Why should I buy a LEAF instead of a Focus Electric?

by Ernie Hernandez on May 14, 2012

Is there an advantage?

The world is full of conflict, confusion and contradiction. Sometimes, we just want a simple answer, but it seems elusive. Just last week a friend of ours asked – why should I buy a LEAF instead of a Focus Electric? Let’s take a look at these two cars.

First and foremost, the Nissan LEAF was designed to be an electric car from the beginning, while the Ford Focus is an existing gasoline engine platform adapted to the electric powerplant. So what?

An automobile is perhaps one of the most complex pieces of equipment that anyone will operate in their lifetime. It certainly doesn’t seem that way to the consumer who just gets in, starts the car, and drives off to work. But think of everything that happens before reaching the first corner down the street and you will get a better understanding of the equipment surrounding you.

As you approach the car it recognizes that you are carrying the correct key to this particular car so that when you approach and touch the button on the door handle the car unlocks. If you are carrying passengers, you can unlock multiple doors, but if it is just you on your solitary commute to work, it will unlock only the driver’s door.

As you start your car, who knows how many more computers come to life to remember your previous radio station settings, climate control settings, distance driven records and much more information that is available to us, but that we rarely access on a routine basis. The navigation system starts searching for satellites to localize our position in space (if not time, although I suppose the onboard clocks do that as well). And we haven’t even made our direction selection from the transmission or pulled out of the driveway yet. So does it really matter whether the car was designed to be electric or not? By now, perhaps you are starting to lean toward a yes answer.

Cars are meant to be driven. They are conceptually designed to move you from place to place. If they were designed to be stationary they would be called houses, and they would be much larger. This is where those converted gasoline powered vehicles start to lose their edge, assuming they had one in the first place (styling being an oft stated issue).

When anyone is given an original task, the starting point is a blank slate. “If I could design a thing any way that I wanted to, based on what I think the best design would be, how would I go about it?” That is the question. Then you go to work. In Nissan’s case, the LEAF was the result of that question.

In Ford’s case, the engineering team tasked with creating the Focus Electric was given an entirely different task. “Convert this existing gasoline based car to operate using only an electric motor powered by batteries.” Perhaps now you are starting to see the challenges.

A 2.0 liter four cylinder engine might weigh roughly 300 pounds. The electric motor needed to propel the vehicle will be lighter.  Suspension needs are now different. Where a gasoline powered car usually has a gas tank in the back, perhaps that will be replaced by a battery pack that weighs significantly more. Also, usually those batteries are larger than where the gas tank went originally, so they may need to be spread out through the existing design of the vehicle. One of the reasons that the Chevrolet Volt only seats four is due to its battery design. Which leads, in turn, to other issues.

The LEAF was designed to have its battery pack under the floor of the vehicle from the beginning. The advantage to this is that the suspension can be designed to accommodate this placement from the beginning. As large and heavy components are removed and replaced in an existing platform, other optimally designed systems are replaced with compromised systems that have been developed to replace the optimally designed system. The response from the manufacturer is always something along the line of – “We carefully evaluate the changes in vehicle design needed to address the change in drivetrain and are confident that the solutions reached will offer uncompromised performance to our customers.” I should be writing their PR. What else are they going to say – “We did this because we didn’t really want to design a clean sheet of paper design because that would cost too much money”?

So, the answer to our initial question is this – you should buy a Nissan LEAF because it was designed to be an EV from the beginning. The battery pack is encased in steel to protect it and you in the event of a collision. It does not sit on a steel tray with a compromised case to save weight, because they had to save weight somewhere. It does not use a needless battery active thermal management system that adds cost, weight and complexity, because the battery pack was designed from the beginning to be used in a car, not in a laptop computer. Because every decision made about the vehicle was to optimize its performance as an electric car, not as a vehicle designed to be a gasoline powered vehicle that was converted to have an electric drivetrain because someone wanted to test the waters without spending too much money. We think that’s why you should buy a LEAF.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sasparilla May 15, 2012 at 9:33 am

Just to add a couple.

Why the Leaf? Because its cheaper – take that $2k+ and do something with it. Because you might want a whole trunk. Because you might want to be able to fast charge your car at some point. Because you want your rear seat passengers to have more leg room (that’s a guess on the legroom but I think its accurate). Because you don’t want to drive around your EV all day with butterflies on the dash board.

Why the Focus Electric? Because you like the looks of the Focus Electric enough to want to pay several thousand dollars more for the vehicle. Because you want to drive around your EV with butterflies on the dashboard.

Here’s a great background on the Focus Electric development and design that’s very interesting:

http://money.cnn.com/2009/03/20/autos/ford_electric/index.htm

Reply

Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) May 15, 2012 at 11:07 am

Sasparilla, as always, thanks for the input, and the link. You state many of the reasons that I don’t (though I didn’t know about the butterflies).

Just to ensure accuracy though, I wanted to clarify a couple of points. Entry level Focus Electric is $4,000 more than entry level LEAF currently. That said, the Focus Electric is roomier in every passenger dimension except front head room although it must be said that the LEAF offers a roomy interior also. Focus is just bigger inside. And some may prefer the style of the Focus to the design of the LEAF. But as I’ve said before, $4,000 buys a lot of electrons.

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Kelly Downey May 16, 2012 at 8:12 pm

The Leaf is unique in every detail. You might like the looks of the Leaf or not but when you see one you know what it is. The Focus is a Focus. Big whoop! You would not have any idea the Focus was an electric without getting real close to see the badge. It was a car designed so Ford could say it sells an electric car.
Ernie, great article. Mahalo

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MikeG August 31, 2012 at 10:37 am

Ok guys, I’m going to offer a viewpoint for the other side – so to speak, just to add balance. First, I am actively considering the LEAF among others, and I think Nissan has done a tremendous job being a leader and an innovator – so I’m not knocking this vehicle in anyway. With that said…I am a bit conservative, I like the idea of choosing a car style and picking 4 cyl., V-6, or EV options. I don’t feel comfortable driving a car that shouts “look at me – I’m different”. That is one (although small) reason why I just couldn’t get into the Prius. I firmly believe for manufacturers to offer reasonably priced EV options, they need to be able to slip an EV power train into an existing assembly line, and I think Ford, Honda, and Toyota (I’d love to have a Rav4 EV) are trying to accomplish just that. If EV cars are to become common place and available to everyone, they need to be flexible. On a side note, car insurance will probably be cheaper if the same car parts fit both ICE and EV vehicles alike. Just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone. Thanks for listening.

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) September 3, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Mike – Welcome to Living LEAF. Thanks for your feedback. I highly doubt that Nissan is looking at Living LEAF, but who knows? There are several reasons for creating clean sheet designs for electric vehicles (EVs). Weight distribution is dramatically different than an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. Where the engine and transmission position the bulk of the centralized mass in an ICE vehicle, the battery (about 660 pounds in the LEAF) is the biggest consideration in an EV. While certainly engineers can adjust to huge re-positioning of mass, if it can be optimized for a specific drivetrain, ride, handling, safety and performance will all benefit by a dedicated platform. That said, it is possible for your idea to be carried out – see the Ford Focus Electric and Honda Fit EV as examples.

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