Getting Acquainted with the Focus Electric
Having put over 31k miles behind the wheel of a Volt since January 2011, I find it impossible not to compare the Ford Focus Electric to the Volt. But in fairness it should be said that the Volt and the FFE are not really competitors. The Ford would be best suited as a local commuter car and offers the advantage of greater electric mile range and efficiency coupled with zero emissions and zero engine maintenance. Also throw in game changing recharge times. The Volt because of its “range extending” gas engine can be driven anywhere, anytime, and offers better handling and a much more useful cargo carrying capacity. Clearly, however, the FFE’s real competitor is the Nissan LEAF, not the Volt.
Granted the FFE can be used to do long trips, as Men’s Health showed when they drove one from New York to California. But that required painstaking planning and special efforts by the marketing departments of an automaker and a sizeable magazine to pull it off. Still it is conceivable that someone with an additional summer or winter home or some other periodic need might travel a great distance between two established charging points if charging opportunities are available in between.
Don’t be fooled by the FFE’s 76 mile EPA rating. That’s 76 miles per charge. If you have access to charging throughout the day, 200-300 miles per day would be very doable in the FFE. I routinely do 80-100 electric miles per day in the EPA rated 35 electric miles per charge Volt.
My first car was a hand me down Datsun 240z, somehow “Datsun” was thought more palatable for American tongues than Nissan. Not a bad first car at all. Next came a hand me down Nissan Maxima, and after that I bought a 92 Nissan Hardbody Pickup. It still adorns the driveway, complete with rusting ladder racks, the wife loves it. Then a Nissan Quest, which was actually a collaboration with Ford, you may know and love it as the Mercury Villager. With that lineage I may have seemed the perfect candidate for the Nissan LEAF.
KEEP YOUR COOL
And indeed I did look closely at the LEAF and even test drove it, twice. But even before I test drove it, I knew that without a strong warranty there is no way I would buy an EV that did not have liquid thermal regulation for the battery. I don’t live in the heat of Arizona, but I also don’t live in the Great White North. There are enough hot days in the Old Dominion that I was not willing to roll the dice on a traction battery lacking in warranty and liquid thermal regulation. Extreme heat has proven to be a problem for many Nissan LEAF owners.
The FFE of course features liquid thermal regulation for the battery and motor, but specifics of the Ford battery warranty are very much MIA. Clearly, you are at Ford’s mercy as far as any warranty on the battery goes.
I WANT IT 15 MINUTES AGO!
With a battery only car, if you can’t afford or it is not practical to have a battery capable of 300 miles at a go then being able to get your battery juiced back up quickly is paramount. So far the FFE seems to do that very well, unbelievably well if the MyFordMobile.Com logging is accurate. Ford has stated a recharge rate of 20 – 30 miles per hour of recharge from its 6.6kW charger. On two occasions where I had used 17 and 18 kWh of the battery, I was able to recharge in 2 hours flat. Given an average of 4.5 miles/kWh that works out to about 40 miles of recharge per hour. If you are someone who can achieve 6 mi/kWh then we are talking 50 miles of range added with 1 hour of charge.
This would seem to defy the limits of the 6.6kW charger, so more investigation is needed to confirm this. Still at those rates some may find that the Focus charger eliminates the desire for ChaDemo.
The Wife and I each put over 18k miles per year on our cars, most of it just going to and fro locally. The charger on the FFE is game changer which I can see already will allow me to do 95% of those miles using the FFE and only for the exceptionally long trips will we have to employ our backup gasser.
Nissan has stated that they will make the 6.6 kW charger available as an option on the LEAF, but given that the larger charger throws more heat at the battery and given the problems they are already having with heat and battery capacity loss, one wonders how this will happen without either liquid thermal regulation or a new battery chemistry which proves itself resistant to heat.
Just the other night I was charging the FFE and it was only 80f in the garage and the AC was going full tilt to keep the battery temperature in the optimum range.
For those on Big Brother Alert note that MyFordMobile logs every driving and charging session and if you activate the “mykeys” it logs location as well. You can think of MFM as vehicle telematics, discussion forum, social networking, and voltstats.net all rolled into one and with more features sprinkled in.
ALL THAT AND LOOKS
While the Volt looks better in person than in pics, the FFE looks very much like its photos, which is to say, very good. The Wife says she prefers the Volt because its styling is more distinctive. No argument there. For myself I do like the Volts looks but I have to give the nod to the FFE. The LEAF can be fairly described as the “Space Carp.” Which is not bad if you like the Space Carp look. And really the LEAF looks better in person than in pics, but it is definitely a modern, aero, distinctly Oriental styling.
