Test Drive: Electric Focus EV is appealing, but practical?

— -- There's nothing wrong with electric cars that three times the driving range at half the price wouldn't cure.

In the case of the Ford Focus EV, that would mean about 230 miles of roaming room — not 76 — for about $20,000 — not $39,995 (or $32,495 if you qualify for $7,500 federal tax credit for driving a juicer).

But for now, wheeling around in a pure electric car is like piloting a high-price gasoline car with only a quarter-tank of fuel that would take you several hours to refill (albeit for less money than topping off with gasoline).

You're always looking at the range indicator, as you'd tensely keep a wary eye on a low gas gauge.

Electric backers cite data showing most Americans average only 35 miles or so a day — but an average means some days less, some more.

Range anxiety is real, and it keeps you from enjoying the driving satisfaction otherwise provided by an electric vehicle (EV) such as the Ford Focus Electric. You also stew over possible power outages leaving you no way to refuel.

Ford hopes to sell 10,000 a year once the car's available nationwide next year. A paltry number, but even so would be more sales than Nissan's Leaf. Which says a lot about demand for electrics.

Still, their number will rise as car companies scramble for ways to meet fuel-economy regulations that dictate an average 54.5 mpg in 2025. And rules in some states for a minimum number of Zero Emission Vehicles (i.e., electrics). But while EVs don't directly emit pollutants, the power to recharge them is about half fueled by coal, which has its own environmental issues.

The Focus EV, available only as a hatchback, is purely a Focus, save for powerplant. Thus it's as stylish as a gasoline Focus, but has even less space inside than the somewhat trim-fitting gas model.

The battery eats up rear cargo area, leaving you about 60% of the gas model's cargo room. That's a big drawback in a hatchback, because cargo accommodation is a hatch's forte.

But it's fun, likable and satisfying because Ford does a dandy job on the electric powertrain. Plenty of scoot from a dead stop, even though the EV weighs nearly 700 pounds more than the similar gasoline car. Electrics are like that. Zip aplenty the instant you push the pedal. Great in traffic. And the Focus has a generally sporty, inviting feel no matter what's fueling the car.

There's the faint whine you get from any electric car at low speed, but it's still quiet enough that people will walk in front of you not realizing a car's coming.

Official range is 76 miles. Our overnight recharging on 120-volt conventional home outlet bumped the gauge to 80-plus, and it seemed to drop 1 mile for each one driven if you used a light throttle foot. Get playful, though, and the range dropped much faster than one-for-one.

The car sacrifices an electric's typically creamy smooth driving behavior when you shift the gear lever to "L." Normally that'd mean "low," but in this Focus it's actually the setting most electrics and gas-electric hybrids have (often labeled "B") for increasing the amount of power that flows back into the batteries while braking, called regenerative braking, or simply "regen."

In "L" the Focus is quite abrupt in decelerating when you change pressure on the throttle pedal. In on-then-off-then-on throttle use that is common in heavy traffic, you're jerking like you have no finesse, probably aggravating and even scaring the cars behind and ahead with sudden dives.

One gripe specific to the recharging: The cord that's included for using a normal household outlet has a right-angle plug. Ford, nervous at the mere mention of using an extension cord to reach a distant outlet or provide a straight plug that fits easier, might well have chosen the angle plug deliberately to discourage you from sharing your Focus outlet with any other appliance.

You can skip the hassle and spend $1,500 or so to get a dedicated 240-volt circuit for the Focus installed at your home and be able to charge drained batteries in just four hours.

Nice to see an electric in mainstream livery; makes it seem approachable, inviting. But until electric cars' ranges go way up and prices come way down, it's hard to regard any EV as more than a marginal entry in the clean-air, high-mileage derby — a very nicely executed example, in Focus EV's case, but a niche machine nonetheless.

Nuts and bolts:

•What? Electric-power version of front-drive, four-door, five-seat, hatchback.

•When? On sale to fleet buyers since December, to individuals since mid-May.

•Where? Made at Wayne, Mich., alongside gasoline models. Sold now in California, New York, New Jersey; 50 states next year.

•How much? $39,995, including $795 shipping, plus about $1,500 for 240-volt fast-charge installation most buyers will want. Some buyers qualify for $7,500 federal income-tax credit. Some states offer additional tax subsidies.

•How many? 6,000 this year, 10,000 a year after that.

•What makes it go? Electric motor rated 143 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque, driving the front wheels through single-speed automatic transmission.

•How big? Nearly identical to gasoline Focus: 172.9 inches long, 71.8 in. wide, 58.2 in. tall, 104.3-in. wheelbase. Passenger space, 90.7 cubic feet. Cargo space, 14.5 cu. ft. behind second row, (vs. 23.8 cu. ft. in gasoline model), plus 1.5 cu. ft. under-floor nook; 33.9 cu. ft. when second row's folded (vs. 44.8 cu. ft., gasoline). Weight 3,624 lbs., 676 lbs. more than gasoline model.

•How thirsty? Range on a full charge rated 76 miles. Ford says four hours to recharge using 240 volts. Government fuel-economy rating is 110 miles-per-gallon equivalent in the city, 99 mpg-e highway, 105 mpg-e combined.

•Overall: Stylish, good-driving electric, but like all EVs, high price and short range undercut appeal.