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Between its driver-selectable instrument cluster display and smartphone app, the 2012 Ford Focus Electric offers up a lot of information about its electric drive system. I felt like I was back in college, immersed in a physics textbook.
Instead of range, the Focus Electric showed a Budget in miles. Another screen referred to a Surplus. And then there was Status, which switched between a negative and a positive number. It was enough to make me pull out the manual and spend an evening studying up for the next day's driving.
Confused by all these numbers, I just pulled up the screen that filled up with butterflies to reward efficient driving.
And it is not hard to drive efficiently in the Focus Electric. It not only coached me on braking, but kept me from exploiting its full torque on take-off. The combination of the 23-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack and 143-horsepower electric motor churns out 184 pound-feet of torque, according to Ford's spec sheet.
However, it did not feel like the full amount of twist was hitting the wheels when I stomped on the accelerator. The Focus Electric picked up speed gradually, refusing to deliver the thump to the back I have experienced in other electric cars. This acceleration behavior seems programmed, a means of preventing enthusiastic drivers from draining the battery on launch. But it also interferes when traffic requires a quick start.
At speed, a stomp on the accelerator delivered a stronger push, which was useful in passing maneuvers.
Weighing in at 3,624 pounds, the Focus Electric is about 700 pounds heavier than its gasoline counterpart, and I could feel that weight from the driver's seat. On the positive side, it makes the Focus feel more planted, and less affected by gusty wind. But it also took away some of the nimbleness I expect from a small car. The Focus Electric drove with the deliberate stateliness of a limousine, rather than a suburban runabout.
The extra weight felt biased toward the rear of the car. That, and the fact that the Focus Electric has front-wheel drive, inspired me to give it an extreme hill test. Wisconsin Street in San Francisco runs up Potrero Hill at a grade of around 25 percent, according to this map. I took the Focus Electric up from a running start and the drive system had no difficulty keeping its momentum up.
Then I tried it from a stop halfway up the hill. The car barely crept forward at first even with the accelerator to the floor. It very slowly picked up speed until I hit the crest. Although the acceleration was disappointing, the drive system made no sounds of complaint and the tires didn't lose grip.
Going downhill, or braking to a stop, is much more satisfying in the Focus Electric because of the regenerative braking. The Budget may lose 5 miles in 500 yards of uphill driving, but it recaptures a lot of that energy going downhill. As I glided to a stop at a light, a screen on the instrument cluster showed the efficiency of my braking, frequently returning a score of 100 percent recaptured energy.
Applying heavier braking lowered the score, as the friction brakes took some of the load. These friction brakes proved very grabby, and I quickly learned not to touch the brake pedal too hard lest passengers and groceries come flying forward through the cabin. I suspect Ford tuned the brakes for the Focus Electric's excess weight.
In keeping with the electric theme of the car, the electric power-steering system was obvious as soon as I turned the wheel, as it felt like turning a big rheostat. The power steering is a bit overboosted, making it very easy to turn the wheel. Going through a few freeway cloverleafs at speed, the weight and rigid suspension tuning of the Focus Electric kept it from wallowing. However, I did not put it through a twisty-road sports car test, as its lack of responsive power would have made the exercise frustrating.
As I found when reviewing the Nissan Leaf, the relatively short range of the Ford Focus Electric limits its suitability. It works as an excellent commute vehicle for people who live within 30 miles of work and have a place to plug the car in at home. If the office has a charging station, the commute could be 60 miles.
The EPA rates the Focus Electric's range at 76 miles, along with fuel economy of 110 mpg equivalent city and 99 mpge highway. Those latter numbers will not mean much to the average driver, except to note the drop in mileage at highway speeds and how the efficiency is so much greater than that of a gas engine car.
The car's instrumentation takes into account driving styles, as the Budget showed anywhere from 76 to 81 miles after a full recharge. Plugged into a 110-volt source, the Focus Electric takes 20 hours to go from a dead battery to full, but only 4 hours when connected to a 240-volt source.
