It's amazing how quickly the gee-whiz factor deserted battery-powered electric cars. The 2012 Ford Focus electric is a pretty good electric car that's generated remarkably little excitement even within Ford, let alone the public. Honestly, did you even know Ford sells a battery-powered Focus and builds it at the Wayne, N.J., assembly plant in suburban Detroit?
By contrast, the hullabaloo over the launch of the first modern mass-market electric cars -- the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf -- in 2010 was like a space mission. Every sale was announced like the latest photo from the Mars probe.
The distance between first to market and third is not enough to explain the difference in Ford's low-key launch of the electric Focus. While the Leaf and Volt felt revolutionary, the Focus electric presents as evolutionary. It's a good car the automaker is deliberately downplaying.
Prices for the 2012 and '13 Focus electric start at $39,200. The very well-equipped compact comes with just about every feature you can squeeze into a Focus.
A $7,500 federal tax credit and various state credits can reduce the Focus electric's price. Despite that, the bill remains high for what looks like just another Focus hatchback.
It has a 107 kW, or 143-horsepower, electric motor, 23kWh lithium-ion battery and single-speed automatic transmission. I tested a $39,200 2012 Focus electric that's identical to the '13 except for minor changes to its trim levels.
The Focus has an EPA-rated range of 76 miles on a full charge. Recharging should take about 4 hours with a 240-volt outlet. It scored mpge -- the electric equivalent of miles per gallon -- ratings of 110 in the city, 99 on the highway and 105 combined.
The Focus electric costs about $12,000 more than a similarly equipped gasoline-powered Focus.
Its price is comparable to the Chevrolet Volt - which has a range-extending gasoline engine, but a shorter leash on battery power. The Nissan Leaf promises similar range to the Focus, but needs to be plugged in for nearly twice as long to charge.
Other competitors include the Mitsubishi i, a smaller, less-expensive car with a shorter range and longer charging time. The electric Honda Fit that's due to go on sale later this year promises quicker charging, longer range and a lower price, but the EPA hasn't verified its performance claims yet.
The Focus I tested consistently delivered its EPA-rated range in real-world driving. While the range of some EVs falls more rapidly than their computers project, the Focus inspired confidence.
I don't have a 240-volt charger yet, so I could not test Ford's claim of a fast charging time, but other independent testers have verified it.
Essentially, the Focus has a larger-capacity onboard charger, allowing it to recharge nearly twice as quickly as a Leaf from the same 240-volt outlet. Still, that's 3-4 hours to refuel compared with 5 minutes for a conventional car, or the Chevrolet Volt, which supplements its 38-mile battery range with its gasoline engine. Charging time remains battery-electric cars' greatest challenge.
The Focus electric's acceleration is outstanding, but the top speed is limited to 84 mph.
The car I tested had mild torque steer under strong acceleration. That's surprising. Electric power should allow engineers to eliminate the front wheels' tendency to wander when accelerating.
The brakes are tuned to maximize regenerative power. They're a bit touchy, but I got used to them.
The passenger compartment is roomy and includes all the standard Focus' useful features.
The battery intrudes badly on luggage space. It reduces storage space behind the rear seat from 23 to 13 cubic feet, removing one of the Focus hatchback's key selling points.
The electric Focus sneaked into a few California dealerships almost unnoticed late last year. Ford has sold 169 electric Focuses in 2012. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf notched 13,497 and 4,228 sales, respectively, this year. The electric Focus should be on sale across the country early next year.
Ford's not alone in its -- shall we say modest? -- aspirations for electric vehicles. Toyota hopes to sell a grand total of 2,600 electric RAV4 crossover SUVs over the course of three years. The RAV4 EV goes on sale later this year with a base price of $49,800.
The electric Focus' sales numbers are underwhelming, and its price may be daunting, but the five-passenger compact's range and performance deserve attention.