Saturday, October 24, 2009

Test Driving the Electric Ford Focus

At a press event in San Francisco, Ford showed off a prototype of what might be called the Model T of the automaker’s electric car strategy: the battery-powered Focus sedan.

“This is about affordable transportation for the masses — this is not about a small niche,” said Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of global electrification.

To keep costs down, the Ford Focus and plug-in electric hybrids will be built — in small numbers at first — on what the company calls its global “C” platform, which produces two million cars a year.

“The assembly line in Michigan will produce the battery-electric Focus and also, with minor modifications, the gas Focus,” Ms. Gioia said. “We can change production as the market shifts.”

The Ford Focus will hit the market in 2011 followed the next year by a plug-in electric Escape sport-utility vehicle, which Ford also showed off in San Francisco. Ms. Gioia said she expects electric and plug-in hybrids will account for 10 to 25 percent of the market by 2020.

But the cars seemed almost beside the point as Ford executives focused on their strategy to work with utilities and other groups to create open standards for electric cars and ensure that a charging infrastructure is in place when buyers hit showrooms.

“The worst thing in the world is if a customer buys one of these things and they run into barrier after barrier,” Ms. Gioia said. “If you go to a dealer and get one of these cars and then it takes 45 days to get a charger installed at your house, you’re not going to be a happy camper.”

She noted the there are some 3,000 utilities in the United States in contrast to just a couple in China, where she recently returned from a visit to the country’s five largest cities. Even though China is moving fast to build an electric car industry, she said each city was developing a different electric charging infrastructure.

In laying out their plans, the Ford executives brought a dose of Midwestern realism to California, home to exotic electric carmakers like Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive.

“We have to create customer demand based on realistic expectations,” Ms. Gioia said. “We don’t want to hype this.”

In fact, Ford has engineered the battery-powered Focus to mimic the driving experience of the gasoline version.

As I drove a blue prototype around the streets of San Francisco, I was hard-pressed to distinguish the car from one I recently rented at an airport. It was quiet, of course, but that burst of acceleration you get from punching the accelerator of an electric car has been moderated.

The Ford executive sitting shotgun told me that software limits the amount of power instantaneously transferred to the wheels so that the car will perform more like its gasoline-powered cousin.

The production electric Ford Focus, which will be powered by lithium ion battery packs, will be based on the more stylish European version of the car. The Focus will have a range of about 100 miles and a top speed of around 90 miles an hour.

Ford has not announced a price for the car.

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