Sun04202014

On The Road

Ford takes over Electric Avenue


Photo By: courtesy of Ford
Photo Courtesy Of Ford Ford plans to sell its new Focus Electric only in California and New York next year. The car offers an estimated 75-mile driving range on a single charge.

 

Over the past five years, models of all sizes have poured out of the Ford development center in Dearborn, Mich. Now the company has broadened its sights even more, aiming squarely at Toyota’s lead in high-efficiency hybrid automobiles and Nissan’s early entry in electric vehicles.

Over the past month, Michigan’s most successful automobile company put the resulting products in our driveway for short loans. As the Chinese pistache trees exploded in color in downtown Los Altos, we drove the 2013 C-Max Hybrid that is ready to go wheel-to-wheel with the Toyota Prius, and the 2013 Ford Focus Electric that will go up against the Nissan Leaf. Both vehicles will be impressive contenders for car-of-the-year honors at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

C-Max Hybrid

The C-Max Hybrid is based on the high-hatch C-Max that Ford has been successfully selling in Europe as a gasoline and diesel model. In the U.S., Ford will sell the C-Max in its hybrid form only, making a deliberate bid to challenge Prius for dominance in the full-hybrid marketplace.

Our week with the car confirms what other car reviewers have said: The C-Max is a real car, with no limitations to be excused just because it’s a fuel-efficient hybrid.

And its real-car performance and handling is a very good thing, assuring us that as the world moves away from the high-power and high-emission automobiles of yesterday and today, enthusiast drivers will still be able to enjoy the fun of feeling connected with the car and road while driving rather than just turning on and tuning out while being transported to a destination. It’s also nice to know that the full-hybrid marketplace won’t be dependent on just one manufacturer any more.

The C-Max is a hard car to categorize. Although these high-roofline five-doors are all the rage in Europe, with their roomy interiors and substantial hauling capacity, manufacturers are only beginning to believe these mini-minivans will find a place in the hearts of Americans. Nevertheless, Toyota has done the world a service by making the ugly duckling look desirable to people who want to show their environmental awareness. Feeling the necessity to offer the same large-capacity on a small footprint, Ford believes it has permission to offer the same profile – and we like the C-Max styling more than that of the Prius.

What we like even more than the looks, however, is that Ford is introducing a European handling experience with the C-Max. In our book, that puts it several streets beyond the Prius for responsive driving pleasure.

In addition, the newest Ford hybrid drivetrain promises high fuel efficiency in both city and highway driving, and claims the edge over the Prius with its rating of 47 mpg on both city and highway. There is some controversy in the auto press about whether that’s really achievable – most reviewers report test results between 42 and 45 mpg – but because that’s twice what many sedans are delivering today, we’re not going to split hairs.

Another good thing for Ford is that the company has responded rapidly to complaints about its new MyTouch interface with cabin controls and the infotainment system, and we didn’t find the version in the C-Max any more difficult to use than systems in other vehicles we’ve tested.

Our bottom line here is that anyone thinking about a Prius V should cross-shop the Ford C-Max before signing up at the Toyota dealer. If you’re in that group, be confident that you can make your decision on the peripheral factors of styling, dealer service and so forth, assured that the fundamentals are every bit as good as the Prius.

Ford Focus Electric

While most manufacturers are only poking a toe in the water of full-electric vehicles, Ford has chosen to wade right in with the Ford Focus Electric. Well, at least up to its waist.

The Ford Focus Electric is still more a cutting-edge alternative vehicle – not quite ready for prime time. It will be sold only in California and New York in 2013 as the company slowly ramps up production and, we suspect, assesses how soon demand is likely to materialize for this alternative approach to auto transportation.

The advantages are obvious: equivalent fuel efficiency well above any internal combustion or hybrid vehicle with zero operating emissions. But the disadvantages are equally obvious: a range and speed that limit the car to urban areas only.

Built on the standard Ford Focus platform, with the new signature Ford grille outline copied from Aston Martin while it was still in the Ford stable, this car has one advantage over the Nissan Leaf right out of the garage: It isn’t weird-looking.

Even better, it doesn’t feel tentative in its steering and handling. It actually drives like a real car, just with the soundtrack turned off. In terms of driving experience and practical utility for hauling people and things from home to the village to the office to the restaurant or theater and back home, its owners will sacrifice nothing in driving utility. The cargo space is a bit limited by the large battery pack, but that’s the trade-off for the extra range in this EV.

The approximately 75-mile driving range on one charge will be more than adequate for running daily errands. And though it does take up to 10 hours to recharge the batteries using a standard outlet and the 120v plug-in attachment tucked in the back of the car, at a 240v charging station – nearly all EV owners will install one in their garage for approximately $1,500 – a full charge can be achieved in about four hours.

A good, simple feature on the car is the LED light around the external filler plug, which illuminates at four levels to indicate when the car is charging and when it’s full.

On the other hand, the plethora of driver assistance messages, even with the in-car tutorials, will take some learning. We were dismayed to learn, for example, as we drove out of the garage the first time that we needed to “Return home immediately.” The helpful engineers suggested that the previous reviewers had programmed “Home” to their home GPS location in the North Bay, nearly out of range from Los Altos with even a full charge.

Finally, infrastructure is starting to catch up to these cars. There are parking garages and lots on the Peninsula with 240v charging stations that take credit cards. They’re part of the landscaping in the new Packard Foundation parking lot in Los Altos, Palo Alto has them in every parking garage, and Google and other companies in Mountain View have them available for employees and visitors.

But one can still suffer range anxiety with a Focus EV driving range of 75 miles between charges and speed anxiety in freeway traffic with a top speed of 84 mph. The driver would think twice about trips beyond the Peninsula.

The price on this car is getting closer to practical when factoring in the $10,000 combined federal and state rebates against the $39,000 dealer price. The premium over a high-mpg gasoline car means that you won’t break even for about five years at current gas prices. But sometimes it’s not about money; it’s about helping the environment and reducing the country’s dependence on oil.

For our bottom line, Ford is introducing two very desirable electrified cars in that sweet spot in the marketplace between $25,000 and $30,000. Granted, they’re smaller than the big American cars we’ve known. But with little hope of gas dropping to $3 per gallon and global warming now an accepted fact, we should get used to the new world of personal transportation.

 

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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