They're easy to maintain, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive to operate. Still, plug-in electric cars haven't yet clicked with mainstream drivers, largely because of their limited range, long charging time, and relatively high sticker prices. Alas, as the song goes, "it's not easy being green."
So should drivers who travel only short distances each day even consider an electric car as a way to save fuel and money? The answer might depend as much on the car as it does on driving habits.
We tested the Ford Focus Electric and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which join the previously tested Nissan Leaf as the first widely available all-electric vehicles. The Focus is the nicest of the three. It builds on the great handling and refinement of the conventional Focus and adds instant, silent power and the second best fuel efficiency we've recorded, the equivalent of 107 mpg (or 3.18 miles per kilowatt-hour).
The smaller i-MiEV squeezes out the equivalent of 111 mpg overall, or 3.28 miles per kWh, making it the most energy-efficient car we've tested. But in almost every other way, the i-MiEV is everything we feared an electric car might be. It's slow, chintzy, cramped, and so far off the mark that we often felt it was closer to being a glorified golf cart than an actual car.
Yes, the Focus Electric costs about $41,000, compared with $33,630 for the i-MiEV. But if you're sold on going gas free, the Focus is clearly the better choice. Both cars qualify buyers for a $7,500 federal income tax credit, which offsets a good chunk of the cost. We also suggest that electric-car owners buy a dedicated 240-volt Level 2 charger, which should cost $750 to $1,600 and can provide a full charge in just a few hours.
Neither model is recommended. Both are too new for us to have sufficient reliability data for them. And the i-MiEV scores too low in our tests.
The Focus Electric is one of the best gas-free cars on the market. It's inexpensive to run and accelerates effortlessly. Moreover, excellent handling, a composed ride, and a quiet interior make it rewarding to drive.
We got the equivalent of 107 mpg overall, 1 mpg better than the rival Nissan Leaf. And we got about 80 miles on a full charge. The Environmental Protection Agency rating is 76 miles per charge.
But this electric car can't escape some inherent deficiencies in the Focus, including a cramped rear seat and frustrating MyFord Touch audio and climate controls. In addition, the large, lithium-ion battery pack consumes much of the modest cargo space and creates an inconvenient slope in the load floor.
The 143-hp electric motor instantly delivers power, which makes the car feel much quicker than its 10.2-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration time. Energy consumption is about the same in our city and highway tests.
Although the car is quick off the line, the throttle is touchy, and oddly, it has no "Eco" mode to squeeze out more range. Like other electrics, running the heater cuts into the range significantly, but it provides quick heat.
A dedicated 240-volt Level 2 charging station can replenish the Focus from empty in less than 4 hours thanks to its 6.6-kWh onboard charger. A full charge takes about 20 kWh, which would cost about $2.20 at the national average electricity rate of 11 cents per kWh. You can also charge with the provided 120-volt cord, but that can take up to 16 hours. A smart-phone app can keep track of the car's state of charge, show the available range, direct you to a public charging station, and log charging times.
The supple and controlled ride befits a luxury car. Bump isolation is impressive, and ride motions are subdued. It's eerily quiet inside as the car glides effortlessly down the road.
Quick steering with good feedback makes the Focus Electric fun to drive, and the heavy battery, sitting low in the chassis, helps quell body lean. At our track, drivers confidently navigated our avoidance maneuver at a good clip with strong tire grip and slight understeer.
A digital "brake coach" display helps drivers maximize the energy recaptured by regenerative braking. It becomes a game to get the most out of riding the brakes, but the touchy pedal takes some getting used to.
A padded dashboard, chrome accents, and piano-black plastic highlight the inviting interior. We found a few bad fits and rough edges, though.
Drivers have good room behind the tilt- and-telescopic steering wheel. Front seats are supportive and nicely contoured. But the power seat doesn't tilt independent of height. Rear-seat leg room is tight, and the car is too narrow to seat three across comfortably.
The instrument cluster includes two digital readouts with many configurations. The Sync system lets you use voice commands to control personal electronic devices and program the navigation system, which reduces distraction. Connecting a Bluetooth phone is easy and allows pausing, stopping, and advancing streaming audio.
|Highs||Fun to drive, handling, ride, responsive electric power,quietness, zero emissions|
|Lows||Touchy throttle and brake pedal, battery takes up trunk space, tight rear seat, MyFord Touch controls|
|Drivetrain||143-hp electric motor; single-speed direct-drive transmission; front-wheel drive|
|Major options||Leather, power driver's seat|
|Other body style||Sedan|
|Other trim lines||S, SE, SE SFE, Titanium, ST|
|Other drivetrains||160-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine; 252-hp, 2.0-liter
turbocharged four-cylinder engine; six-speed automated
manual transmission; five-speed manual transmission; six-speed
|Braking||OK overall; longer than other Focus versions.|
|Headlights||Xenons provided high levels of intensity and shine a very good
distance. An upper cutoff reduces visibility over dips.
