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Last week, I drove around Exhibition Place in a battery-powered Ford Focus.

The turquoise hatchback seemed fine, as much as could be judged during a five-minute spin through the empty CNE midway and past BMO Field. Like all EVs, it’s quick and nimble.

My brief test drive came during the second-last stop on Ford’s cross-Canada “Power of Choice” tour, intended to showcase the carmaker’s electric and fuel-efficient offerings.

Soon after, the two other major manufacturers with EVs on the market released May sales figures for North America.

It’s a big deal: The arrival of the Focus marks the start of real EV competition. Drivers now have three mainstream models to choose from. After years of anticipation, we’ll finally get to experience not only how EVs fare in general, but also how the major carmakers’ offerings do against each other.

Battery power is still a tiny niche market.

Nissan sold 510 Leafs during the month, for a year-to-date total of 2,613. That monthly figure is a 55 per cent drop from May 2011. The number for the first five months of the year looks better; up about 20 per cent from 2011.

Mitsubishi reported 113 sales of its tiny iMiEV in May across North America (including 28 in Canada), for a total of just 417 since the EV hit showrooms last fall.

Even combining the Leaf and iMiEV totals — and tossing in the handful of Tesla Model S and other high-priced battery-powered offerings that have left showrooms — the EVs in the car market remain as noticeable as a few grains of sand on Wasaga Beach.

Ford faces the same problems as most of the others: At a base price of $41,199 (before fees, taxes and incentives) it’s far more expensive than an equivalent car powered by internal combustion. The gasoline-burning Focus hatchback starts at $18,649 and, tricked out to the max, costs $29,379 — before fees, taxes and haggling.

It also suffers from the same limited range — maximum 160 km. (Only the Model S goes substantially farther between charges, but you’ll pay more than $80,000 for that benefit.)

And there’s the depreciation dilemma: Much better batteries are almost certain to arrive well before early EVs are ready for the crusher. So these vehicles could be seen as rapidly depreciating assets with low resale value.

What sets Ford apart in this tough environment?

The company hasn’t revealed the detailed chemistry of the Focus battery, made by South Korea’s LG Chem. So it’s too soon to say how its performance might differ from competitors.

But Ford does cite two main advantages, particularly over the Leaf, its main rival for now.

First, its charging system refills a depleted battery in 3.5 hours — half the time required for a Leaf or iMiEV. But Nissan says a revamped Leaf, coming soon, will boast a similar charging time.

Second, Ford followed a different development road. While the Leaf is a purpose-built EV, the Focus Electric is based on the same platform as its internal-combustion sibling. The result: The Focus Electric doesn’t shout: “I’m electric.” It’s “praised for its ‘real life car feel,’ its driving dynamics and its sporty looks,” says Steve Ross, product marketing manager for sustainability and electrification.

“Instead of re-engineering the vehicle around the battery system, we are leveraging current vehicles, reducing the development time and maintaining the great quality (they) are known for.”

Nissan’s strategy required constructing three factories to build Leafs and other future EVs, and it must meet aggressive sales targets to keep them busy. Ford will assemble electric and internal-combustion Focus models on one Michigan line, where workers can interchangeably produce either, depending on what orders arrive.

It’s debatable which approach produces a better car. But Ford’s does reduce the threat to its bottom line if the Focus Electric fizzles.

source: Green Wheels: Arrival of Focus marks real EV competition - thestar.com