Nissan's Leaf and Ford's Focus Electric represent two very different answers to the same question: What should a compact hatchback electric car look like? For many years, looks took a second place to electric range, where the Leaf had a decisive advantage—but that's no longer the case for 2017.
Both the electric Focus and the dedicated Leaf model are compact five-door hatchbacks powered entirely by a lithium-ion battery pack. So which is right for you?
We recommend the Leaf over the aging Focus Electric, even though the Ford has a slight edge in EPA-rated range: 115 miles versus 107 for the Nissan. The Leaf has a far better and more flexible cargo bay, and 10 times or more the number of dealers who sell and service it. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
Design and comfort
As for looks, the Leaf is a car whose design says, "Hey, I'm electric!" The electric Focus hides its plug-in running gear in a conventional body shared with a gasoline compact. The Leaf was designed from the start as a battery electric car, with its lithium-ion battery mounted under the floorpan and rear seat. The Focus design was retrofitted for battery power, so it's both heavier and less optimized than the Leaf.
Still, while the Leaf is the best-selling all-electric car sold both in North America and globally, its design is distinctive and polarizing. So much so that so that onlookers may point at the car due to its unusual looks. It has no grille up front; instead there's a large rectangular door for the charging ports on the sloping nose. Its lengthy clear headlight units stretch far back along the fender line and and topped with aerodynamic fins.
On the other hand, the Ford Focus Electric is all but identical to the conventional Focus five-door hatchback. Even the different frontal appearance it pioneered was adopted for the gasoline models this year, so now you really have to look carefully to tell an electric Focus from the regular one. Exterior differences amount only to a couple of door badges, and a charge-port door on the left-front fender. It's the one to have if you want to all the benefits of a battery-electric car--the smooth, quiet ride, the strong torque from a stop, and the very low cost per mile--but don't want to be noticed for having an odd-looking car.
Powertrain and performance
Until this year, Ford's electric Focus had two additional drawbacks compared to the Leaf—only one of which has been addressed, at last, for 2017. The electric Ford now offers a DC quick-charging port, which lets drivers recharge the battery to about 80 percent of capacity in roughly half an hour at specially equipped charging sites. Unlike the Leaf, the Focus Electric uses a Combined Charging Standard (CCS) port, whereas the Leaf uses one called CHAdeMO. But the number of sites offering both types of quick charging is rising rapidly, and the Ford joins a growing group of CCS-equipped cars from BMW, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, and others.
Ford still hasn't addressed the Focus Electric's second major drawback, however. The combination of its battery, charger, and onboard electronics greatly reduce available load space. The first 2011 and 2012 Leafs had chargers that stretched across the cargo bay between the strut towers, but Nissan re-engineered the car back in 2013 to fix the problem. Ever since, Leafs have had cargo space roughly similar to that of conventional hatchbacks. The electric Focus has a special articulated shelf with two levels in its load bay, but it's far less usable and flexible for cargo than the wide-open Leaf.