Sparky’s Showdown

Sparky Arrives 004

I travel for a living, on the road more days than not. That means I rent a lot of cars, and drive a different model most weeks. Rarely, I get a cool Challenger or Mustang, sometimes a lowly Fiat 500, usually a mid-size something like a Chevy Cruze or a Kia Optima. Every now and then, I get a free upgrade to a big SUV or luxury car. I always take whatever I’m given. Twice, I leveraged my high status to wrangle the car of my choice. Twice, I was left stranded on the side of the road. Since then I’ve given karma her due and gone with the results of the Rental Car Lottery.

This week, there was no car in the space mine was supposed to be. I passed by a familiar looking vehicle on the way back to the rental booth, a 2016 Ford Focus hatchback, Sparky the Electric Car’s younger cousin. I tempted fate, and asked for that car.

sparky and snowflake

It was time for a real comparison. Electric motor vs. internal combustion engine, all else relatively equal. Same chassis, same (almost) interior. How would Sparky measure up to a relative with a different drivetrain?

Snowflake was a 2016 Focus with almost 20,000 rental miles. A 2.0 liter engine under the hood delivered 160 hp and 146 ft/lbs of torque to a six-speed automatic transmission. Sparky has a 143 hp engine delivering 183 ft/lbs of torque to a one-speed transmission. Snowflake’s base price is $19,015. Sparky’s new would be $29,160, but Ford makes lots of options standard at that price. I’d soon see why.

First impression? Sparky’s leather seats rule, even if I ignore the various stains the Avis version wore as combat ribbons of encounters with sloppy renters. Sparky’s upgraded center display with navigation and a backup camera made Snowflake’s little dashboard screen seem sad. But both of these could have been added if Avis had optioned Snowflake up a few notches. The real question was how would she drive.

Secind impression: Internal combustion is loud. What do you expect when you explode vaporized gasoline in a metal tube? Never experiencing a Focus in anything but run-silent-run-deep mode, four cylinders of racket under the hood was a rude awakening. So was the vibration. All that thrum through the motor mounts telegraphed pretty clearly in an economy car. Now neither of these observations are meant to disparage Snowflake. Every car does this, some far worse than an ICE Focus. It was just more noticeable when compared to Sparky.

I hit the gas pedal as I left the rental garage and got my third impression. The engine wound up to a buzzy 3000 rpms and the car barely got out of its own way. Sparky would have snapped my head back against the headrest. With Snowflake’s horsepower ratings being higher, that might seem strange. But Snowflake’s full horsepower doesn’t arrive until 6500 rpm. More importantly, her torque doesn’t max out until 4500 rpm. Sparky’s electric muscle applies the maximum instantly. And while Snowflake has to route her energy output through a power-sucking six-gear slushbox, Sparky’s goes relatively straight to the wheels. There is absolutely no performance comparison between Sparky and a 2.0 ICE Focus. Buy the 2.3 liter, 350 hp, turbo RS Focus, and I’d say all bets are off.

Fuel economy? Snowflake delivered 32 mpg in mostly highway driving. Hard to compare to Sparky’s infinite mpg, but I’ll save you the math and tell you that Sparky would cost less per mile to drive. Snowflake also barely outperformed my 2000 Firebird, and there’s no way I’d trade two extra miles per gallon for the Firebird’s looks, performance, and T-tops.

To Snowflake’s credit, she tips the scales at 3000 pounds. Sparky weighs in at 3600 with a black-hole-dense battery taking up a good chunk of the cargo area. I could feel the difference. Snowflake felt much lighter on her feet, and those feet had better grip, being shod with something stickier than Sparky’s low rolling resistance tires. And I’ll admit it was nice using heat or air without getting all Ebenezer Scrooge about power consumption.

But the powertrain alone wasn’t why I love Sparky and Snowflake didn’t light my fire at all. Snowflake was point and shoot. A six-speed manual might have made a difference, but with an automatic and no instrumentation but a useless tachometer and a temperature gauge, an ICE Focus creates no driver involvement. Likely, that is what a base Focus buyer wants. To get the kids to soccer practice, to load the back with groceries, to get to work on time. An appliance.

Sparky and I, however, have a relationship. He tells me how he’s doing, I change a few things up, he tells me the impact. Sparky has at least a half-dozen displays to tell me energy usage, energy renewal, climate control power drain, average kwh/mile, range to empty, time to recharge, etc. Snowflake told me miles per gallon if asked, but I had no real way to impact that result. Sparky provides instant feedback as I change my driving style to modify energy usage. Brake to maximize regeneration and Sparky flashes a “100%” at me and my distance to empty goes up. Snowflake had a rudimentary system to grade braking, anticipation (whatever that was) and speed. But maxing those out still only got me 32 mpg, and having it displayed blocked more useful data, like distance to empty.

And that’s what Ford really nailed on the Focus Electric, drawing you into the experience, allowing you to communicate with the car. Plus, all the bells and whistles (interior lighting, keyless entry and ignition, backup camera, navigation, etc.) are there not just as a consolation prize for paying half again what you could have for Snowflake. They are there to set the mood, to say, “You have stepped into the future.” You wouldn’t expect Captain Kirk to turn a knob and open the door to the Enterprise’s bridge. It simply wooshes open as he approaches because he’s aboard a starship in the future. You wouldn’t turn a metal key in a cylinder to start a technological marvel. You’d just push a button and have a little green car light up to tell you you’re ready to go. From the minute you begin to interact with the Focus Electric, you are, by design, in a different environment.

Summary? I’d never consider buying an ICE Focus, and I’m even more enamored with my Focus Electric. Mission accomplished.

But now karma will come calling. Rental Car Roulette will stop on an ICE Focus the next six trips. I have it coming to me.