The Ford Focus Electric: A bad case of range anxiety

August 10, 2012: 10:02 AM ET

It's a fun and quiet ride, but there are some drawbacks.

By Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- In theory, I really like electric cars. They emit less greenhouse gas than traditional models and are easier to maintain. Electrics cost less to operate: The electricity to run one is the equivalent of paying about $1 or so a gallon for gas.

So I was excited to head off from Manhattan in the new Ford Focus Electric, which is now available in selected markets. The frosty-green, four-door hatchback is handsome, with a front grille that evokes Aston Martin, which Ford used to own. The only indication that this Focus is different from a normal gas-driven one is the word "Electric" in raised metal type running along the bottom of the front doors.

And then reality hit. As I pulled out of the garage on West 55th street and headed toward my house in Westchester County, I looked at the range gauge and saw that I had 50 miles left on the lithium ion battery -- plenty of juice to make the 20-mile trip. (The Focus's range when fully charged is 76 miles.)  But as I drove, the mileage gauge kept changing in response to my driving habits. At one point it was down to 38, but then bounced back up to 42 but then down again to 35. How many miles did I really have? I didn't know. That night, I drove to the movies to see Beasts of the Southern Wild, and when I entered the parking lot I had about 15 miles left to make it home. Enough, but it was still a little nervous-making. So I checked my GPS for the closest charging station thinking it would be great if the car could recharge during the film. It turned out to be 10 miles away, across the river in New Jersey, not to mention the $5 toll on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

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The number of charging stations in the nation is rising -- especially in California --but for electric drivers in the Northeast, the choices seem to be few and far between. Unless you have a predictable, short daily commute, the Focus isn't for you until the range increases or more charging stations are installed.

That said, the Ford Focus Electric is fun to drive. The 123 horsepower electric motor, ample for this five-passenger car, gives it a top speed of 84 miles per hour and great pick-up not only from a standing stop but passing on the highway as well -- what the engineers call straight-line torque. One real advantage of the Focus is that you can buy an optional home charging system that will charge the car in four hours, about twice as fast as the all-electric Nissan Leaf.

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The handling is sporty, and the cabin quiet and notably lacks that combustion engine growl. All one hears are the wheels whooshing along the highway. The quiet enhances the music coming from the impressive Sony sound system. The cloth seats in my model are comfortable. The fit and finish were impressive too.

Then there's the price. The Focus sells for $39,000 and even after the $7,500 federal rebate, that's still a lot to pay for a car whose gasoline-driven cousin starts at $16,995.  Some states like California will throw in a bit more in rebates. New York, where I live, doesn't offer a subsidy.  Much of that extra cost is for the battery. The good news is that battery prices are coming down and range is increasing.  When that day comes, sign me up for a Focus.

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