Buy a Nissan LEAF Now or Wait to Buy a Ford Focus Electric? 7 Things to Think About.

By · January 30, 2011

Put aside, for a moment, the question of all-electric car versus plug-in hybrid—and the Volt-LEAF deathmatch that would likely ensue. We've had that question a lot here on PluginCars.com and much of the answer to it simply comes down to knowing your lifestyle and the driving needs generated by it. In many ways the two types of vehicles aren't even in competition with each other because they satisfy very different needs. As a result, the coverage of Volt vs. LEAF tends to be overblown and reality-challenged. It's a fake market comparison resulting from the lack of any other consumer-priced plug-in competition besides those two vehicles.

But, if you're in the market for an all-electric car, the lack of competition for the Nissan LEAF is about change with the impending arrival of the 2012 Ford Focus Electric. What this represents is no less than the first time ever that two mass-produced, relatively affordable, consumer-oriented, mid-sized 100% electric cars will be available for regular folks to buy and own. Think about that. A competition the world hasn't seen since the advent of the automobile.

It brings up all sorts of new questions and has sent more than few Nissan LEAF fence sitters and pre-orderers back to the drawing board to re-evaluate their allegiance. While it's difficult to compare the two cars—the LEAF has been out in the wild for more than a month now, whereas nobody's yet driven the just-unveiled Focus Electric—much is known about Ford's intentions and I recently had the chance to drive the gas-powered version of the 2012 Focus hatchback. Ford has promised that the electric version of the Focus won't lose any of the driving dynamics of the gas version. I've also had extensive time behind the wheel of the Nissan LEAF—including the world's first public full range driving test.

At this point I feel at least moderately qualified to answer some of those burning questions to help those who are now trying to decide what to do. I'll do my best. And I'll leave the question of styling preference up to you—I'd be daft not to.

1Handling

The Nissan LEAF is a fun car to drive. With its batteries low and in the exact center of gravity the LEAF has an exact 50/50 weight distribution making cornering effortless. Four-wheel disc brakes and stabilizer bars bring it under control quickly, and the electronic brake force distribution gives you the confidence to dodge impending obstacles with the best of them. With a 107 horsepower electric motor, and an always available 207 lb-ft of torque, the LEAF rockets from a standing start—beating even some high end performance cars at speeds from 0-40 mph. All that torque also makes passing on the highway a breeze. The Nissan LEAF has shown that it can reach a top speed of more than 95 mph.

Although no one has yet driven the production version of the Ford Focus Electric, I'm working on the Ford-professed principle that the electric version will lose none of the driving dynamics of the gas version—which I drove last week on the national media launch.

Like the LEAF, the 2012 Ford Focus is incredibly fun to drive. It, too, has four-wheel disc brakes, stabilizer bars and all the benefits of electric drive... plus it has a secret weapon—torque vectoring control. What is that exactly? A computer monitors the vehicle 100 times per second and when you enter a corner too hard it applies greater brake force to the interior slipping wheels and transfers more grip to the exterior wheels. The result? Even the worst drivers among us will feel like race car drivers. Ford will likely bring torque vectoring to the electric version as well. Although the Ford Focus Electric is rated at a higher 123 horsepower, it only delivers 181 lb-ft of torque. In the electric car world, torque is really the most important aspect of acceleration performance. Ford says the Focus Electric has a top speed of 84 mph.

Who Comes Out on Top?

Although the LEAF is fun to drive, if Ford can pull off its claim that the Focus electric will behave the same as the gas version, the Focus is the better handling vehicle. I repeatedly threw the Focus into corners rated at 25 mph at speeds of 50 mph and the car didn't skip a beat. I rarely ever heard any tire squeal and felt like I was in complete control the whole time. This is a car I would love to get out on a real race track.

2Charging Times

I dealt with this topic just yesterday in great detail. On a standard home charging unit, the LEAF is capable of adding about 15 miles of range per hour of charging, whereas on the same home charging unit the Focus will add about 30 miles of range per hour. The difference comes down to charging equipment on board each vehicle.

So, you say, it's clear cut. Not so fast. Among the two, the LEAF is likely to be the only one to support DC fast charging at launch—which can add about 80 miles of driving range in a half-hour of charging at commercial high voltage charging stations. Being able to DC fast charge brings an electric car much closer to parity with gas-powered cars for range capabilities. By the end of 2011 there will likely be 400 or so DC fast charging station spread throughout concentrated early launch markets in Oregon, Washington, California, Tennessee, Arizona and Texas.

Please see yesterday's post for more complete information.

Who Comes Out on Top?

Of all the comparisons, this is perhaps the least clear cut. But for resale value, future compatibility and functionality, the LEAF seems to be the strongest contender here—especially since you will likely be able to add higher speed home charging on par with the Focus within the next two years. The Focus Electric will never be able to add DC fast charging support if it's not included at launch.

3Battery Technology


The Focus Electric's battery pack is stuck behind the rear seats, a result of it not being engineered as an electric car from the ground up.

Ford has signed a supply agreement with Compact Power, a US-based subsidiary of LG Chem. Nissan's batteries are the result of a joint venture between them and NEC—called the Automotive Equipment Supply Corporation (AESC). Although initially both vehicles' batteries will be manufactured in Asia, starting in 2012 manufacturing will be shifted to facilities currently being built in Michigan (Compact Power) and Tennessee (Nissan).