Most reviews have given the nod to the FFE over the LEAF for styling and for good reason I think.
Between Sync and MyFordTouch there is way more tech on the FFE than on the Volt or the LEAF. And with added features and options comes added complexity. Meaning it can be a challenge to get at what you want. Part of this is simply the nature of having more options, and part of this is simply a failure to keep it simple…
For example. On the Volt, if I want to surf through my presets, I can simply hit one button on the steering wheel up or down and it will go through the presets accordingly. You can do this with your eyes closed, or preferably with them on the road ahead. On the FFE, to do the same from the steering wheel you go to the 5 way button on the right side of the steering wheel, which controls the display to the right of the speedometer. If you are already on the “Entertainment” screen then pressing down changes to a list of the current presets, then press down again to move through them, then I press OK to select that preset. All of this encourages you to take your eyes off the road, to make sure you are getting it right. If I am not on the “entertainment” screen already then that is a whole other series of button presses just to get there, which involves you having to take your eyes off the road again.
This is a common theme. There are many things that are easier to access or done more intuitively on the Volt than on the Focus. The LEAF simply does not offer many of the features on the Volt let alone the FFE. Nissan it seems was focused on being the first major to market with that one main feature, driving around without an engine. A feat they achieved 18 months before Ford made the FFE “generally” available.
On the Volt you know if your cell phone is actually connected to the car by way of a bluetooth icon. Problem is you and your wife both get in the car you don’t know who is actually connected. Not an issue in the FFE. It shows which phone is actually connected and you can specify which phone is primary.
There is a vast array of usable technology on the FFE for those willing to invest the time to learn it. Pause and rewind sat radio, use the car as a wifi hotspot, run apps through the car, a whole host of SYNC services, the list goes on and on, and I’m already over my word count budget by 2500 words, so we’ll save it for another post.
ARE WE THERE YET?
In the navigation section of the FFE it posts the speed limit if it is known. This is a very useful thing especially for me because I have a bad habit of NOT paying attention to speed limit changes. Constantly asking the wife on trips, did the speed limit go back up? And she is constantly reminding me “I don’t know I’m not driving.” But the speed limit thing is a trifle. The real question is “does the navigation work?” You know some GPS systems seem to have a penchant for having you go around your elbow to get to your thumb. The Volt has proved very competent, even tracking accurately through tunnels and dense downtown areas thanks to its ability to use wheel rotation and direction for tracking and not just satellites. The FFE has done a decent job, except for the one time where I had inadvertently clicked “avoid highways” and we went on a bit of a wild goose chase, chalk that up to operator malfunction.
If you are going to push the limits of the range on a BEV like the FFE it is going to take careful route planning. Doing that before hand on a computer simplifies this task. Both Ford and GM have moved from Google Maps to Mapquest. Unfortunately with Mapquest there appears to be no way to send an entire route, only the destination. Oddly, in vehicles that do not have navigation, SYNC will take the route as laid out by the user.
The other part of the equation is having a range estimate that is reliable. The FFE has shown itself to be reliable…sort of. When the battery is full the range estimate is all over the map, but it very quickly hones in on a reliable number. In my case the range has been about 91 miles.
IN THE LIMELIGHT
The HID headlights on the FFE are heads and shoulders above the Volt headlights. A feature I especially appreciate because in my neck of the woods the deer have a habit of dancing and frolicking and next thing you know they’ve wondered out into the middle of the road right in front of you, at 55 mph.
The visibility out the front on the FFE is very good. On the Volt the A pillar can cause you to loose sight of vehicles approaching from the left. This has happened to me twice in the Volt. The second time I absolutely did not see the car and if the other driver had not been paying attention it would not have been pretty. The A pillar in the Ford is angled such that this should not be an issue. And the built in blind spot mirrors are very effective on the FFE. The LEAF has very good visibility as well.
The FFE backseat does accomodate 5 and offers more leg room, and is more accessible than on the Volt. But the LEAF is the winner on the back seat. It feels more spacious and seems easiest to get into and out of, but only marginally so over the FFE.
If you are using a standard radio you may be unaware that your local radio stations are broadcasting digitally and that multiple broadcasts may be available at each wavelength. For example, in southeast Virginia public radio station WHRO broadcasts on 90.3 for standard radio. On the HD radio side there is 90.3-1 (same as the analog but in digital), 90.3-2, 90.3-3, 90.3-4. Each of the additional stations has a similar format, in this case classical, but each broadcasts is unique. All of the digital versions are higher quality digital sound.
