Ford aims to charge up sales with electric car price cut

The Ford Focus electric.
David Cooper | The Toronto Star | Getty Images
The Ford Focus electric.

With battery-car sales lagging expectations, automakers have been slashing prices in a bid to spur demand. The latest to announce a big discount is Ford, which will trim the manufacturers suggested retail price (MSRP) on its Focus Electric model by $6,000.

That's on top of the $4,000 discount the Detroit maker took on the compact battery-electric vehicle just a year ago. Originally introduced in January 2011 at $39,995, buyers now can plug in a Ford Focus Electric for just $29,995 — plus delivery charges and the usual fees and taxes. And Ford is by no means alone in this price war.

With rare exception, automakers have been cutting prices of both plug-in and pure battery-electric vehicle (BEV) models in a bid to boost sluggish sales. And with gas prices now near or below $3 a gallon in much of the U.S., industry analysts suggest it will be even more difficult to persuade buyers to opt for vehicles that plug in rather than tank up.

The Focus Electric is nearly identical to the conventional Ford compact model—except for an electric drivetrain and various gauges and displays that allow motorists to monitor energy consumption. Among other things, BEV owners need to keep close tabs on their range, to make sure they can either get back home, or find an available place to charge up.

Amid weak sales, price war erupts

With less than 100 miles of range, even in the most optimum of conditions, the lithium-ion powered Focus Electric generated only about 1,500 sales during the first nine months of this year. That was less than 1 percent of the 176,156 Focus models Ford sold in the U.S.

The Focus Electric isn't the only model struggling, however. Overall, plug-based vehicle sales totaled just 87,337 between January and September, according to data compiled by InsideEVs.com. That's barely 0.7 percent of the overall U.S. market.

On the positive side, total U.S. plug-based vehicle sales are already closing on the total for all of 2013, just 97,507. But there are also more electric powered options on the market—a total of 22 different models at the moment, compared with just 16 at this time last year.

Some have been gaining a bit of momentum. By the end of October, the Nissan Leaf is likely to top the 23,094 cars it sold for all of 2013, making it the best-selling plug-based vehicle on the U.S. market. But Nissan has also cut prices several times to help give the little Leaf a boost in demand.

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The list of price cutting companies is lengthy: Chevrolet has done so with its second-best-seller, the Volt plug-in hybrid; Honda slashed the price of its Accord plug-in, and Mitsubishi did the same with its i-MiEV battery-electric vehicle. Separately, Smart trimmed the cost of its ElectricDrive BEV, and Fiat did as well with its 500e.

In fact, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has all but asked consumers not to buy the little electric vehicle, because his company loses more than $10,000 on every one it sells.

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Electric car outlook
Electric car outlook   

Why keep selling plug-based vehicles, then? The question might be posed to California regulators who have enacted strict so-called Zero-Emissions Vehicle mandates that require any major manufacturer to bring such clean vehicles to market.

Several makers are looking for other options. Hyundai launched its new Tucson Fuel Cell Vehicle over the summer, and Honda and Toyota plan to introduce hydrogen-powered vehicles of their own in 2015.

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Significantly, Toyota plans to pull the plug on its little RAV4-EV shortly, which leaves it with only one other lithium-powered model, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid. The Japanese giant has become an outspoken skeptic when it comes to lithium technology, preferring to focus on conventional hybrids like the original Prius.

Despite Toyota's reluctance, at least some manufacturers remain committed to electrification, and several appear to be gaining traction with their latest offerings. That includes BMW, with the new i3, an urban battery-electric vehicle, and the plug-in hybrid i8 sports car.

Slow to charge up on battery technology, Volkswagen is rapidly accelerating its efforts with models ranging from the new e-Golf to the upcoming Bentley SUV with its plug-in hybrid option.

Then there's Tesla, which plans to roll out its second product line, the pure electric Model X SUV, next year. A third, more mainstream Model III is set to follow around 2016. Tesla is one of the rare makers not to discount its EV offerings like the current Model S, which is running up to a fully loaded $110,000.

Follow CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.