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The Ford Focus is a pretty popular vehicle. In the first five months of 2012 there s been a three-way popularity contest between it, Corolla and Civic. Who d a thunk that could happen three years ago?

Ford hopes the newest version, the Focus Electric charges up sales further. The Electric is not like Chevy s Volt. The Ford s gas engine has been yanked and replaced with a 143 horsepower electric motor. This Focus is purely battery powered.

Know that Focus Electric is arriving at you local Ford stores right now... if you live in California, New York or New Jersey. The rest of the country will have to wait for a little while. Washington and Oregon will see them in the summer of 2012.

The purchase of an electric car requires a little more thought than a standard gas powered car because of higher initial purchase cost, limited range and unfamiliarity to most buyers. At a brief get aquatinted presentation put on by Ford in Seattle, Mike Tinskey, the Associate Director of Vehicle Electrification at Ford walked a group of media, city officials and electric car enthusiasts through the unique attributes of the Focus Electric.

The FE is remarkably normal to drive. Passengers will only suspect it s different from the standard model because of the lack of sound. But before I get further into driving dynamics, here are the questions most people want answered-

What s the range? The official EPA sticker says 76 miles but Mr. Tinskey insists that by being aware of driving dynamics, they ve managed up to 100. Like all electric cars, an aggressive throttle foot, hills, high speed, cold temperatures, and the use of electric accessories like the sound system, climate control and lights make a difference.

Charge time? Focus has an advantage here. Because of it s larger on-board AC to DC power inverter, the Electric can go from fully depleted to fully charged in just over three hours using 220 current, the kind your drier uses. That s over twice as fast as Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i. Using 110 current it s 19 hours.

The speedy charge rate makes it feasible to get more miles out of a top off at public charge stations. Hook up while grocery shopping for an hour and there s 25 miles of additional range (vs. 12 or so with Leaf and i).

Ford has teamed up with Best Buy s Geek Squad to provide standard installation of the home charger for a flat $1,495. Especially troublesome installs will cost more.

The cost for a full charge? In Seattle where power is largely generated hydroelectrically, Mike Tinskey says it should cost a bit more than one dollar. That s right, a buck, a fin, a single Washington. Not too shabby for 75 plus miles of driving.

Other parts of the country have higher rates but it s where the Focus Electric s quick charge ability pays off. In communities with off-peak power rates, the Electric can be programmed to charge only during low cost hours. Even if that window is four hours, it can fully charge on the cheap. A smartphone app allows owners to remotely heat or cool the cabin while the car is plugged in, which extends range.

Price? Ford Focus Electric starts at 40 grand. That immediately drops to $32,500 because of a $7,500 federal tax credit. Some states have further incentives. Base cars are loaded with dual-zone auto climate, keyless ignition, sat nav, heated seats, back up camera and much more. The only option is leather chairs. Sorry, no sunroof available.

The interior is tastefully done with high quality materials (many of which are made from renewable materials).

Is it financially viable? A loaded gas powered Focus can run up around 28K so there s a $5,000 premium for the Electric. Ford estimates annual maintenance costs should be $500 less since there are no oil or transmission fluid changes. Brake pads last much longer because often times pushing on the pedal only activates the motor generator to charge the battery. It takes significant force to engage the standard hydraulic system.

With fewer moving parts and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of controlled explosions inside an engine block, the Focus Electric should be much more reliable than conventional automobiles. Factoring in lower fuel costs, basic elementary school math suggests a break-even point of six to nine years. A lot depends on mileage driven.

You Look Familiar...

Inside and out Focus Electric looks remarkably similar to the gas-drinking model. The biggest difference is the grille that s also making it s way to upcoming models like the 2012 Fusion and C-Max. If you re looking to make a dramatic visual eco statement, this isn t your car. Only car geeks and badge readers will recognize you re running on batteries.

Pop the hood and it too looks pretty much normal. There are brake fluid and coolant reservoirs because the battery pack is liquid cooled. Under the plastic shroud there s a 143 horsepower electric motor with 184 lb-ft of torque.

The transmission lever is a carryover from the gas version but there s really no gearbox, Focus Electric is a single speed affair. To back up, the motor reverses polarity. The 23 kilowatt-hours capacity lithium-ion battery is in the back.

A Plus? A Minus?

And the pack is the Focus Electric s Achilles heel. It dominates what would be the cargo hold in a civilian Focus, taking up a lot of space. By building FE on the existing platform, it reduced Ford s development costs and allows them to assemble it on the same line as the standard Focus. That way they can build to match demand. The minus of course is the cargo area is not nearly as useful as the Nissan Leaf s.

There s some extra room under a flap near the rear of the trunk and below that area is storage for the tire repair kit and portable charging cord (there is no spare). Small legs drop from the flap to even up the load floor, plus the back seats split and fold to make the Electric a little more useful.

The back seat space is the same as a regular Focus meaning legroom is okay but not overly generous. Passengers get comfortable seating, a folding armrest, a power port, dual seat pockets and unique cubbies near the seats. In short, four average adults will be fine in a Focus, gas or electric.

On The Road

I spent a very brief time driving the Focus Electric but enough to get some initial perceptions. There is of course no sound on start up. Not much once the car is in motion either. FE is very quiet and with loads of low-end torque, it accelerates briskly in urban driving.

I got nowhere near a highway so I m not even going to guess at a 0-60 time. Like the gas-powered model, the Electric feels substantial and solid. Top speed is 84 miles an hour.

A display scores efficient braking and Mike Tinskey says this coaching makes a more efficient driver out of everyone that gets behind the wheel. Drive carefully and you ll get a cluster of butterflies in the readout by the speedometer. I managed just one butterfly and it quickly flew off in disgust due to my lead foot.

There are some interesting tech touches besides the Microsoft SYNC system and improved second generation MyFord Touch interface. Program a destination into the integrated nav system and it signals a driver to conjure up more butterflies if the battery range is on the tight side. And each smart key keeps track of the driving style of the holder, making those calculations more accurate.

Plug the charger into the standardized port and a lighted ring divided into quadrants offers a visual of the battery charge level. Handy to know at a public charge station since the polite folks at Ford believe etiquette will evolve at public charge stations. If it s clear a car has a full charge, someone who needs some extra range can unplug it guilt free.

Worried About Battery Durability?

Ford isn t. The pack has a 10-year warranty. They ve been making hybrids for years now and monitoring the units in taxi fleets, they ve found them to be much like new after significant use. Their belief is that after 10-12 years of normal use, the battery should still have 80 percent of its original capacity. Ford says that the pack is integral to the car and, much like a gas engine, is not easily replaceable. The thinking is after a dozen years you ll be tired of the car and will sell it to a college student who just needs a reliable runabout for city use, just like any other 12-year-old car.

While there was a flurry of buyers when Leaf and Volt were first introduced, sales of electric cars have cooled somewhat. It s very possible that mainstream buyers are put off by the higher initial price tag and/or limited driving range.

By building the Focus Electric on the same line as the conventional model, Ford has wisely hedged its bet. Making the Focus Electric s charge time twice as fast adds some appeal to it. But the strongest competition might not be from Leaf, Volt or i, but Ford itself. Later this year, they ll introduce the Energi Fusion and C-Max, which are plug-in hybrids. If priced right, they ll be awfully enticing to fuel efficiency fans. Stay tuned. Things are moving pretty fast these days.

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