Electric Cars: Ford Plays Catch Up

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 7:03 PM EST

Starting from behind in the race to market electric cars, Ford is emphasizing that it will give buyers a choice of models. With the recent unveiling of its Ford Focus electric model due at the end of this year, Ford executives touted their upcoming plug-in hybrid, which is planned for 2012. "Some people will want the all-electric model while others will prefer the plug-in hybrid," said Executive Chairman Bill Ford presenting the electric Focus to reporters in New York.

Not only will the Focus (left) come a year behind the all-electric Nissan Leaf, rival General Motors' Chevrolet Volt -- an electric car with a gasoline back-up generator to extend its range -- just won the 2011 North American Car of the Year award. With both Volt and Leaf already rolling out of showrooms, Ford can't claim to be "first," so the marketing department is going with "better." The company says its electric models will have faster charging and better high-tech displays to help make sure drivers do not run out of battery power. To emphasize the continuity from technology such as its pioneering voice-command SYNC system, Ford sent CEO Alan Mulally to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to showcase the Focus electric.

Ford already has a lineup of gas-electric hybrids, including the Fusion sedan and Escape small SUV. It will sell a hybrid model of its small C-Max crossover, already sold in Europe and due here in 2012. The C-Max (right) also will come as a plug-in hybrid -- which boosts gas mileage by plugging in to recharge the batteries instead of just recharging from so-called regenerative braking, as is the case in regular hybrids. Toyota, however, is ahead of Ford in this category, as it's adding a plug-in version of its strong-selling Prius this year.

Here are the features that Ford is claiming will give its fleet of electrics and hybrids a wheel-up on the competition:

Faster charging Ford is offering a more powerful, faster charger with its Focus electric. Executives say that the Focus can be fully recharged in three to four hours with its 240-volt charging station. Nissan Leaf owners need to leave their cars plugged in about twice that time for a full recharge. The charger will sell for $1,499 - a lower price than the competition -- at Best Buy, and its Geek Squad technicians will install it.

High-tech monitoring Ford is proclaiming that its popular SYNC system -- the latest version is My Ford Touch -- is being adapted to help electric car owners avoid "range anxiety" about running out of battery power. The display will show the driver how long to the next charging point and will give advice on how to maximize the regenerative braking that helps recharge the batteries. With a mobile smart phone app, electric owners will also be able to check the state of the battery remotely.

Plug-in choices In announcing the upcoming C-Max, Ford says its hybrid version will get even better mileage than the Fusion, which is rated at a combined 41 mpg. The plug-in version should get still better mileage, though Ford is not making any estimates yet. Both versions will be able to run up to an unusually-high 47 miles per hour on the battery alone before the gasoline engine kicks in.

Ford has not announced mileage estimates or pricing for its Focus electric. But it says the EPA rating of what is called mpg-equivalent for electric vehicles will be better than the Chevy Volt and competitive with the Nissan Leaf.

Photos by Jerry Edgerton and courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.