Ford's Electric Cars: Starting Slow, and Waiting for the Market

By · November 02, 2012

Ford C-Max Energi

The C-MAX Energi: just hitting the dealer floor. (Ford photo)

Ford’s early sales results are in: Focus Electric, 112; C-MAX Energi, 5. The Focus EV has been on the American market since last summer, and the Energi plug-in hybrid just two weeks—only a few have reached dealers so far.

It’s not surprising, given these less-than-stellar numbers, that Ford would choose to focus on another, more newsworthy result: The larger-volume C-MAX Hybrid, in its first full month on the market, outsold the Prius V, 3,182 to 2,769. Of course, the V is only approximately 20 percent of total Prius sales, which overall swamps the C-MAX. But Ford sees the versatile V as C-MAX Hybrid’s best surrogate in the marketplace.

NOT a Compliance Car

C.J. O’Donnell is Ford’s newly appointed group marketing manager for electrification, and he puts the numbers in perspective. O’Donnell bristles when asked if the Focus Electric is, like the Chevrolet Spark and Honda Fit Electric, a “compliance car” meant to satisfy California regulators.

C.J. O’Donnell />

C.J. O’Donnell

“It’s not a compliance car,” O’Donnell said. “By the end of the year we will have six brand-new electrified products, which I think shows a commitment to electrification by the Ford Motor Company.”

But, says O’Donnell, Ford is “letting the electric vehicle market grow organically—we’re not forcing the volume levels, as some of our competitors have done. We’re using some incentives, but overall we’re being very measured and letting the market come to us.”

Obviously, with just 112 battery electrics on the road, the market is not yet beating a path to Ford’s door. The Focus may not be a compliance car, but right now it’s available at just 200 of Ford’s 4,000 dealers (clustered in California and other high-demand states). O’Donnell says that an additional 733 dealers are undergoing certification to sell battery cars, and then the car will be fully available in 50 states.

Big Plans for Plug-In Hybrids

Ford has big plans for the C-MAX Energi, which will be followed by a plug-in hybrid version of the Fusion in the first quarter of 2013. “Five is obviously a very small number, but there are only a handful of Energis in inventory and we have to start somewhere,” O’Donnell said. He confirmed that a new ad campaign for the C-MAX Energi will take direct aim at another member of the Prius family, the plug-in hybrid. Ford’s car offers 20 miles of electric range, compared to Toyota’s 12 or 13.

Ford Focus Electric

Battery electrics aren't yet a strong seller for Ford—just over 100 have been sold. (Ford photo)

O’Donnell added that electric sales so far appear to closely correlate with gas prices. The C-MAX Energi is rated at 108 MPGe, so that’s going to be very attractive at $4 a gallon and above.

When a $3,750 federal income tax credit is factored in, the Energi is $29,995, $5,000 more than the hybrid version. That doesn’t seem like a huge gap, but Ford is still projecting a slowly building market. Some 75 percent of its EV sales will be hybrids, 25 percent plug-in hybrids and just five percent battery electrics, O’Donnell said.

Learning About Electrics

“A lot of education about plug-in vehicles will be going on with dealers and consumers,” O’Donnell said. “We have to be patient and let this market emerge over time. There will be a time when there is increased demand for these cars, as people understand how they fit into their lifestyles.”

I get it. What else is Ford going to say at this point? It has a major corporate commitment to electrification—led by longtime enthusiast Bill Ford—but a realization that, for now, far more Americans are going to buy the country’s bestselling vehicle, the F-150 pick-up truck.

O’Donnell is right—the company’s six entries span the market, small as it is so far. The company, which on Thursday named Mark Fields as the new chief operating officer, with highly regarded CEO Alan Mulally to stay on through 2014, has other priorities—most urgently, fixing anemic performance in Europe.

In that regard, it would seem that Ford’s hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery cars would all have potential markets in Europe. O’Donnell says the company hasn’t yet shown its public plan for an electrified Europe, but it sees “growing demand for fuel-efficient platforms” there. Both the Focus and C-MAX are global platforms. O’Donnell, who came to his new job from Lincoln just two months ago, declines to say if a plug-in hybrid is in that division’s future.

Here's a closer look at the C-MAX Energi on video:

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