Ford Emphasizes Hybrids Over Pure Electric Cars

By · October 17, 2013

Ford Focus Electric

Ford Focus Electric.

It’s no secret that Ford’s big vehicle electrification plans—essentially to offer some form of “electrified” version for each model in its lineup—center on hybrid and plug-in hybrid drivetrains. Earlier this month, Ford gave the clearest indication yet that it considers electric cars a poor cousin to its hybrid lineup.

Speaking with GreenCarCongress earlier this month, Mike Tinskey, associate director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure at Ford, was happy to celebrate Ford’s rising market share in the electrified vehicle market. “We are on an upward trend and we are pretty proud of where we stand,” he said. “Last year at this time, we only had a fraction of the market, now we are running close to 15 percent.”

Fifteen percent? Tinskey is obviously including gas-powered no-plug hybrid vehicles in his assessment. Adding the regular Ford Fusion Hybrid and C-Max Hybrid to the mix accounts for Ford’s jump from a 7.5 percent share in 2012, to a 14.7 percent share so far this year.

To be fair, Ford’s share of plug-in hybrid sales has also swelled—from 6.2 percent in 2012, to 23.3 percent so far in 2013. However, its share of the pure electric vehicle market has plummeted, down from 4.8 percent last year to just 3.8 percent this year. That’s the equivalent of just 1,335 cars, less than the single monthly sales total for either the Nissan LEAF or the Chevrolet Volt last month. Ford sold just 110 units of the Focus EV in September.

Signs Aren’t Good

In a market where EV sales are an order of magnitude larger than they were last year, sales of the Focus Electric have dwindled. Considering Ford's lack of marketing and advertising for its first EV, as well as teething problems with both car and smartphone software, the prospects for a turnaround and steep incline in sales are not high.

That appears to be fine with Tinskey and other Ford executives who believe the move to plug-in drivetrains is a gradual one, with consumers most often starting with a hybrid car before adding a plug. “From an aspirational standpoint, our assumption is that people get used to the electric mode in hybrids. The bulk of [electric drive] customers are buying hybrids, which are now becoming mainstream. And they are not wanting to go back. In fact, they are probably going to want to go further,” he said. “My sense is that those customers will migrate to plug-in hybrids as we move forward.”

Continued Compromises

Ford is using the Focus Electric mostly to satisfy California’s Zero Emissions mandates. Yet, the company's manufacturing strategy, in which a single model is designed with the capability to accommodate a variety of drivetrains, is problematic. According to Tinskey, plug-in cars built by Ford will continue to be adapted versions of existing gasoline models. Large battery packs have to be accommodated within the car instead of being integrated into an under-floor area.  For smaller cars, like the Focus and C-Max, this means giving up passenger and/or cargo space to make room for the pack.

“Our strategy is built on how to leverage a global platform and get not only a diesel or a gasoline powertrain into the product, but how do you also get an electric powertrain into the product,” said Tinskey. “In our case, then you go down to a B-size platform with that type of strategy, you basically would have to use the majority of the trunk space.”

The solution is to produce a purpose-built electric car. But given Ford’s record on EV sales, and its focus on the larger hybrid car market, it's unlikely that will see a custom-built EV from Ford anytime soon.


· · 4 years ago

Some companies will lead some will follow and some will fail if electric cars become more than a nich market.

· · 4 years ago

Ford will follow. I think they have a solid enough EV that they will not fail. I just hope they reconsider a purpose-built EV.

· · 4 years ago

Lack of ads shouldn't be an excuse for poor sales of any plugin cars...

Tesla Model S doesn't do any ads. It sells just fine. Why? Elon figured it out how to do it "cheaply" by staying in the news and spotlight so Tesla is getting the "marketing" for FREE....

Ford doesn't even want the electric spotlight on the Focus EV.... That is the difference...

At least the Volt is getting the spotlight from all sides (good and bad).

· · 4 years ago

The last car I bought was the prius C. The next Car I by will be an EV, or I will just spend the money to make the Prius a plug in. No more ICE for me. I am really tired of the disingenuous car companies.

· · 4 years ago

'“Our strategy is built on how to leverage a global platform and get not only a diesel or a gasoline powertrain into the product, but how do you also get an electric powertrain into the product,” said Tinskey. “In our case, then you go down to a B-size platform with that type of strategy, you basically would have to use the majority of the trunk space.”

The solution is to produce a purpose-built electric car. '

Or you re-engineer your platforms so that it takes a variety of drive trains including battery electric, plug in and natural gas without intrusion into the accomodation as VW have done.

Ford's plug ins look more like some back street conversion than something a major manufacturer would offer.

They have been long on hype about being a leader in electrification and very, very short on engineering.

· · 4 years ago

I test drove the Focus Electric before acquiring our second LEAF and came away with a good impression of it. While it did suffer a bit in terms of cargo space it otherwise was very comparable - and it has the advantage of a TMS for the battery.

