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.
2017 Ford Focus ElectricEnlarge Photo
2016 Ford Focus ElectricEnlarge Photo
2015 Ford Focus ElectricEnlarge Photo
2017 Ford Focus ElectricEnlarge Photo
The Focus Electric retains the good roadholding and fun driving experience of the stock Focus, and its 107-kilowatt (143-horsepower) motor is more powerful than the Leaf's 80-kW (107-hp)--though the Focus Electric is also heavier. Both cars fit 6.6-kilowatt chargers (the very lowest-end model of the Leaf makes do with a slower 3.3-kW charger).
The low-volume Focus Electric got a battery upgrade for 2017, with its pack capacity rising from 23 to about 34 kilowatt-hours. The EPA range rating rises correspondingly, from a bottom-of-the-list 76 miles to 115 miles. A range of more than 100 miles is now de rigeur; every new Leaf is rated at more than 100 miles. The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, of course, offers a whopping 238-mile range for only a few thousand dollars more—which will start a whole new competition for range ratings in the years to come.
Features and safety
The Leaf now stickers at slightly more than $30,000, and the Focus Electric starts around the same level. Both of those numbers are before any Federal, state, or local incentives, and both cars qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit and a $2,500 California state purchase rebate. Both Ford and Nissan have also offered $199-a-month lease deals for these models, which take advantage of the Federal credit to lower the monthly payments.
In the end, buyers need to decide if they want a low-volume, pretty-much invisible electric car, or a more distinctive design that's sold in much higher numbers. The Ford Focus Electric is built in Wayne, Michigan, on the same assembly lines as gasoline Focus models. U.S. Leaf models are produced in Smyrna, Tennessee, and powered by U.S.-fabricated lithium-ion cells as well.
If you're considering either car, there's another factor you should know: Nissan sells the Leaf throughout the country, and it has now sold more than 100,000 of them in the U.S. Ford only sells the Focus Electric in selected states, and anecdotal reports indicate that in some of those locations, buyers will have to work hard even to get one that's theoretically available. Over the last four years, Ford has sold fewer than 7,000 Focus Electrics--not even a tenth of the Leaf's total sales.