumer was to drive them yet. They then delivered only four more to such fleets by April 2012. I was therefore surprised to find that Ford had actually agreed to allow test drives in its EV at the Ride-N-Drive event. My guess is that they realized they couldn’t fail to tout their vehicle in the test drives at the largest international EV convention and still maintain a modicum of credibility in that market.

There were three Focus EVs in Ford’s corner of the lot: a silver model (up above), a white one (below, left), and the black one that I was able to test drive (below, right). I must admit: the Focus EV is a good looking vehicle, one that will probably appeal to more consumers than its key competitor, the Nissan Leaf. On the other hand, I personally prefer an EV that looks unique enough to grab the attention of potential customers. Unless the Focus EV displayed logos on the rear door like these demos, I seriously doubt that it would even register with most passersby that it doesn’t use gasoline, since it is almost identical to its ICE twin.

Cool Color
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Hot Color
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Which leads me to theorize about the possible reasons behind the lackluster approach Ford is taking to rollout this vehicle. Rather than designing it from the ground up as a dedicated EV, they chose instead to merely convert an existing gasoline platform and build them both in the same factory. Consequently, rather than placing the EV’s battery pack underneath the floorboards like in the Leaf, the Coda, and the Mitsubishi “i,” Ford stuck it behind the rear seats, obtrusively occupying what would otherwise be useable cargo space in its gasoline sibling. I have to wonder what effect this might have on the vehicle’s weight distribution and handling, but these test drives didn’t include a slalom course, only a short route around a few city blocks, so I couldn’t really determine if that is a legitimate concern. Regardless, evidently such results are not as important to the company as being able to hedge their bets, no matter which way the wind blows with consumers. In other words, if the demand for EVs increases, Ford can shove batteries and motors into the gliders coming down the assembly line. If not, they’ll just keep installing gasoline engines in them instead. Given the Focus EV’s delayed rollout to date, obviously Ford is convinced that the demand is not yet sufficient —or the profits not promising enough— to warrant fully ramping up its EV production.

The double-duty platform was also transparent in other aspects of the demo that I drove. For example, for all practical purposes, the center console is almost a carbon copy of the one in the gasoline version. Even the shifter resembles what would normally be used to engage an automatic transmission’s gears, with the usual letters for Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and Low. I have to confess that I am not keen on that console, as shown below on the left. It struck me as cluttered and confusing, sporting too many bulges, knobs, angles, shiny highlights and glaring surfaces. Perhaps Ford is trying to imitate the “sporty” layout of the console in the Chevy Volt, but they missed the mark with this hodge-podge of lines, shapes, dials, buttons, and louvers.

Didn’t Console Me
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My Slant
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As shown above on the right, at least the dashboard seemed unique to an electric Focus. I had seen earlier prototype photos with a digital speedometer, so I was disappointed to see that this demo had an analog unit. The battery display on its left would be useful to see with a quick glance how much charge remains in the pack. However, I am not sure what the “thermometer” bars even further to the left represent. Is this the amount of energy used for “acceleration,” regenerated when “braking,” averaged together as “cruising”? Your guess is as good as mine. As for the display to the right of the speedometer, it confuses me even more. I have no idea what this “gauge” is supposed to represent with its “+” and “surplus” labels. I asked the attendant about it, and he said that this is where Ford’s eco butterfiles are suppose to appear, but that the display had been inexplicably disabled for these test drives. Finally, I can’t resist expressing that I have a pet peeve with speedometers that use an italic font, as though the slanted letters are trying to convey that the vehicle is speedy, ready to punch it, crouching forward at the starting line, leaning into the curves, etc. My Leaf’s digital speedometer does the same thing. You’ll have to forgive me, but I have similar reactions to elevator music that’s supposed to soothe me or canned laughter trying to invoke my humor. Just my idiosyncrasies, I guess.

Driving Drivel

While waiting in line for my test drive, I introduced myself to the young man standing behind me. I learned that he was a Ph.D. student from Sweden, and that his name was coincidentally... Lars! His research involves tracking people’s daily driving distances and patterns in his country to help the auto industry successfully transition to EVs in the future. I asked Lars if we could share our test drives so that he could use my camera to video record my turn behind the wheel, and I would then do the same for him and provide him a copy. He was happy to oblige, so we both got in the black Focus EV when it was our turn. You can click on the image to the right to watch the MP4 video of my test drive.

You will likely overhear some of the conversation while I was driving. One of the first things I noticed is that, like in my Leaf, the Focus EV has a slight “creep” when put into drive. The primary reason for this, I would imagine, is to emulate the feel of an ICE car with an automatic transmission. Because an engine is idling in gear at, say, a stop light, when drivers remove their foot from the brake to hit the accelerator, the vehicle starts to "creep" forward. Obviously, the engineers are trying to make these EVs seem as “normal” as possible for consumers who have never driven one before.

I have commented in another post that this is why Nissan makes the ECU in the Leaf resemble a valve cover. Ford goes even further, not just with appearance, but also with the way the Focus EV handles. For example, I have already mentioned the low speed creep, and how the center console mimicks the vehicle’s ICE twin. I also noticed that the power steering required more effort to turn, as though ICE hydraulics were doing the work instead of an electric motor. Similarly, I couldn’t feel any regenerative braking when letting off the accelerator, not even when shifting into “low” or applying the brakes to slow down or stop. It also was not as quiet as I am used to in the Leaf, although it is by no means as noisy as a gasoline vehicle. The suspension was solid yet comfortable, somewhat comparable to that in my Subaru Outback, despite the heavy battery pack in the rear, which unfortunately also intrudes upon the hatchback’s useable cargo space.

Consequently, from what I could tell, the Ford Focus EV not only looks like a “normal” car, it feels like a “normal” car. I seriously doubt that uninitiated passengers would even realize it doesn’t have a tailpipe. If not for the unique “fuel” gauges and more limited range, most drivers would not be able to tell the difference either. The only other noticeable sign that it is, in fact, an EV was its characteristically instantaneous, responsive, linear, seamless acceleration.

The EPA estimates a 76 mile range for the Focus EV, i.e., 3 miles farther than the Leaf. It also gives it an average fuel economy of 105 MPGe combined, compared to the Leaf’s 99 MPGe. Surprisingly it achieves those ratings with a smaller battery pack (23 kWh, instead of 24 kWh), a larger motor (100 kW with 130 hp, rather than 80 kW with 110 hp), a heavier curb weight (3,691 pounds, opposed to 3,354), and a more robust charger (6.6 kWh, instead of 3.3). I therefore have to give Ford’s engineers kudos for designing a more efficient EV drivetrain, especially since it is shoehorned into a converted ICE glider. On the other hand, it does not have a QuickCharge port and costs more than all its dedicated EV competitors. It’s base MSRP is $39,200, i.e., two grand more than a better equipped Leaf SL, and almost four grand more than the truly comparable base SV.

Regardless, no matter its price, features, or performance, to truly compete in the EV market the Ford Focus EV has to be available to consumers. To date that has not happened, despite the encouraging timelines announced when the prototypes were first introduced well over a year ago. Not long after I took this test drive, however, Ford announced that it would ship 350 of them to 67 dealers in the initial rollout areas of CA, NJ, and NY by the end of May, and that the rollout would extend to other areas of the country shortly thereafter.

I sincerely hope that happens sooner rather than later, but given Ford’s track record with the Focus EV to date, I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.