Despite consumer uptake that hasn't quite lived up to the hype, the electric vehicle market continues to expand, and Ford is the latest entrant with the 2012 Ford Focus Electric. A zero-emissions vehicle with a 76-mile range and a top speed of 84 miles per hour, the car is clearly intended to be a competitor to the Nissan Leaf, with Ford noting that it just manages to best the latter car is several key specs. I was able to spend some time with the new Focus to get a sense of what driving it is like — and who it may really be aimed at.

Compared to its competition, the Focus Electric is a handsome vehicle. A stylistic riff on the Focus line in general, it features a decorative grill — equal parts Mini Cooper and Aston Martin — and in a nice touch, the charging port is circled by a pulsating ring of light. That said, it's still a five-door, hatchback-style vehicle, but it's a far cry from the sloping nose of the Leaf. Inside the Focus Electric keeps in line with these utilitarian roots, again ditching the futuristic feel of some of its competitors for a more contemporary interior. The seats themselves use fabrics from Repreve, a company that specializes in utilizing recycled plastic bottles to help create its materials. It's a nod to the overall message and lifestyle brand Ford is trying to put forward with the vehicle. While the seats were comfortable, the interior isn't particularly spacious; an adult of regular height will find themselves with precious little legroom when sitting in the back.


The Brake Coach did start to feel a bit more like a gimmick rather than something I'd use on a daily basis

On the dash, there's an 8-inch touchscreen mounted into the center console, with two 4-inch screens on either side of the speedometer. These twin screens are where Ford's SmartGauge lives, which constantly informs you of the amount of available charge and range at your disposal, as well as providing feedback on the energy efficiency of your driving itself. Like most electric and hybrid vehicles, the Focus Electric utilizes regenerative braking, where the energy usually expended as heat in a friction-based system is instead recaptured by the vehicle and used to charge the battery. The car's "Brake Coach" rates your performance, telling you in real time what percentage of energy you're recapturing when coming to a stop. It's a fun system, but after tempering my braking technique a few times in order to hit that 100-percent mark, the Brake Coach did start to feel a bit more like a gimmick rather than something I'd use on a daily basis. That said, it's no doubt a good way to enlighten drivers on the nuances of driving an electric vehicle, and given the car's limited range, any tool that helps one avoid wasting energy is welcome.

A conventional Focus involves a complex dance of emergency brake-yanking and gas pedal-smashing, but the Electric handled everything in stride

Accoutrements aside, the main question with any vehicle is how does it drive. Having been a driver of a regular Focus for several years, I was able to compare the electric model directly against some of its predecessors — and the Focus Electric appointed itself quite well. Taking it on a cruise through the streets of San Francisco, the car was extremely responsive, and handled tight turns much better than what I was anticipating. The torque of electric vehicles is obviously a well-known differentiator from their petrol-powered counterparts, and the same was undoubtedly true here as well. The Focus Electric has a zippy acceleration to it, and nowhere were the benefits of its electric motor felt more than on some of San Francisco's dramatically steep inclines. Navigating them with a conventional Focus involves a complex dance of emergency brake-yanking and gas pedal-smashing, but the Electric handled everything in stride with just the standard brake and gas pedals — nary a hint of hiccup or rollback.

That said, there were some drawbacks. I definitely felt my fair share of bumps and jolts as the car moved over the city streets, and there were a few squeals from the wheels — likely due to that strong torque, but still disconcerting. Noise was also a minor issue; while the Focus Electric was dead silent when at a standstill, it wasn't the quietest electric — or even hybrid — I've been in, with the wheels making noticeable noise when moving. Then again, the Focus has never been the quietest vehicle on the showroom floor, and the difference between the Electric and its gasoline-powered brethren was striking.

One element that Ford is heavily touting is the car's smartphone integration, which comes courtesy of the MyFord Mobile app. Available for iOS, Android, and Blackberry at launch, the app allows owners to view the efficiency of their driving on their phone, find local charging stations, and plot out trips (Ford's promotional materials also show the app running on Windows Phone, but the company has nothing to announce for that platform at the moment). The app seems to have some great utility when it comes to the latter feature set, letting drivers plot out specific points and showing where you'll likely drop into the red (allowing you to plan on a charging station pit stop as needed). The app will send you notifications if the car stops charging unexpectedly, and you can even use it to remotely turn on the heat or air conditioning when you're getting ready to take a drive. There's also a social gaming element involved, with the app containing certain predefined accomplishments — miles driven, or energy saved, for example — which you can share on Facebook or Twitter when you've marked them off your list.

While the car was no doubt enjoyable to drive, one question remains unanswered: Who is the Focus Electric for? While the car bests the Leaf in both range (76 miles versus 73) and charging time (four hours versus seven, when using a 240 volt Level 2 EV charging station), those accomplishments alone don't make it a viable vehicle in its own right. It's the problem with electric cars in general at the moment; not enough range on a single charge, with charging stations that are neither quick enough nor ubiquitous enough to make them a viable choice for most people.

One way in which Ford is tackling the problem is by positioning the Focus Electric as an all-in-one turnkey solution. The company has its own branded Level 2 EV charging station that it will sell you for $1,499, which even comes with installation and service courtesy of Best Buy's Geek Squad. If your electricity rates are cheaper at night, a Microsoft-powered feature called Value Charging will allow you to schedule the car's charging at only the cheapest times. Ford has even partnered with SunPower to offer a solar panel package — coming in at less than $10,000 after federal tax credits — that can provide enough electricity to offset 12,000 miles of driving per year.

However, it quickly turns into a large investment into a technology that is still evolving. That said, if you don't mind the inherent limitations, and are looking for an electric vehicle that feels more like your regular car, the 2012 Ford Focus Electric provides a very nice experience. Priced at $39,200 — a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500 is available — the vehicle will be available this May in California, New York, and New Jersey, with rollouts in additional markets to follow.

Sean Hollister contributed to this report.

Audio credit: Fight Club by IAMDINO