2015 Nissan LeafEnlarge Photo
If you're considering a battery-electric car, the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric represent two very different answers to the same question: What should a compact electric hatchback look like?
The Leaf is by far the best-selling electric car sold both in North America and worldwide. But its design is distinctive and polarizing, enough so that people may point at it due to the unusual looks. It 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.
Ford's electric Focus has a couple of 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.
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.
Still, the two cars are fairly close EPA ratings for range and efficiency. The Nissan Leaf has been boosted to 84 miles of range, with a rating of 99 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent). Based on the distance it will travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.
The Focus Electric does just slightly better on both counts, with a rated 76 miles of range and a 105 MPGe rating. It also 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 roughly 75,000 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 three years, Ford has sold no more than 4,500 Focus Electrics--not even a tenth of the Leaf's total sales.
The base-level Nissan Leaf S model now starts at $29,860, with fully equipped models reaching toward the $40,000 mark. The Focus Electric has had its price cut twice, and now starts at $29,995. 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.
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.
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. Thus far, the market seems to prefer the latter--but if Ford ever decides to get serious about battery-powered cars, it's cut its teeth on the Focus Electric and produced a perfectly good electric car in the process.
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