Why am I supposed to get excited about a last-generation Focus saloon?
Partly because it has a spec-sheet that reads like a Porsche 911 GT3 RS – ultra-thin lightweight glass, bespoke parts in aluminium and magnesium, carbon fibre tank; in all, 150kgs of weight saving to compensate for the extra weight of the hydrogen fuel cell powering it, which Ford claims is the most energy-efficient propulsion system yet fitted to a car. Three Focus FCVs are currently running around Berlin, where the Clean Energy Partnership has two hydrogen filling stations, which also cater for BMW’s Hydrogen 7s.
Another hydrogen fuel cell car that isn’t for sale.
Well, yes. But like the Honda FCX, the Focus FCV proves that hydrogen makes a great fuel, once we’ve got around the problems of making and supplying the hydrogen, and building the fuel cells at a price people can afford. Ignore all that, and the FCV is a practical vehicle. Its tank carries 4kgs of hydrogen pressurized at 350bar and with energy equivalent to 15 litres of petrol. It takes no longer to refuel than a standard car and will travel 200 miles on a tank, but even with those weight savings it’s heavy at around 1600kgs.
What’s it like to drive?
Imagine a silent, fully-automatic, Focus and you’re there, which is pretty much what Ford is after. The FCV exists to prove that fuel cells work as a concept; we just have to make them practical. You get in, twist the key and wait for around five seconds while the system buzzes behind you, priming the hydrogen system and electric motor. Once the needle that replaces the rev-counter swings to ‘ready’, you can slot it into drive and you’re off with a hum, the odd drop of water from the tailpipe and nothing else.
I assume it’s deathly slow?
No – 60mph in around ten seconds, and as with all vehicles where an electric motor does the actual driving the torque is available instantly; a thumping 169lb ft in this case. There’s little noise, no gearchanges and the extra weight makes for a serene ride. The only factor slowing your progress around town is making sure pedestrians have seen you, as they can’t hear you coming.
What’s under the bonnet?
The fuel cell itself – where the hydrogen is split into protons and electrons to create the electrical current that drives the motor – actually sits under the front seats. Unlike combustion engines, fuel cells don’t generate much heat, so you can stick them almost anywhere in the car. Lift the bonnet and you’ll find the electric motor and the regenerative braking system. Just like a Prius, most fuel cell vehicles are also hybrids, capturing and storing the energy that would otherwise be lost under braking, using it to boost acceleration and extend the car’s range.
Why hasn’t Ford built a new Focus version?
Have you seen the price? The Focus FCV was being built just before the new Focus arrived, and they’re being run for as long as possible to prove the technology works. The cost of making a fuel cell car is now down to around half a million quid, but that’s still rather more than your average punter is prepared to bear.
Practical, affordable fuel cells are still a long way off and there’s a chance that another technology, such as battery power, might become established before they can be made commercially viable. But we need cars like the Focus FCV on the road if we’re going to find something to replace the internal combustion engine and our dependence on oil. A positive look to the future, but not quite ready for the production line.