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.