However, despite an advertised great lease deal ($299/month, nothing down) the dealers were insisting on loading the price up over $400/month making it non-competitive. Subsequent price cuts by the Focus Electric's competition has now made it overpriced for its market.

I think Ford is missing out on an opportunity here. They already have a strong position in the hybrid market, second only to Toyota and well ahead of everyone else. This means that their dealers and - more importantly - service departments are well-versed regarding batteries and electric motors. This is in start contrast to Nissan where so many dealerships are still electric motor novices (the Altima Hybrid was sold in limited quantities in only a few states). It also means that they have a lot of people driving their hybrids today and coming in for service who are likely predisposed to consider an electric Ford ... if only Ford would commit to the Focus Electric.

In short, the Focus Electric is a natural brand extension for Ford - whereas the LEAF was (and continues to be) a foray into a completely new market for Nissan.

All Ford needs to do to get Ford Electrics moving is what Nissan did for the LEAF at the end of 2012 - create a set of large carrot-and-stick incentives to dealers to push sales. Once there is a critical mass of Focus Electrics on the street then market momentum can build.

Of course, the 2013 Focus Electric has some catching up to do with the 2013 LEAF - better cargo space configuration and a heat pump are the main issues. But those are very solvable.

· · 4 years ago

Adding a heat pump is perfectly do-able, but getting more cargo space is an altogether different proposition.
It either means purpose built electric car platforms ( expensive ) or redesigning their current platforms to make them give good space for batteries ( mega expensive initial investment, cheaper than a purpose built platform in the long run )

VW have invested many billions to redesign their platforms.
It is non-trivial.

· · 4 years ago

Ford's approach is understandable from a bean-counter perspective (they can easily adjust output to meet demand, since the Focus Electric uses the same glider and assembly line as the Focus), but I can tell you as an EV owner and PHEV shopper, they've lost track of the most important thing - how attractive the product is to potential buyers. Ford's "put the batteries in the trunk" approach means that their PHEVs don't have useful trunks, a near-fatal flaw in vehicles that are otherwise suitable for road trips (hauling luggage being a necessary feature for such missions). I'm looking to replace our Prius with a PHEV, but the C-Max Energi's half-a-trunk renders it near-useless for our occasional road trips (though still better than the Volt, especially taking passenger space into account).

Perhaps it would be easier to accommodate the batteries in a way less damaging to vehicle utility in a CUV package like the Escape, which has a little more ground clearance to play with. Otherwise, as implied elsewhere here, Ford should think about a redesigned C-Max better suited to PHEV use. Perhaps they're thinking they'll get to that before the EV market gets too big. I hope they figure this out sooner rather than later.

· · 4 years ago

Quick comment: the trunk space in our Focus Electric is clearly impacted by the battery ... but is still OK for a load of groceries or two. When we need to carry luggage, we also need to go farther, so we take the gasoline-powered car (an old Honda). "Hybrid garage" works great for us.
Ford does not seem to appreciate or care how good a car they have here. Very good performance, very low maintenance, cheap to drive ... but too few know about it.

· · 4 years ago

@Jim T: This is a fair point - I'm much less concerned about the Focus-E's trunk for exactly the reasons you cite, so my reference to it at the start may have been misleading (I really wanted to make the point about a common BE/ICE platform, which gets a bit muddied if I'd used the C-Max, not shipped in ICE config for U.S. market).

But for the C-Max Energi and especially the Fusion Energi, I do think this is a really big problem. Either of those vehicles is otherwise suitable for cross-country travel, but taking a few passengers means you'll need a roof-rack or trailer for luggage (either of which will also impact fuel economy). That alone is likely to spell the difference between mass market and niche market.

Ford's not alone in this, of course. If I had to buy a PHEV today it would have to be the PriusPI, despite its limited EV range, as I believe it's still the only PHEV offering comfortable seating for four adults plus a full trunk (though I'll admit taking a road trip without a spare tire raises entirely different questions). If I were explaining this to Ford or Chevy, I imagine a "duh" would be justified somewhere around here.

· · 4 years ago

My family loves our plug-in C-MAX Energi love the fact that we are driving a car made by union workers here in America. The interior of this car is huge and i am 6'4. Getting up to 130 mpg+e lowest mpg so far driving 75-80 mph at 38 mpg long trip no charge at start. Driving performance is fast and sporty, hard to find in today's available models.

· · 4 years ago

Hi Todd - so what's been your experience with cargo capacity? I've only been able to look over the hybrid in person and studied a few photos of the Energi, but it doesn't seem like a lot of room back there. This matters, because our 2nd car is now an EV, so when we replace our Gen1 Prius we'll need a new vehicle suitable for road trips.

Even with a demi-trunk, the C-MaxE still might work for a couple like ourselves. EV range is adequate for our purposes, plenty of passenger room for around town driving w/friends (unlike the Volt), and can fold down the seats for road trips when it's just us. But then I remember bringing home that big-screen TV in the Prius, folded down the seats and it slid right in, hatch closed, no problem. I'd miss having that capability, which is partly why we continue to lean toward the Prius PI.

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