The draw back to HD radio systems is that tuning takes a bit longer. Only a bit, but enough that station surfing is annoyingly slow. Ford’s clever solution to this is to tune and offer the analog signal first and then seamlessly blend over to the digital version. Of course this only works if there is an analog equivalent available. In larger urban areas the HD offerings may be so extensive that you may opt to forgo the more costly SiriusXM.
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
Surprisingly, the $40k Focus does not offer any built in way to open garage doors. A homelink visor appears to be available and should just plug into the existing power port. At $75 well worth the extended range of operation they offer and not having to fuss with replacing batteries in remote. One is on order so I should know soon if it works as advertised.
The TPMS on the FFE is a disappointment. It only gives you are warning light when it is too low. On the Volt I can see what the exact pressure is on each tire at any time. On a plug in, correct tire pressure is critical to efficiency. Considering Ford’s past history with low tire pressure issues and rollovers, I am surprised that they opted for this cheaper less effective TPMS solution. They dedicate 26 pages, count them 26, to “Tires Wheels and Loading” in the owner’s manual, and yet this feeble TPMS implementation. As Ford states in the manual:
“Please note that the TPMS is not a substitute for proper tire maintenance, and it is the driver’s responsibility to maintain the correct tire pressure, even if the under-inflation has not reached the level to trigger illumination of the TPMS low tire pressure telltale”
Will definitely be researching a real TPMS solution.
Trunk space on the FFE is very limited, but I knew this going in. I immediately jettisoned the cargo organizer and the cover for the hatch area to free up some space, but the Volt has much more space. With the rear seats down we carried a 15’ diameter trampoline and enclosure home in the Volt with the hatch closed. Can’t do that in a LEAF or an FFE. The LEAF has more space in the rear cargo area than the FFE, but only marginally so.
On nice thing about the tight trunk is that it tends to keep groceries and other items from rolling around. Of course on all three cars you have the option of putting the rear seats down to get more room, but on the FFE the battery hump is not level with seat backs or the rest of the cargo space.
TAKING THE REINS
The FFE handles very well. If I hadn’t spent the past 18 months driving the Volt I would say it handles great, but the Volt is an exceptionally good handling car. Many reviews have given the nod to the FFE over the LEAF on handling but I don’t have enough seat time to offer a qualified opinion on the LEAF.
One issue in handling with the FFE. If you are driving on concrete that has groves parallel to the direction of travel or over something like a steel grid bridge, the car does not track straight and you are constantly having to correct course. To make matters worse the steering is somewhat heavy so it actually gets tiring. I suspect this could be corrected with a tire change.
One annoyance on the FFE, the HVAC recirculate button turns itself off.
FFE Owner’s Manual p.124 says:
Recirculated air may turn off automatically in all airflow modes except MAX A/C to reduce fog potential.
A/C: Press to turn air conditioning on or off. Use with recirculated air to improve cooling performance and efficiency.
The manual suggests this is done to reduce “fog potential” but it does it even when there is no fog potential. It was mentioned on one of the forums that holding the recirculate button in for 10 seconds overrides this. I tried this and it seemed to work for a day or two, but then went back to turning it off randomly. I will have the AC set on a number that usually is cool enough, and suddenly realize “man its hot” and sure enough the recirc turned itself off.
THE JOYS OF EARLY ADOPTERHOOD
Sadly I must report a serious issue with the FFE. After about 10 days of having the car it started displaying a “Stop Safely Now” message with an exclamation mark in a red triangle symbol. Power cycling two or three times would clear it, and I could then drive.
Two other owners have reported the same issue. At least one owner reported it happening while driving down the road, and was subsequently unable to get the car to start again and had to be towed. That owner’s problem proved to be a loose connection in the lower battery.
Of course the first time that this happened for me was when I convinced the Wife to take the FFE for her daily commute. She tried power cycling 3 times and still no joy. Getting out of the car she announced “done with that car.” Who can blame her.
The problem has since escalated to where I had to power cycle 6-7 times to clear it, and it started kicking out two new messages. “Check Battery Charge” and “See Manual.” When it finally gave me the “Ready to Drive” icon, putting it into reverse immediately provoked the “Stop Safely Now.” At which point I decided to have it towed in for service. Oh yes, that’s going to be another post, stay tuned.
Despite this problem, I am very pleased with the Focus. Ford has put fourth an excellent competitor to the LEAF, and on key features has raised the bar considerably. If the early battery only sales are any indication, Ford may have read the tea leaves correctly and done well to go slowly with the Focus Electric. I believe in time many of the first wave of plug-in hybrid and extended range buyers will realize that they really can get around without a gas engine. When they do, Ford will be poised with a solid offering for the completely gas free crowd.