Ford's Electric Car Is Stuck in Neutral

By any standard, Ford's (NYS: F) compact Focus has been a huge success for the Blue Oval. Not only is Ford selling nearly all it can make here in the U.S., but it's also a big hit around the world.

It's a regular on the top-10 sales charts in Europe, a top seller in Russia (where Ford makes the Focus locally in a plant near St. Petersburg), and according to ace car-sales counter Matt Gasnier of the Best Selling Cars Blog, it was the top-selling car in China in June.

Ford sells several different variants of the Focus, all of which are made on highly flexible assembly lines that can react quickly to changes in market demand. That's great for Ford, but what's less great for the Blue Oval is that one highly touted version of the Focus is barely selling in the dozens.

Tiny sales of a touted green car
Ford sold 16,454 Focuses in the U.S. in July, more than a quarter of the Blue Oval's total U.S. car sales during the month. But the all-electric Focus Electric, the Ford answer to Nissan's (NASDAQOTH: NSANY.PK) Leaf that the Blue Oval announced with much fanfare in late 2010 and rolled out last winter, accounted for nearly none of that total.

Ford sold just 38 of the electric Focuses in July, down by more than half from the whopping 89 it sold in June. Sales have been trivial since the battery-powered car's debut: Ford has sold just 135 of the electric cars so far in 2012, including none at all in February, March, or April.

So far, Ford has offered the Focus Electric in just three states -- California, New York, and New Jersey -- though it plans to introduce the car to 19 new markets this fall. But even as it ramps up to those debuts, it's clearly not expecting a stampede of customers: While Ford would normally be building up inventories of the new model, preparing to begin shipments to dealers, it has built a grand total of 884 of the electric cars so far in 2012, according to figures released this week.

That's not promising. Is the Focus Electric a car without a market?

The electric-car revolution seems to have stalled
While Tesla Motors (NAS: TSLA) has booked more than 12,000 orders for its new all-electric Model S sedan, so far the Silicon Valley automaker's success in selling EVs hasn't been replicated elsewhere. Nissan's Leaf is probably the highest-profile EV from a major automaker, at least here in the United Staes. Nissan had hoped to sell 20,000 Leafs in the U.S. in 2012, but it isn't even close to being on track: It sold just 395 in July and has sold fewer than 4,000 so far this year.

The car often mentioned in the same breath as the leaf, General Motors' (NYS: GM) Chevy Volt, has had a much better time, with more than 10,000 sold to date. But unlike the Leaf (and the Focus Electric), the Volt is really a hybrid -- albeit a non-traditional one, with a gas-powered on-board generator.

Part of the problem is that -- unlike Tesla's (more expensive) offerings -- EVs from the major automakers don't have the range or versatility of "normal" gas-powered cars. Most drivers get fewer than 100 miles on a charge from a Leaf or a Focus Electric, a fraction of the 300-plus an average compact car with a full tank of gas can claim. And refueling away from home -- with just a tiny number of EV-charging stations in existence in the U.S. -- remains a challenge that continues to steer most green-minded buyers toward hybrids.

So is the Focus Electric a failure?
Ford is unlikely to declare the Focus Electric to be a failure. For Ford, the car's existence is justified by a couple of factors. First, it's a research project of sorts, helping Ford learn how to design, build, and sell electric cars. Second, it helps meet legal requirements in places like California, which requires automakers to sell a "zero-emissions vehicle." (In fact, some green-tech pundits have taken to calling EVs like the Focus Electric, GM's upcoming Chevy Spark, and Toyota's (NYS: TM) new electric RAV4 SUV "compliance cars," suggesting that they exist mainly to satisfy such rules.)

Ford has been clear that it plans to put the bulk of its greening efforts into hybrids, which it -- like Toyota -- sees as having a number of advantages in the near term. Think of the existence of the Focus Electric as a way to hedge that bet: Should electric cars suddenly take off, Ford's flexible factories already have what they need to start churning them out.

Ford's stock has been under pressure lately, with its stock dropping below $10 a share. But despite challenges in Europe, the company is still performing well at home and is investing heavily for growth abroad. Have these short-term pressures created an incredible buying opportunity, or are there hidden risks with the stock that investors need to know about? To answer that, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether Ford is a buy right now, and why. Get instant access to this premium report.

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Fool contributorJohn Rosevearowns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by@jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of General Motors, Ford, and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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