Electric-Car Withdrawal: Gasoline Cars Now Feel Loud, Crude


2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

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After more than 11,000 miles driving solely on electric power in our 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, we now find our Volt in the body shop.

So for longer trips, our "extended-range vehicle" is a rented 2012 Ford Focus SEL model.

The 2012 Ford Focus is one of the most impressive of the latest compact cars, but in comparison to day-to-day driving in an electric vehicle, the power provided by an internal combustion engine is weak, nonlinear, and quite noisy and rough.

Impressive styling

I totally agree with early reviews of the impressively styled Ford Focus; I even mistook it for a Fiesta when I first looked it over at the rental lot. The 2012 Focus is a top choice in the compact category, and TheCarConnection gives the 2012 Focus a score of 8 out of 10 for overall quality.

2012 Ford Focus Titanium hatchback, New York, July 2011

2012 Ford Focus Titanium hatchback, New York, July 2011

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Still, driving with a fully gasoline powertrain is a disappointing contrast to the smoother power of full electric drive.  It was amazingly easy to forget how noisy a gasoline engine is at idle, and how much that noise rises as the car accelerates.

The smoothness of the power from an electric motor, which doesn’t require any gears, was highlighted when our 2012 Focus--as wonderful as it is--had to downshift to climb the low pass from the San Francisco Bay to California's inner Central Valley.

Shifting interrupts chat

It was a smooth enough transition, and the extra 700 or so rpms were only mildly irritating, but we hadn't heard anything like that to interrupt our conversation in six months of driving electric.

Every acceleration from a full stop now shocks us with engine “feedback,” and worse, there is a perceptible lag in the tip-in response from the gas engine in the Focus. The completely linear power delivered by the electric drive motors in either our Leaf or Volt are a total contrast to the slowly building torque from the Ford's 2.0-liter direct-injected engine.

2012 Ford Focus Titanium hatchback, New York, July 2011

2012 Ford Focus Titanium hatchback, New York, July 2011

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The Ford Focus for 2012 has a well-engineered six-speed automatic transmission, but this still means shifts take place. And they can be felt by the occupants, particularly downshifts. It's something that simply never happens in an electric car.

Trim and detail concerns

Many gasoline cars today offer push-to-start engine activation, but our 2012 Ford Focus still uses a real key that the driver has to insert. Sure, this is the way cars have been started for most of the last 50 years, but compared to just pushing a button? Very last century.

The tilting and telescoping steering wheel helped each of us find a comfortable driving position, aided by the pump lever for seat height. A few other grumbles with our rented Ford Focus include a buzz from the sun visor on the driver side, and variable panel fit around the trunk.   

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

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Even the leather wrapping on the Focus steering wheel seems a lower quality than what is used on the Chevy Volt.

Gas mileage over 500 miles or so is hovering around 33.2 mpg. That might not be too bad, but it's 20 percent less than we were getting under gas power in our 2011 Volt, which so far has a lifetime gas mileage of 105 miles per gallon--because so many of our daily trips were made entirely on battery power from the electric grid.

Lower prices, higher running costs

A 2012 Ford Focus equipped to best approximate the technology (navigation, upgrade radio, special paint) included in the Leaf or Volt would cost around $22,000. A 2011 Chevy Cruze similarly set up would be in excess of $25,000. Each would cost about $2,000 per year in fuel and service costs.

The 2012 Chevy Volt, on the other hand, costs $39,990 and up, and the 2012 Leaf starts at $35,200.

"Feeding” the Leaf and the Volt is much easier and more convenient (recharging at home), and far less expensive compared to even these high-quality compact cars.

We can’t get our Volt back soon enough. Electric vehicle driving is a the kind of addiction more of us need to experience.

How quickly we forget the way the world used to work ....

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