Although both vehicles use very similar battery chemistry—flat, large-format, lithium-manganese, prismatic battery cells—the key difference here lies in how the batteries are managed. Ford's batteries will be actively heated and cooled using a liquid coolant circulated in tubes next to the flat cells. Nissan's do not have a sophisticated cooling system and largely depend on the movement of air through the batteries to keep them within acceptable operating temperatures. Nissan's approach ensures less-expensive manufacturing, but Ford's may help extend the lifespan of the battery pack.

The conventional wisdom is that heat is the biggest killer of battery lifespan—hence Ford's claim that liquid conditioning will extend the lifespan. All lithium-ion batteries degrade over time and may need to be replaced after 7-10 years. But given that the only data we have related to lithium-ion longevity comes from lab tests, it is hard to know how an entire battery pack will perform in daily driving use. Nissan has provided an 8 year/100,000 mile battery warranty and Ford will likely provide a minimum of the same.

In addition to battery longevity, external temperature tends to affect range in an electric car. Although these effects are not nearly as bad as with old lead-acid packs, lithium-ion can still see quite substantial effects when outside temperatures get extreme, lowering the range by 10-20%. The LEAF deals with this by pre-conditioning the batteries when the car is plugged in to keep them warm when it's cold—but this doesn't deal with extreme heat. Theoretically, the Ford Focus will be able to deal with temperature swings to a greater degree and may be better suited to more variable climates.

Who Comes Out on Top?

This is an incredibly difficult call, but without considering price, Ford's active liquid cooling/heating looks like the best option.

4Storage Space

The LEAF has a cavernous rear hatch and monstrous interior head- and legroom—the result of being engineered from the ground up as a dedicated electric car. There are videos floating on the internet showing parents fitting two big strollers in the back of the LEAF with other equipment and gear on top—as well as putting three high-backed booster seats across the back bench.


The Focus Electric's rear hatch volume is seriously handicapped by the location of the battery pack.

While there are no parent-made videos of the Focus Electric yet, it seems that the Focus will be hobbled from the get go because it wasn't designed as an electric car from the ground up. As a result, the batteries have been crammed into spaces normally reserved for cargo... as you can see in the picture to the right with the rear seats folded down. That huge hump filling up what looks like a full quarter of the useable space in the hatch is all battery.

Who Comes Out on Top?

I think the winner here is clear. The LEAF's huge hatch without intruding batteries makes it infinitely more functional.

5Wait Times

The Nissan LEAF is available now and the pre-ordering phase opened up last year. As a result Nissan has stopped taking reservations and is slowly releasing more pre-orderers for delivery. In fact, the lack of speed of delivery has cause quite some consternation on the part of the earliest adopters. Nissan is now saying that they will reach full production volume by March which should go a long way to reducing the wait list and reaching Nissan's promise of delivering all the cars that were pre-ordered by the end of Summer 2011. Even so, if you aren't on the reservation list already it will likely be late 2011 before you get your vehicle.

So, you say, I'm just going to take my money elsewhere an buy a Ford Focus Electric because they'll be available at the end of 2011. Not so fast. Although Ford has yet to detail the launch strategy and production numbers, you can be almost positive they will roll out tentatively as well—meaning that you may have a several month wait to get a Ford Focus Electric from the time they go on sale to actual delivery.

Who Comes Out on Top?

Nissan is already producing cars and will reach full production by March. As a result, if you are already on the wait list you are likely to get your vehicle, at the latest, by fall of 2011, and if you aren't on the wait list you will likely be able to walk into a dealer sometime in early 2012 and simply choose from a vehicle on the lot. Smart money says that Ford won't able to offer that until at least mid- to late 2012.

6Driver Displays


Top: The Nissan LEAF's main driver display.
Bottom: The Ford Focus Electric's main driver display.

Some have said the LEAF's displays are too sparse and lacking in information to help you maximize your mileage, as well as tell you how much actual energy there is left in your batteries. This lack of coaching and driver information means that the car is doing all the calculations for you and you may feel like you are operating inside a black box at times.

Although the Focus display has only been seen as a mock up at this point, what it looks to offer is complete customization and very helpful coaching applications. Based on the same driver displays developed for the Fusion Hybrid and complemented by MyFord Touch, the Focus Electric display appears to be a winner.

Who Comes Out on Top?

Based on admittedly-incomplete information, it looks like Ford will be the early front runner for electric car driver information available on its various displays.

7Pricing

We, of course, know exactly what the LEAF costs: a base MSRP of $32,780 with a $7,500 federal tax credit can knock that down to $25,280. Some states offer their own lucrative credits or rebates as well—in California the LEAF can be had for just a hair over $20,000. In the end, even without the California rebate or other state rebates, you'd be hard pressed to find any vehicle loaded with as much stuff as the LEAF for less than $28,000, making it one of the best automotive deals in the U.S.

We really don't know what the Focus Electric will cost. I've seen the $30,000 number thrown around in various places and we here at PluginCars.com even use it as our estimated price on our Focus Electric page. While that may be the target price for the Focus Electric, it is unclear if that means before or after the $7,500 federal tax credit. My bet is that it is after, given that the Focus has such a sophisticated battery thermal management system.

Who Comes Out on Top?

While we won't know Focus Electric pricing for some months, the best educated guess says that it will be more expensive than the LEAF before tax credits.

New to EVs? Start here

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