COAL: 2013 Ford Focus Electric – Good Intentions, But There Are Some Quirks

2013 Ford Focus Electric front

After the rather unfortunate end of the Volt, I was still interested in battery-electric vehicles but wanted something with a bit more range. The Nissan LEAF was a bit too oddly styled for me, and the choices were a bit limited. My eventual pick was a car that did everything it was supposed to do, but with some challenges along the way.

By 2013, electric drive vehicles were beginning to move beyond the image of glorified golf carts to some extent, largely thanks to the LEAF and the Volt. I had been very pleased with the performance of the Volt and had already invested in the 240 volt electric charging infrastructure at my house, so another electric vehicle purchase was logical. I had driven the Focus at a conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit and liked it, as it combined the benefits of battery electric drive with the good handling of the basic Focus platform.

Finding one was a bit of a challenge, even though Maryland was a state that was receiving quite a bit of electric vehicle attention (a combination of regulations, proximity to DC, and interest from consumers). I did find one at a local dealer – it was essentially the only one available in the area at the time. It had been there awhile, which is why there were significant incentives and discounts on it, making it an attractive choice. The lease wasn’t as subsidized as the Volt lease had been, so it cost a bit more a month, but I was getting the capability of doing my whole commute without gasoline, so I figured it was a good compromise. Electric range (on paper) was roughly 100 miles, roughly equivalent to the LEAF and quite a bit more than the Volt. I figured this should be sufficient to cover all the local travel that I needed to do, and we had a gasoline car for longer trips anyway. The only issue I had with the buying experience was that this dealership was a bit old-school and used stickers for dealer identification that were essentially impossible to peel off, so I left it even though I didn’t want it.

The Focus Electric was equipped at the level of the gasoline Focus Titanium, with power leather seats, smart key entry, navigation system with a large infotainment screen, fairly large alloy wheels, LED running lights, and so on. The navigation system offered a useful feature of keeping track of your home base and showing the areas where you could drive with the charge remaining in the batteries. It also kept track of where you were and the available battery charge and put up a reminder when your available range was nearing the miles necessary to get you back home. Displays on either side of the speedometer gave range and driving style feedback as well as satellite radio channel or iPod information, which I found very handy. At this time, the Aston-Martin inspired grille was unique to the Focus Electric, as I recall, but used the hood and fenders from the gasoline Focus.

2013 Ford Focus Electric rear view

Handling and performance were quite good – the instantaneous torque of electric motors made stoplight races pretty entertaining, as long as you could keep the low rolling resistance tires from lighting up from a standing start. The car handled pretty well, and weight distribution was more balanced as the front-drive engine and transmission package was replaced by a smaller electric motor up front and batteries over the rear wheels.

There were some challenges, however. The Volt’s internal controls for charging were pretty simple – tell it when you wanted the car to be recharged, and it was always ready. The Ford had a more complex charging scheme that sought to take time-of-use electricity rates for where the car was charging (including some ability to know via GPS where you were) to pick when to start and stop charging. As the charging station in my house also had some controls built in for time-of-use rates, the net effect on several occasions was that the settings of the car and the charger would conflict and the car wouldn’t be charged. As my wife and I were carpooling at the time, that wasn’t a big disaster as we could switch cars, but it was still an annoyance. I ended up bypassing all the time-of-use sophistication of the car and set it to “charge when plugged in” and set the charging station’s controls to turn on at midnight and off at 8 am unless I said otherwise.

Packaging of the car was a challenge, too. Unlike the Volt, whose basic Cruze platform had been modified quite a bit to accommodate the T-shaped battery pack down the middle of the car in a relatively unobtrusive way, the Focus platform wasn’t modified very much at all. The Focus was what was known in the industry as a “compliance car” designed to sell exactly as many units as regulations would require, so engineering was limited to making sure the powertrain worked well.

image via Cleantechnica

The main problem was that the battery pack was split into two parts, one under the rear seat where the gas tank was located in the gasoline Focus, and the other part in a large battery box over the rear wheels. This meant that the cargo area had a large hump in it so longer items had to rest on top of the box. Things like golf clubs had to be stacked on the folded-down rear seat as they wouldn’t fit in the rear hatch.

2013 Ford Focus Electric rear end view

The biggest problem I had with the car was one that would have been there whether it was a gasoline or electric Focus, that of the MyFord Touch system, which at the time was Microsoft-based. I consider myself to be pretty tech-savvy and not afraid of new technologies at home, at work, or in my car. A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years about this system and its quirks, so I won’t repeat those here. My experience was not unlike those of the others – I had several occasions where I was listening to a satellite radio station and wanted to change it, but the system wouldn’t let me. Not only that, it wouldn’t let me switch to an iPod source or to FM, or to turn the stereo off. The only way that I could get the system to work again was to stop the car, put it in Park, shut it off, open the door (to clear the retained accessory power feature), shut the door, turn the car back on again, and put it back in Drive. Needless to say, this particular dance raised a few eyebrows at traffic lights.

As far as the electric-only performance went, I rarely had any range anxiety and was able to take the car virtually everywhere I needed to go. I needed to recharge the car every day just to make sure all was well with a round trip to work, but once I got the settings for the car and charger down it was a simple matter of plugging the car in when I got home and letting it charge as it needed to. Things got a little dicey during one or two cold snowy winter evenings where I had to make a detour on the way home from the office for some reason, and the heavy use of the heat/defrost cut into range a bit more than I liked. Cooling the car in the summer with the A/C wasn’t nearly as much of a concern. By the end of my ownership period, we had moved to a house much closer to our offices, and I was able to use the supplied 110 volt charger to top off the batteries after our short commutes for quite some time. This included a brief time in a temporary furnished apartment while we waited for our house to be built, where my only access to charging was at the commuter train station and at a restaurant parking garage across the street from the apartment complex. No issues at all here – I was able to drive the car for a whole week without charging it.

2013 Ford Focus front view

On the whole, I liked the car as it was fun to drive and allowed me to avoid gas stations with a simple plug-in every night. It definitely had some packaging quirks that a purpose-designed EV like a LEAF or Bolt doesn’t have but was still functional. This was another in a very small list of cars that I ran to the end of its lease. I didn’t love it, exactly, which means that the four photos in this COAL entry (taken with my smartphone) are the only four photos I have (with photobombs from the maligned Malibu and the red Thunderbird LX, now hidden most of the time under a car cover). Its replacement didn’t end up being electric drive, but that had more to do with the deals I could make rather than any desire to go back to gasoline-powered cars or dislike of the car itself. More in the coming weeks on that.