Ford offers an app for the car that let me view its charge status, schedule when it should begin charging, and even unlock the doors remotely. The app includes a map of nearby charging stations, as does the car's navigation system. In fact, there is good acknowledgment of the car's electric drive in the navigation system. Whenever I entered a destination, the navigation system asked if I would be recharging at that location. If yes, the Range view on the instrument cluster display showed how many miles to the next recharge point.
And that is about the best thing I have to say about this navigation system. Otherwise, it was wildly frustrating to use. The maps are stored on an SD card, but take a surprisingly long time to render on the car's touch screen. And while the maps are shown at an easy-to-read resolution, there is often no distinction made in the graphics between actual roads and walking paths. Driving through Golden Gate Park, the map made it seem like roads ran everywhere, but in reality the majority of them were paths. This lack of differentiation proved annoying when I wanted to find a cross street to a parallel road, and the map made it seem like there were any number of them just ahead.
Another complaint about the navigation system was its slowness in determining the car's position on startup. When I began a drive from the CNET garage, the navigation system could not find my location for a full 10 minutes while I drove through downtown streets. It even showed the car driving through the San Francisco Bay at one point. This problem is most likely due to either a weak GPS antenna or an inadequate chip.
The Focus Electric uses the newest version of MyFord Touch, which includes the touch-screen interface and displays to either side of the speedometer. The instrument cluster displays are the most successful aspect of this interface, as I could use the steering-wheel controls to access some of the infotainment features and change the drive system screen.
Ford significantly cleaned up the MyFord Touch interface for this generation of the system, and while it's more refined, it still suffers from menu overload. For example, choosing an album from the music library of a USB drive or iPod plugged into the car involves about five screen touches from the main playback screen.
Using voice command is a much quicker and safer method of selecting music while driving. Of course, the Focus Electric comes with the very capable Ford Sync system, which let me not only request music from an attached device by name, but also initiate phone calls by a contact name from a Bluetooth-paired phone.
The Bluetooth phone system works very well in the Focus Electric, and can even read out incoming text messages for phones that support this function. Through Sync, the Focus Electric also offers AppLink, which lets the driver control supported apps running on a paired smartphone with the car's touch screen. Apps include Pandora, Stitcher, and about eight more.
Along with the phone and app connectivity, I also liked the Focus Electric's stereo. The car comes with two USB ports, so I could plug in a USB drive and my iPhone. I could also use Bluetooth streaming to listen to music from my iPhone, although the car interface for that source is very minimal. And along with satellite radio, the car had HD Radio.
The Focus Electric includes Sony's premium audio system, which I find one of the best available in an economy car. Using 10 speakers, including a subwoofer and center channel, the system produces excellent sound, with clear highs and palpable bass. Music sounds very crisp and clear throughout the frequencies, with very balanced playback.
Appropriately for its cutting-edge electric-drive system, Ford loads up the 2012 Focus Electric with technology. The car not only gets the latest version of MyFord Touch, including its very useful instrument cluster displays, but also the very capable Sync system, which offers voice control over devices brought into the car. The included Sony audio system delivers excellent sound quality, but the navigation system largely proved a failure. While feature-rich, it just didn't perform well.
The drive system is the real star. Given its limited range and recharging requirements, the Focus Electric will be best for early adopters who want to try out gasoline-free driving. However, these potential buyers will need to fit a certain profile, such as having a place to charge the car and not needing to drive more than 75 miles or so on a regular basis.
|Model||2012 Ford Focus Electric|
|Power train||23kWh lithium ion battery pack, 143-hp electric motor, single-speed reduction gearbox|
|EPA fuel economy||110 mpge city/99 mpge highway|
|Observed fuel economy||Not recorded|
|Navigation||Standard flash memory-based system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with contact list download|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Sony 10-speaker 355-watt audio system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$39,995|