Ford Focus Electric Gets a Late and Cautious Launch, But it Could Catch Up Quick

Last Updated Nov 15, 2010 5:07 PM EST

Ford's mainstream electric car, a plug-in Focus, won't be on the market until late next year, long after consumers have had a chance to test drive the Nissan Leaf, the Coda sedan, the Smart electric drive, the Wheego LiFe and others. Still, Ford will be a formidable contender in the space if it markets the car aggressively (as Nissan is already doing with the Leaf).

Early projections for the electric Focus are pretty modest -- Ford's Nancy Gioia told me 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles last October -- and it may be because (unlike General Motors and the Volt) the battery car is being built by an outside supplier. But Ford is now gearing up for the program, and just announced its launch markets, which are fairly comprehensive and centered on big and medium-sized cities.

Ford, the only one of the Big Three to escape bankruptcy and a federal bailout, doesn't need a prestige green program the same way that battered GM needs the Volt. But through the leadership of William Clay Ford, Henry's great-grandson and currently the executive chairman, Ford has been very serious about going green.

If EVs don't catch on, Ford could shed its program without much damage. But Ford is also in a good position to attain some decent volumes on this car, with strategic marketing, dealer displays and advertising. So far, the car looks to be a credible offering -- with the 100-mile range of other cars in its class and some sophisticated connections to the smart grid (but no projected price yet). The 23-kilowatt-hour battery pack offers both liquid cooling and heating, a performance-enhancing feature not seen in the Leaf but touted as a primary selling point by the Coda sedan.

Ford was one of the early players in pursuing electrification, scheduling a battery version of the small Transit Connect van (2010), the battery Focus (2011), and a plug-in hybrid (2012). A nice orderly rollout, but the program has been somewhat low-key at Ford. Actually, the car is not really at Ford, because although the car will roll down the same assembly line as the gasoline Focus, the plug-in development program was subcontracted to Canadian parts giant Magna International.

I asked John Viera, Ford's director of environmental policies and sustainability, if subcontracting the Focus program meant that it isn't as central to Ford as the Volt is to GM, and he denied it. "We partnered with Magna on the Focus because the company had expertise to get the vehicle in the market quicker," he said. "It's not a side project, because we're putting the car on the same platform as the gasoline Focus."

But Ford is also adopting a wait-and-see attitude towards EV volume. Although Ford has said, variously, that it intends to produce 3,500 or 10,000 electric Focuses annually, now it's not offering a definite number. "Everybody is trying to project what the market will be," Viera said. "Our approach is to be flexible." Because the car is being built at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan next to the gas Focus, the company can easily adjust volume if the market demands it. That's good, but low volumes could be a self-fulfilling result if Ford doesn't really promote the car.

I'm going to the Los Angeles Auto Show tomorrow, and driving many EVs there, but not the Focus. Instead, Ford's showing that off at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit early next year. I'll undoubtedly drive it there, as I have previously.

Ford's launch markets for the electric Focus are southern (Atlanta, Austin, Houston, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham and Richmond), northeastern (New York, Boston, Washington, DC), Midwestern (Chicago, Detroit), and western (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Oregon). Also Phoenix and Tucson, and Denver. Ford hasn't yet decided if its New York marketing efforts will extend into New Jersey and Connecticut.

That's a pretty good cross-section of the country. Viera said the list is based on "where we had good penetration on hybrid cars." Ford was definitely an early adopter there, with the 2004 Ford Escape, followed by the Fusion. Ford also looked at which municipalities were doing the most on electric readiness, which includes setting up charging stations and putting incentives in place.

The 2012 plug-in hybrid will be built on the same C-platform as the Focus, but that's just one of several "top hats" on that base. Maybe it will be a Focus, which would give consumers a pretty good showroom choice on this world car: gasoline, electric or plug-in hybrid. All will be pretty green. The gas version will come out first, early next year, and it's promising to offer excellent fuel economy from a new direct-injection four-cylinder engine.

Ford is fairly well positioned for electrification, and there may turn out to be some advantages to being a little late to the market.

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Photo: Ford Motor Company