Nissan's Leaf and Ford's Focus Electric represent two very different answers to the same question: What should a compact electric hatchback look like?
But for 2016, looks may take a second place to electric range. This year, two of three Nissan Leaf trim levels have gotten a boost in rated range from 84 to 107 miles, courtesy of more energy-dense lithium-ion cells in their battery packs. The Focus Electric hangs onto the same range that it's had since 2012, a mere 76 miles. That was competitive with the first two years of Leaf, but it's now at the bottom of the battery-electric vehicle pack. Ford promises a range of "100 miles-plus" for the 2017 Focus Electric, but for now, Nissan trounces Ford on range.
As for looks, while the Leaf is by far the best-selling electric car sold both in North America and worldwide, 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.
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.
In other words, the Leaf is a car whose design says, "Hey, I'm electric!" The electric Ford Focus hides its plug-in running gear in an utterly conventional body shared with a gasoline compact. The Leaf was designed from the start as a battery electric car, with its lithium-ion battery designed into the floorpan and the area under the rear seat. The Focus design was retrofitted for battery power, and so it's heavier and less optimized than the Leaf.
As well as substantially lower rnage, Ford's electric Focus has two additional drawbacks compared to the Leaf. First, it has no DC quick-charging ability, unlike the Leaf. At specially equipped charging sites, quick charging brings the battery pack to 80 percent of capacity in about half an hour--against four or five hours on a standard 240-Volt Level 2 charger for each car. Again, Ford has promised to add DC quick-charging for 2017, but that doesn't help shoppers this year.
Second, the Focus Electric's 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 the car was re-engineered for 2013 and 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 simply less usable that the wide-open Leaf.
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).
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 almost 90,000 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 only about 6,000 Focus Electrics--not even a tenth of the Leaf's total sales.
The base-level Nissan Leaf S model with an 84-mile range now starts just below $30,000, with fully equipped longer-range models reaching toward the $40,000 mark. The Focus Electric has had its price cut twice, and now starts at 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.
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