Our Ford Focus Electric
Kelly and I have finally gotten sick of the cars we own. With the Odyssey’s transmission bound to fail again within the next three years, it was time to check out other alternatives. We hate buying cars, though, and can’t stand car payments. Thus, when we buy cars we tend to drive them for a while.
We wanted a car that’s more efficient than the ones we have, so we went to the local Carmax to check out a Prius V (in other words, a Prius wagon). Having taken it around the block, we weren’t impressed with its feel for the road nor its space. As we were deciding whether to leave the lot or not, I noticed that a Ford Focus Electric was parked next to us. I’d only driven an electric vehicle one time before (which ended disastrously), so I thought it might be fun to take the Focus out for a test drive. After a short spin around the neighborhood and I-540, we were hooked. We became the owners of a Focus Electric last week.
Unlike my electric car experience of eight years ago, the Focus has some pickup! We tooled around I-540 with ease, merging into the fast-moving traffic and being able to pass anytime we needed. Plus, it’s super quiet. You get the sound of the tires and wind, with the electric motor making a slight, futuristic whirring sound. It turns out it was much more fun to drive than the Prius.
Coming up to speed with electric cars
Electric cars have come a long way in eight years since I first began looking at them. Back then they were in the realm of hobbyists who were used to being their own mechanic when things went wrong. Owners needed to know quite a bit about the chemistry of batteries and how to properly charge their lead-acid battery packs. Today’s new electric cars have higher-quality, sealed, lithium-ion packs. New electric cars have their chargers built-in whereas old ones did not. Older cars needed induction charging which took quite a while but new cars are connected directly to their power sources. Not to mention that the new “quick charge” technology of the Nissan Leaf and Tesla cars promises to make charging convenient.
So let’s talk about charging. There are many ways to charge your electric car and a lot of buzzwords to decipher. Not to worry, though, because you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Chargers vs. charging stations
Remember how I said older, home-built electric cars often didn’t have chargers built in? Well, new electric cars have their chargers built in and the car’s charger does all the dirty work of charging and conditioning the battery. The charging station is not a charger, strictly speaking, and this can be confusing newcomers. A charging station is really nothing more than a smart extension cord. What makes it smart is that has safety features built in so that electricity only flows through it when it’s connected to an electric car. It also communicates with the car to monitor the charging process. Commercial charging stations can also bill you for the charge, though many if not most charging stations are happy to give you a free charge. This is especially true at charging stations found at shopping centers.
Not all charging stations are created equal, though, and it’s important to understand the differences.
Level 1 charging
Here in North America, we’ve standardized on using 120 volt AC power in our homes and (most of) businesses. This is usually provided by the familiar wall plug found in every home and office. In electric car parlance, a 120v charger is known as Level 1 charging station. Now, 120v is relatively safe voltage in the home but it’s not enough juice to efficiently charge an electric car. Thus, Level 1 charging is the slowest way to recharge your car, taking 20 hours or more to charge a completely empty battery pack. On the plus side, 120v outlets are ubiquitous: you can almost always find one. They Also, keep in mind that you’ll rarely need to charge a completely empty pack, so you’ll almost never have to wait 20 hours.
Level 2 charging
Because 120v is not an efficient way to move electrons, our power companies combine two channels (called buses) of 120v to provide 240v. Chargers that can provide 240v are known as Level 2 charging stations and are much more efficient at charging. The Nissan Leaf only supports the slower, Level 1 charge, while the Focus Electric can use both Level 1 and Level 2 charging.
The chargers themselves are now built into the vehicles. The Leaf has a 3.3kw charger while the Focus has a 6.6kw charger. Thus, the Focus can charge quite a bit faster than the Leaf when using a Level 2 charging station.
A week of insight
What have we learned after driving it for a week?
It’s fun to drive. I affectionately call the Focus the “spaceship” because of its smooth acceleration and space-age dashboard. Rather than engine noise, one hears a quiet whirring sound from the motor.
It’s economical. I made a quick calculation of the cost of electricity as fuel versus gasoline. In essence, our fuel costs should be one tenth of what they were with gasoline. It should cost less than $.20 a day to drive the Focus Electric. That’s pretty amazing. And no oil changes, ever.
It’s clean. Electric cars don’t leak oil. They don’t produce fumes. Their owners never have to dirty their hands at a gas pump, and if you choose to run one in your garage you won’t keel over from carbon monoxide poisoning because it doesn’t produce any.
It does have a few downsides, however.
The battery packs are big. As an electric car build on a gasoline car frame, the space once available in the gasoline version of the Ford Focus gets taken up by large battery packs. One is under the rear seat and the other takes up most of the trunk.
No spare tire. See above. Ford’s solution is to include a small air pump and patching kit. Fortunately, Ford offers free roadside service. I’ve also sprung for an “aftermarket” product that patches tires. So far we haven’t had to use either solution.
The battery packs are heavy. Ford reinforced the rear shocks on the Focus Electric to compensate, but the car still weighs as much as a minivan. Fortunately, it doesn’t really drive like it.
Air conditioning and heat sap your battery. The HVAC system is powered by the same battery that powers the car’s traction, so when you bump the thermostat you also sap your driving range. This isn’t such a big deal in gas-powered cars. The Focus Electric can “pre-condition” itself while it’s still in the garage and plugged in, though, keeping your battery fresh for the actual driving.
Overall, we’re thrilled with the Focus Electric. Kelly and I fight over who gets to drive it. We’ve not come remotely close to draining it yet, with several trips under our belts. I’ll be sure to post more about it as we progress in our electric car journey, but I can confidently say that it’s time more people caught on to the magic of electric cars!