300 Miles in Ford's Focus EV Electric Car

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I just finished driving more than 300 miles in Ford's ( F) first and only pure electric car, the Focus EV.

Let me cut to the chase: This is a good car.

The traditional, gasoline-powered version of the Focus is Ford's best-selling global small car. It's a regular 5-seat hatchback that competes with cars such as the Volkswagen Golf and the Cruze from General Motors' ( GM) Chevrolet unit. (Ford also makes two gasoline-electric hybrids and two other plug-in gasoline-electric hybrids.)

The electric version of the Focus is pretty straightforward: The motor is up front, and there are two batteries -- one under the rear seat, and one immediately behind the rear seat, taking up basically half the gasoline version's trunk space.

What everyone wants to know about an electric car is: (1) How far does it go; and (2) How long does it take to charge?

The Ford EV is rated at 76 miles, and my testing indicates that's a fair number in blended driving. I could get the range to less than 50 miles, however, by turning on the heat or driving aggressively. On the other side of the spectrum, careful hypermiling in the right temperature could yield more than 90 miles.

Charging from zero to full takes at the most four hours on a 240-volt, 30-amp circuit, so you should get at least 19 miles per hour (76 divided by 4). On a regular 110-volt household circuit, it looked like it would take closer to 18 hours to charge from zero to full, or approximately four miles per hour.

In terms of the volume sellers in the market, the electric Ford's main competitors are the Nissan ( NSANY) LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt. The LEAF just underwent a series of improvements for the 2013 model year, and Nissan started manufacturing LEAFs in Tennessee after making them only in Japan for two years.

The Volt is of course a different animal, with its smaller battery and gasoline backup generator.

Nissan has sold more than 50,000 LEAFs worldwide, and GM has sold almost 50,000 of the various variants of the Volt worldwide. In the U.S., the Volt remains the sales leader by far. Ford's success in this market will be heavily dependent on pricing, as I will discuss in detail later.

First, some background in terms of my perspective of comparison for this article. I have driven the Chevrolet Volt more than 23,000 miles, but it has been a while since I last drove a Nissan LEAF, and I certainly didn't drive it thousands of miles. So this comparison will mostly pit the Ford Focus EV against the Chevy Volt.

The Focus EV is a very beautiful car, in my opinion -- as are the new Ford C-Max and Fusion. The body is also very well put together, with no squeaks or rattles. The noise insulation is excellent.

In addition, Ford gets many of the little things right. From the lights to the seats and the seating position, the basic ergonomics are all excellent.

I should say that the basic driving experience of the Focus EV is very similar to the Volt. The casual observer spending a fairly short time in both cars could easily mistake them for each other in many aspects. And that's a good thing -- because they are both excellent electric cars.

That said, there are some differences and nuances worthy of mention:

1. Drivetrain calibration: The braking and acceleration experience is particularly important in an electric car, because you engage in so-called "one-pedal driving." Basically, the brakes are regenerative so that you capture back the otherwise-lost energy in braking. You rarely touch the brake pedal in order to brake.

That whole acceleration-braking experience is a little smoother in the Volt than in the Focus EV. In terms of acceleration, the Focus EV holds back the otherwise similar power to the Volt, so as to make it feel slower off the line for the first 1 or 2 seconds. However, if you are accelerating in the Ford at full force while steering, the inner wheel will spin.

2. Heat: You can make the Focus EV's interior feel like a sauna in a matter of seconds. In the Volt, it takes minutes, and it never gets as warm -- except the seat heaters, where the Volt grills you immediately. This also translates into better defrost for the Ford.

3. Dashboard: This one is a somewhat mixed picture. The Ford has more data to show, but they are buried in so many menus, and displayed in such a small area, that it's not as useful overall. The mobile apps -- Android and iOS -- available on both cars have many relative strengths and weaknesses in both directions, but what stands out for me is it's easier to send a map/destination to the Volt than to the Focus EV.

The Focus EV also completely lacks real-time individual tire pressure monitoring, as well as an analog auxiliary, or AUX, jack. Given how complex and poorly digital inputs work -- including Bluetooth in particular -- the lack of an analog AUX jack is a major complaint for me. I would find it hard to consider owning a car that doesn't have one.

Next to the dashboard are also the ever-important cup holders -- not for holding cups, but multiple smartphones and other trinkets. Ford doesn't do as good a job here -- or in the C-Max, for that matter -- as the Chevy does with the Volt.

4. Suspension: In the Volt, you feel every pothole. There's harshness and noise coming from the front wheels in particular, resulting from every imperfection in the road. The Ford, on the other hand, is relatively smooth and quiet.

3. Rear-seat comfort: The Volt fits only two people in the rear seats, whereas the Focus EV is like most any car, able to fit three if need be. On the other hand, in the Volt, the two passengers can be 5'11" tall and sit comfortably. In the Focus EV, you're OK only if you're 5'9" or shorter.

4. Luggage space: The Ford's luggage space is severely constrained, as a result of the second battery. You can forget about large bags or a baby stroller. If you're going to pick someone up at the airport, be prepared to use the back seat for all but the smallest bags. This makes the Focus EV effectively into a two-seater -- and a deal-breaker for many people.

The Big Question: The Price

Loaded, the Ford Focus EV sells for approximately $41,500 before tax adjustments. Is it worth it? Let's compare:

Nissan LEAF: A loaded LEAF lists around $35,000. It has a bigger luggage space, but the interior is a bit weird in comparison, and the battery may not hold up as well over the next many years. Overall, these two cars should sell for approximately the same money -- although at that point my personal taste would tip the choice in favor of the Ford.

Chevrolet Volt: A loaded Volt lists around $44,000. It's highly subjective, but I think it's easily worth at least $5,000-$8,000 more than the Focus EV.

Toyota RAV4 EV: Available only in California, the Tesla-based Toyota RAV4 EV lists at $50,000. It is a superior car to the Focus EV in almost every aspect: better range, faster, better back seat, dramatically bigger luggage space. It is easily worth $10,000 or much more than the Focus EV.



In reality, after discounts, the Nissan LEAF may sell for less than its $35,000 list price. The Volt right now sells close to $4,000 less than its list price, and the Toyota RAV4 EV sells $10,000 less than its list price.

What this all means is that the Ford needs to sell at least $6,000 less than its list price, and perhaps as much as $10,000 less, in order to be competitive. Anecdotally, I have heard of discounts approaching that range, but it's up to you to negotiate with Ford for a competitive price.

Bottom line: The Ford Focus EV is a good electric car, if you can live with the 76-mile average range and the tiny luggage space. You just have to buy it at least $6,000 less than MSRP to get it into the competitive zone.

___________________

At the time of submitting this article to publication, the author was long AAPL, GOOG and TSLA.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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