|Access||Easy in front. The rear seat is tight, and the door doesn't open very wide.|
|Visibility||A good view out the front, but large head restraints block the small rear window. Side mirrors have inset spotter mirrors.|
|Cabin storage||Modest, with a large glove box.|
|Head restraints||The rear center restraint is not tall enough even when fully raised for adequate protection.|
|Child seats||The front seat might have to be pulled far forward to fit rear-facing seats.|
Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is the most efficient car on the market. And, at $33,630 before tax incentives, it's also one of the cheapest electric cars. Unfortunately, the driving experience reflects that fact. The i-MiEV is puny, tinny, slow, jouncy, and clumsy. Its interior never gets warm enough in cold weather. It seats only four people, and they feel crammed together as in cheap theater seats. It also can't go very far on its long charge times. Overall, this low-priced EV is awfully expensive for what you get.
Although the i-MiEV fulfills its mission as an efficient and basic commuter and urban runabout, we think most buyers would be better served spending a little more to buy a more substantial electric car such as the Nissan Leaf or buying a cheaper hybrid car.
The i-MiEV has a smaller lithium-ion battery than other electric cars we've tested, which gives the car a typical range of just 56 miles in our experience. (The EPA rating is 62 miles.) That's about 20 miles less than other electric cars. A full charge takes between 6 and 7 hours on a 240-volt charger or 21 hours on a standard household outlet.
Many of our drivers noticed that the range indicator didn't seem very accurate, but at least it erred conservatively, showing less range than they were actually left with.
The car's 63-horsepower electric motor delivers good response up to about 30 mph, but beyond that it feels really sluggish. It recorded one of the slowest 0-to-60-mph acceleration times—14.7 seconds—we've measured in recent years.
The car won't coast downhill normally because it's recapturing regenerative braking energy. In "B," or braking, mode it's possible to reach a stop without applying the brakes.
The i-MiEV's ride is awful, with harsh impacts. The car feels jumpy on uneven roads. And the ride is choppy even on the highway.
In corners, the i-MiEV feels clumsy, and the slow steering requires a lot of input and offers almost no feedback. Ultimately, the car's narrow width helped it thread our avoidance maneuver quickly and securely. But it felt ungainly and did not inspire confidence because the skinny front tires lost grip easily.
At low speeds the electric motor whines loudly. As speed builds, tire and wind noise become louder.
The cabin feels dated and cheap. Almost all of the plastic trim is hard, several screw heads are visible, and plenty of mold lines are evident in the trim.
Sitting up high makes you feel less vulnerable, but the fixed steering wheel is too far away and the pedals are too close, contributing to an awkward driving position. Plus the seat doesn't go back far enough.
Most controls are simple, except for the radio and integrated navigation system, which has no knobs and can be very distracting. Ridiculously, the navigation system displays gas stations rather than charging stations. Bluetooth connectivity is standard.
|Highs||Low energy consumption,zero emissions, turning circle|
|Lows||Short range, long charging time, weak heat, spartan interior, acceleration, ride, agility, complicated radio, headlights, driving position|
|Drivetrain||63-hp electric motor; single-speed direct drive; rear-wheel drive|
|Major options||Navigation, quick-charge port, rear camera, battery warming system|
|Other trim line||ES|
|Braking||Stops are short, but the regenerative brakes make the pedal feel touchy.|
|Headlights||Weak low beams don't shine far enough. High beams are only slightly brighter, but they reach a good distance.|
|Access||Easy to the front; more difficult to the rear because of a narrow footpath.|
|Visibility||Feels like a fishbowl, but the rear window is small.|
|Cabin storage||Modest; the glove box is about the only available storage.|
|Head restraints||All are sufficiently tall for protection.|
|Child seats||Difficult to fit in a car so small. Rear belts might not secure rear-facing seats adequately.|
The Ford Focus Electric, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and Nissan Leaf aren't the only electrics on the market. The Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, Tesla Model S, and Toyota RAV4 EV recently joined them. And the Chevrolet Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, and Fiat 500e are coming soon.
We've already sampled preproduction versions of these cars and found that each has different advantages: The Smart is priced at just $25,000 before tax credits. The Spark is the first vehicle to be compatible with the new DC Fast Charger standard. We briefly drove the Fit, and found it to be quick, efficient, and fun to drive. The Fiat is agile and charges relatively quickly. And the RAV4 has a decent range and a big cargo area.
But some of those EVs will be available only in select states (mainly California and Oregon) and some, such as the Fit, will only be leased in small numbers.
And then there's the Tesla Model S luxury sedan, which starts at $57,400 and can reach $100,000. Even with its smallest battery, its claimed range of 160 miles is double that of other electric cars. Optional larger batteries have a 240- and 300-mile range. We found the Tesla we sampled to be quick, agile, roomy, and refined. Look for a full test soon.