By Keith Naughton – Jan 7, 2011 3:40 PM ET
Ford Motor Co., playing catch-up in the battery-powered car market, introduced its first electric car today and promised it will outperform rivals.
Ford, the first U.S. automaker to offer a gasoline-electric hybrid, will start selling an all-electric version of its Focus compact car late this year. The Focus Electric’s introduction follows last year’s debut of Nissan Motor Co.’s battery-powered Leaf and General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
To counter the publicity GM and Nissan have garnered, Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally and Executive Chairman Bill Ford unveiled the electric car at ceremonies in Las Vegas and New York. They said Ford’s electric car gets 1 mpg equivalent more than the Volt and recharges in three to four hours at a 240-volt charge station, half the time of the Leaf.
“Ford has to get in the game because GM is making such a splash with the Volt and Nissan with the Leaf,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Automotive, a research firm based in Lexington, Massachusetts. “This is a company that was so far ahead and yet they don’t have an electric vehicle on the market.”
Automakers are developing models powered all or in part by electricity to meet standards such as the U.S. rules for average fuel economy by company of 35.5 mpg in 2016, up from 25 mpg now.
Focus Electric sales will be limited by a lack of charging stations in public places such as malls and offices, Bill Ford told reporters today in New York. He called on the government and utilities to expand and enhance the electric grid.
“We’re willing to accept lower sales volumes at first because it’s important to show the country, utilities and political leaders that we’re ready to go,” Ford said, standing beside a white Focus Electric plugged into a wall charger in a faux garage fabricated inside a Manhattan office building. “We’ve got the goods right here.”
The U.S. has 655 electric-vehicle charging stations, with 434 in California, according to the Department of Energy.
Ford declined to reveal a price for the car, saying only that it will be “affordable.” The car’s 240-volt charger will cost $1,499, about $700 less than competitors’ units, and will be available at Best Buy Co. stores, said Eric Keane, chief engineer of the Focus Electric.
The Chevy Volt, which is powered by a battery and a small gasoline engine, gets 93 mpg equivalent when operating in electric mode only, said Rob Peterson, a GM spokesman. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates a mileage equivalent for battery-powered cars that equates electric energy with the energy in a gallon of gasoline.
“We’re willing to sacrifice some efficiency in electric vehicle mode because we have our range extender” gasoline engine, Peterson said. “We can go up to 379 miles with a full charge and full tank of gas, so there is no range anxiety.”
The car sells for a starting price of $41,000.
The Leaf, with a $32,780 starting price, requires about 7 hours to fully recharge on a 240-volt charging station and can run for 62 to 138 miles before recharging, depending on terrain, driving style and accessory use, according to Nissan’s website.
“Nissan has done extensive study of consumer behavior, and we predict that 80 percent of vehicle charging will happen at home overnight,” Brian Brockman, a spokesman for Nissan, said in an e-mailed statement. “Whether their electric car finishes charging at 2 a.m. or 6 a.m. will be irrelevant.”
Nissan is “exploring faster home-charging options,” he said.
Ford is aiming for a 100-mile range before the Focus Electric needs to be recharged, Mark Fields, the automaker’s president of the Americas, told reporters at a Dec. 14 briefing. The car will be powered by a lithium-ion battery, which is smaller and more efficient than the nickel-metal hydride power packs now in hybrids like Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius.
The Focus Electric will have a top speed of 84 mph, Ford said. Its dashboard features graphics of blue butterflies that multiply as the mile-range of the vehicle grows through efficient driving. At the end of each trip, a display screen tells the driver how much energy was consumed and how much gasoline was saved by driving electric.
“The customer profile of a battery-electric vehicle is that they’re environmentally motivated,” said Sherif Marakby, director of Ford’s electric-vehicle programs. “They’re not just buying a car, they’re making a statement. They’re buying a philosophy.”
Mulally, who revealed the Focus Electric at the Consumer Electronics Show today, also will debut new hybrid models at the Detroit auto show Jan. 10. Ford, which has sold a gasoline- electric version of its Escape sport-utility vehicle since 2004, now offers hybrid versions of the Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans. Last year, Ford introduced an electric version of its Transit Connect commercial van.
Ford is seeking to popularize electric technology on its mainstream models, rather than creating all new cars like the Volt and Leaf, Bill Ford said. The Focus Electric will be built along the same assembly line as the gasoline version at a factory in Wayne, Michigan.
“We have a decidedly different strategy: We’ve decided to electrify our mainstream vehicles,” Ford said in an interview yesterday. “It helps spread the cost out across many vehicles and it allows us to flex production depending on what customer demand is.”
Demand for hybrids has waned. The models that run on batteries and gasoline engines peaked at 3.3 percent of the U.S. market in 2008, when gasoline topped $4 a gallon. With fuel prices down about 25 percent from their peak, hybrids accounted for 2.4 percent of U.S. auto sales last year, according to researcher Autodata Corp. of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
Hybrids accounted for 1.8 percent of Ford’s U.S. sales last year, even though its Fusion is the most fuel-efficient mid- sized gas-electric sedan on the market.
“I don’t think anybody has seen a return on investment in the hybrid market,” Lindland said. “There’s been no incremental growth.”
All-electric vehicles like the Focus may have an even harder time catching on because they must be recharged after 100 miles or less and are priced thousands of dollars above conventional cars, Lindland said.
“I have a lot of concern about the retail appeal of pure electric vehicles,” Lindland said. “Automakers are pushing EVs for the urban market, but those people don’t have a garage and there’s nowhere to plug the car in.”