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car review

2012 Ford Focus Electric

Ford's Focus Electric lives up to the promise of its chief engineer and, even at that, I could not live with it as an everyday ride.

Too bad. I love driving the Focus EV, but the range and charging limitations have the whiff of a deal-breaker.

And then there's the price. The five-door Focus EV I tested has a sticker price of $41,199, minus $5,000-$8,000-plus in subsidies if you live in British Columbia, Ontario or Quebec. Loaded as it is with luxury equipment, sporty as it performs in traffic, the price is not right. A ritzy Focus Titanium hatchback, the gasoline version, lists for $25,099.

If there's a saving grace here, consider what the latest Consumer Reports reliability study says. Gasoline-electric hybrids and pure battery-powered cars are reliable. The Toyota Prius, Prius v and Prius Plug-in – above average for predicted reliability. Chevrolet Volt? The same. Nissan Leaf? Ditto.

"There's no rocket science to electric cars," Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, told The New York Times. "There were electric cars before there were gas-powered cars; it seems to be a reliable technology," he noted, adding, "We've got Priuses out there with 200,000 miles on them and 12 years in service."

The record suggests car companies do their level best to over-engineer hybrids and EVs. The last thing Toyota, General Motors, Ford and the rest want is a hybrid or an EV that dies on the side of the road, or in your garage, or at the shopping mall.

And yes, driving the Focus EV is a treat. The zero-emissions Focus EV is quick off the line thanks to its instant-torque electric drive (143 horsepower/184 lb-ft of torque). Tap the throttle and this little Ford jumps into action. Immediately. There is nothing better for get-up-and-go than an electric drivetrain. Nothing. And top speed, according to Ford, is a reasonable 146 km/h.

"We wanted the Focus Electric to be a vehicle first, that just happened to be electric," Eric Kuehn, the engineer, told the Times.

True to those words, the Focus EV corners with flat precision. It should. The car starts with the same chassis as the regular, ol' gas version, which is arguably the best-handling compact car you can buy for less than $30,000. The steering is tight and responsive, offering reasonable feedback. The braking, regenerative to help recharge the lithium-ion battery pack, is only slightly grabby from time to time. At highway speeds, the Focus EV is quiet and comfortable and serviceable as a city car.

And there's the rub. Ford says the batteries can be recharged in four hours if you have a 240-volt charging station – half the time of the Leaf. If you're stuck with a 110-volt outlet, you'll need seven hours to juice up.

If that sounds simple enough, consider the owner who lives in a city-centre apartment or town home without any plug-in, 110/120 volt or 240. That's me. My apartment building is charging outlet-less, so my test consisted of just a one-charge run. Then I returned the car to Ford.

This led me to wonder who might actually buy a battery car with a realistic range – in cold-weather Canada – of 100 kilometres or so. Well, the most likely owner is someone who lives in or around a city core, perhaps in a building like mine, one that lacks a charging station. If you live in the city core, you surely have access to comprehensive public transit. Your daily commuting/errand-hopping chores are likely comprised of short hops. In a pinch or for special occasions, you can take a cab and not break the bank. Or if you're wealthy – if you can afford a Focus EV – you can order a "black" car, a limo.

The point is, if you have the money and the lifestyle of the targeted EV buyer, then you probably don't need an everyday car – even a good electric one – at all. The car or light truck you want is more likely a traditional gasoline or diesel rig that you leave parked most of the week, then take out of town for vacations, road trips, runs to the cottage or ski cabin. Now if the Focus EV had a battery range of 400 or 500 km, and if it could be recharged as quickly as a gasoline fill-up, then you could sign me up. But that's not the case.

None of this should diminish Ford's accomplishments here. The Focus EV is safe (six airbags and the entire range of computer-managed driving nannies), hands-free Sync telephone connectivity, a MyFord Mobile phone app for remotely controlling the car and a "suite" of information systems designed to help the owner drive efficiently using readouts that are easily understood.

I like and applaud all of it and, given the reality of global warming, I want EVs to make sense. But range limitations and charging challenges are a barrier here. When both are solved, hand me a pen and I'll write a cheque.

Tech specs

2012 Ford Focus Electric hatchback

Type: Compact EV

Base price: $41,199 ($1,550 freight)

Engine: Electric

Horsepower/torque: 143 hp/184 lb-ft

Transmission: One-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Alternatives:Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV