The EV Incognito

You know those "spot the difference" side-by-side photos that are commonly reserved for Highlights magazines in a dentist's waiting room? "Can you find seven differences between these two pictures?" Park a 2012 Ford Focus Electric next to its gasoline-powered kin and you'll essentially be playing a three-dimensional version.

But that's exactly why we like this zero-emission, battery-powered compact. It doesn't have a funky name, it isn't all bubbly shaped, and it's still as functional as any new Focus we've sampled to date.

So, does this whole package of anonymous electrification work? It looks like a Focus, but does it drive like one and offer the same refinement, too? We headed to the southern California coast to find out.

To the trained eye, Electric-specific changes like the new grille (Aston Martin influence, anyone?), more aerodynamic front fascia, special badges, front charging point, and new 17-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Energy Saver tires are immediately noticeable, but to the general public, this five-door simply blends in with the rest of the cars on the road. EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i certainly stand out in a crowd, and until electric vehicles become more mainstream, we can appreciate the fact that some drivers don't want to make a huge eco-statement every time they drive through town. We can't tell you how often we were stared and pointed at while driving the Nissan and Mitsubishi, and being the center of attention gets old. Fast.

2012 Ford Focus Electric side view2012 Ford Focus Electric front view2012 Ford Focus Electric rear view

Much like the exterior, there aren't that many changes to the Focus Electric's cabin. Up front, the design and layout of the center stack is unchanged, with the eight-inch MyFord Touch screen – standard on the Electric – prominently displayed front and center. One change of note is the revised instrument cluster, which now uses a center-mounted speedometer with two LCD displays flanking either side. This is very similar to what we first saw on the Fusion Hybrid, with different displays that grow out from the dash, all of which are configurable. Remember the efficiency leaves from the Fusion? They've now been replaced with cutesy blue butterflies here in the Focus.

The only options for the Focus Electric are two new paint colors – Blue Candy for $395 and White Platinum for $495 – as well as leather upholstery. Standard cars come with the cloth seats (partially made from recycled materials) seen in our test car, but if leather is more your thing, Ford will gladly sew it in for $995. The front cloth buckets are comfortable and supportive, and since they come standard with bun warmers, we suspect most buyers will opt to save the cows – and a few bucks.

2012 Ford Focus Electric interior2012 Ford Focus Electric gauges2012 Ford Focus Electric navigation system2012 Ford Focus Electric shifter

Of course, cargo space is compromised slightly by the addition of the large battery pack behind the rear seats, but Ford has developed a rather clever solution to still make the hatch as useful as possible. The load floor is separated into two parts, the rear of which can be raised up to create a flat floor, and also features a small hidden storage compartment underneath. Even so, cargo space isn't too bad in the Electric – there's 14.5 cubic feet of available room behind the rear seats, and additional 1.5 cubic feet in the hidden compartment. By comparison, a Nissan Leaf also offers 14.5 cubic feet of space, while the smaller Mitsubishi i only registers 13.2.

So, it looks like a Focus, is as nicely refined inside as a Focus, and – surprise, surprise – it drives like a Focus, too. That is to say, it's smooth, predictable and easy to manage, while offering a surprising amount of driver engagement. If we're honest, in some cases, we actually prefer its dynamics to that of the gasoline version. The Electric model does away with the annoying PowerShift dual-clutch transmission, the added heft of the battery pack in the rear allows for better weight distribution, and the more powerful motor does an adequate job of hustling all 3,642 pounds – 694 more than a base five-door Focus – around with decent pep.

2012 Ford Focus Electric battery2012 Ford Focus Electric charging port2012 Ford Focus Electric rear cargo area2012 Ford Focus Electric rear cargo area

A 23-kWh battery pack powers the electric motor, which is rated at 141 horsepower and 188 pound-feet of torque and, like the base Focus, sends its power to the front wheels. We weren't always driving for efficiency during our test, and when we did remove our frugality shoes, we found it immensely fun to mash the throttle off the line, delivering the full whallop of torque to the front wheels right from 0 RPM. It's easy to get those eco-friendly tires to skip a beat, though – especially when accelerating into a turn. But when it's time to slow things down, the brakes aren't super touchy like some hybrids and EVs with overly obtrusive regenerative braking. In fact, we had fun playing with the gauge cluster's Brake Coach function, which shows you how much of the available reusable energy was saved during each stint of braking. Go easy on the binders and you'll get 100 percent nearly every time.

All in, the Focus Electric is substantially more fun to drive than a Nissan Leaf, which has a tendency to feel more appliance-like than anything. Sure, this Focus EV is no sport's car, but if you're not one to sacrifice driving dynamics for the sake of maximum efficiency, it absolutely delivers. And it's far, far better than the golf-cart-on-steroids Mitsubishi i.

2012 Ford Focus Electric grille2012 Ford Focus Electric headlight2012 Ford Focus Electric wheel2012 Ford Focus Electric taillight

The EPA rates the Focus Electric at 110 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) highway, 99 MPGe city and 105 MPGe combined. Ford says that you can travel about 80 miles between charges, but of course, your mileage will vary. And when it comes time to recharge, the Focus Electric offers a substantial win over the Leaf. The charging mechanism itself is twice as powerful as the one in the Nissan, meaning it's possible to fully recharge the Focus Electric in as little as four hours from a 240-volt Level 2 charging station (it can take as long as 20 hours on a normal 120-volt plug).

Don't forget about the MyFord Mobile smartphone compatibility, too, which gives Focus Electric owners an array of information about charging status, location information, vehicle statistics and how your personal driving style affects the range you're getting. We've already had a chance to get hands-on with this system, so for the full skinny, click here to read our deep dive.

2012 Ford Focus Electric rear 3/4 view

Ford will launch the Focus Electric in three waves, beginning with key areas like New York and California first, with all markets being able to take delivery by the end of the year. The all-electric Focus is priced at $39,995, including $795 for destination, which means that after the maximum $7,500 federal tax credit, you're looking at a base price of $32,495. Yes, that's $3,945 more than the base price of a 2012 Nissan Leaf, but Ford believes the added interior space, performance and quicker charging time is worth the price.

Perhaps the biggest win for the Electric is that it largely acts the same as any Focus you'll find at a Ford dealer – it's comfortable, nicely appointed, handsome and quite engaging to drive. It's the EV incognito, and in a world where electric vehicles are still slowly gaining traction, that's not necessarily a bad thing.