Ford's biggest selling point for its 2012 Focus Electric ($39,600) is that it charges twice as fast as other electric vehicles when using a Level 2 240-volt supply. Having tested a Focus Electric for a couple of days, I can confirm that the claim is both true and a compelling advantage indeed.
In the simplest terms, a depleted Focus battery can be fully recharged in about four hours compared with about eight hours for a Nissan Leaf. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which I recently reviewed, uses a smaller battery and takes closer to seven hours. But it's not just about full charges; it's about how many miles you can drive in a given day, and some other less obvious advantages.
For the record, the Leaf and i-MiEV offer optional ports for DC quick charging, known as Level 3, which the Focus doesn't support. (Ford says it's waiting for a standardized connector.) But Level 2 is what matters most because Level 3 charging would be cost prohibitive for the home, and no car that relies solely on battery power is viable if all you have is 120-volt household power, known as Level 1.
How does the Focus Electric charge faster than its competitors? It's pretty simple, really: Its onboard charger has a capacity of 6.6 kilowatts. All the other EVs, and the Chevrolet Volt, are limited to 3.3 kW.
To define terms, a "charger" isn't what you probably think. The thing with a cord you install on a wall or find on a post in a public setting isn't the charger; it's the electric vehicle supply equipment, or EVSE. Nissan calls it a "dock." Technically, the charger is aboard each vehicle. It converts AC power to DC and manages the battery pack's charging process.
Before I get into the reasons behind all of this, here are some of the less obvious advantages I observed in two days with the Focus Electric:
With all these advantages, why don't the other EV makers have 6.6-kW charging? They say it's an issue of size and cost, though Nissan has announced that the 2013 Leaf will support 6.6 kW. What's frustrating is that, for the most part, the onboard charger is the sole bottleneck.
However, not all Level 2 EVSEs can charge at the higher rate. Level 2 charging is standardized and requires 240 volts, but to deliver 6.6 kW to the car, you need two things: an EVSE that can supply that much, and enough current going into it. (A notable mass-market exception is the Voltec-branded Level 2 EVSE Chevrolet sells as an option for the Volt.)
Our SPX Power Xpress EVSE has been flawless when charging a Leaf, Volt and i-MiEV, typically drawing about 3.4 kW. When I charged the Focus Electric, it drew 5.6 kW rather than the full 6.6 kW. Unfortunately I wasn't aware of a hidden setting on our EVSE intended for use with a 30-amp circuit, even though I had 40 amps. My mistake. This limited its output to a possible 5.7 kW versus 7.7 kW.
Even at this level, the depleted Focus Electric battery charged in four hours and 10 minutes. With the correct setting, the car would have broken four hours easily, and this is what's frustrating about the charging rate among other EVs. It typically takes eight hours to charge our long-term Leaf with this setup.
Both our existing EVSE and the networked ChargePoint unit in our parking garage — which delivered more than 6 kW when we plugged it into the Focus — have been ready for this charging rate for more than a year. The same is true of the AeroVironment EVSE purveyed by Nissan and Mitsubishi as well as the Leviton device Ford has selected. The cars themselves have been the limiting factor, until the Focus Electric came along.