From the September 1994 issue of Car and Driver.
Hey, what is that thing?” It was a common question, invariably followed by, “Wow, that’d be perfect for tossing my mountain bikes into.” Or camping gear, or garden supplies, or golf clubs. Whatever it is people need to toss, they wanted to toss it in the back of our Ecostar.
Then I’d point out, “You know, it’s an electric.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Hey, I wonder if my racing kart would fit in there. How wide is this, anyway?”
Time and again, Southern Californians were smitten by Ford’s little Escort-based panel van, not much caring what it was powered by. Hydrocarbons, electrons, dilithium crystals. They just thought it was cool.
Well, it is. But it’s also a matter of some serious business. In Europe, Ford offers a gasoline-powered version of this van to butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Over here, the tidy little hauler is being fitted with an experimental electric power package. It’s Ford’s research spearhead into developing and marketing a viable EV.
And the Ecostar makes a fairly acceptable car, as these things go. Performance is tolerable, and the engineering appears thorough. It works exactly as advertised: a 70-mph (governed) freeway speed, a 100-plus-mile operating range, and a six-to-seven-hour recharge time (on a 240-volt circuit). It also has the refinement and user-friendliness we expect from a major automaker—qualities we haven’t found in the retrofit conversions that litter the EV landscape.
California is shoving this technology forward. The state’s Air Resources Board has ordered that 2 percent of the cars automakers sell there in 1998 must be emissions-free. The Golden State is my beat, so I borrowed an Ecostar from the experimental fleet Ford is putting in service with power companies, delivery services, and the like. (A 30-month lease costs the “customers” a sobering $100,000.)
I lived with the little red vanlet much as any citizen would, motoring around town for short-hop errands, keeping a nervous eye on the battery gauge, and driving something else when there was real ground to cover. And you know what? It worked pretty well. But your expectations must be properly tuned to the EV channel.
Drive an electric and sooner or later (or sooner and later) you will find yourself sweating lightly as you contemplate the “Miles to Discharge” and “State of Charge” gauges and weigh the readings against your distance from home. One freeway-range test drive got particularly desperate, and to husband my energy supply I took to drafting slow trucks. (Actually, I used them more as whipping boy for my obstructionist 55-mph driving: “Hey, I’m not holding you up, pal, it’s this Wal-Mart semi in front of me!”)
In fairness, the Ecostar demands less of that jiggery than other EVs we’ve tried, simply because its range is greater. The 100 miles that Ford quotes is conservative; the 110 to 115 miles that I regularly traveled is enough to serve most local transport needs without constant worry.
The secret to that range is a Ford-patented 332-volt sodium-sulfur battery that the company claims can store three to four times the energy of a lead-acid battery of similar weight. But the NaS battery has its drawbacks. To keep its constituent chemicals molten, the unit must maintain an internal temperature of around 600 degrees Fahrenheit, which requires tricky computer-monitored regulation and consumes a fair amount of energy. Left unplugged, an Ecostar’s battery can “freeze” in a few days, immobilizing the car and probably self-destructing in the process. And it’s expensive. In regular service, the 770-pound lump—located beneath the Ecostar’s cargo floor—would require replacement about every two years, and the current price of the battery is $46,000.
As Ford’s EV segment manager Dennis Wilkie admitted, “Electric technology has not arrived.”
But put aside economic reality, or pretend for a moment that we can, and take the Ecostar for a drive. If it has had six hours or so of charge time, it’ll be pumped up and ready. Unplug it from the Ford-supplied charging station—a box with its own meter and various internal safeguards and self-diagnostics—which wires into a 240-volt circuit in your garage. Feed the Ecostar’s 12-foot cord onto its spring-loaded reel behind a door in the grille.
Hop in, insert the entirely conventional key into the “ignition” lock, and turn it to what would be the “start” position. Of course, nothing happens, except a batch of warning lights glow. The numerous on-board computers run their self-checks and confirm that they are communicating with one another. Then all the lights go out, except a little green car icon. You’re ready to hum.
From this point, the Ecostar behaves remarkably like a typical but slow gasoline-powered car with an automatic transmission. Ford engineers gave it a little creep at “idle,” plus light regenerative braking (when the motor acts to charge the battery) on lift throttle to simulate engine-compression braking. The three-phase, 70-hp AC motor, which spins up to 13,500 rpm and drives the front wheels through a single-speed gearbox, squirts the 3110-pound Ecostar away from rest with surprising vigor. The need to scamper across a wide street in front of oncoming traffic is not cause for panic.
Acceleration does fall off dramatically above 35 or 40 mph, or if you’re carrying much of the Ecostar’s 980-pound payload. Getting to 60 mph from a standstill took our test car 25 seconds (with only the driver aboard), but we hear that acceleration varies greatly among these prototype Ecostars, depending on, for one thing, what treatment the battery has had. Once up to freeway speeds, the Ecostar whirs along happily, although a 70-mph top speed in California means you must also watch your mirrors as closely as you watch the battery gauges.
Running noise in the cab is not what you’re used to. The high-pressure, low-rolling-resistance tires feed in lots more pavement racket, which goes undiluted by intake and exhaust roar. And those big hockey-puck tires mean ride harshness is up and cornering grip is down. “Handling” is a concept that doesn’t really apply to electrics, but—for the record—the manual steering is heavy and numb, and despite its compact dimensions, the weighty, nose-heavy truck feels like … a weighty, nose-heavy truck.
Still, the Ecostar behaves in a civilized, unquirky fashion. One pedal makes it go, the other makes it stop, and you aim it with the wheel. All completely familiar.
Also familiar are the various accessories, including lights, wipers, AM/FM, and climate control, all powered by a separate 12-volt system. To help squeeze out every last mile, Ford has applied some clever tricks. A strip of solar cells across the top of the windshield power an exhaust fan to reduce heat buildup inside when parked in the sun, so the air-conditioning compressor will have less work to do. The climate controls can also pre-cool or preheat the cabin while the car is plugged in. And for extreme climates, an auxiliary heater burning diesel fuel is available.
Keep running beyond the 100-mile point, and you will eventually punch into the “limp-home” mode that the Ecostar’s computer selects to prevent you from completely discharging the battery (which can self-destruct if it freezes, remember). Acceleration falls way off, and you creep along with an orange “Limit” light flashing on the dash. The Ecostar keeps going, but you, unable to keep up with traffic, are ready to head for the barn.
Once home, you plug the Ecostar back in and forget it for six hours. Or maybe not. Two Ecostars in the test fleet of 34 have experienced battery fires during recharging. So, uh, keep an eye on the garage.
Aside from the odd incendiary outburst, the Ecostar picture looks fairly promising. Until you ask, “What does it cost?”
According to the logbook and my electric bill, our Ecostar used 0.43 kilowatt-hour—costing 5.99 cents—per mile. Call it six bucks for a 100-mile recharge, before the tax and utility-rate breaks EV buyers will get (and need, since a Honda Civic VX covers 100 miles on $3.25 of unleaded).
Also, don’t forget that the $46,000 battery may need to be replaced every other year. Your Ecostar would need to cover its maximum of 100 miles every working day to get that amortization much under $1 a mile.
And how much will it cost to purchase the vehicle in the first place? Ford says only that, assuming consumers would pay $20,000 for a decent EV, $1500 would have to be added to the price of all 250,000 cars Ford sells in California each year to pay for 2 percent of them being electrics. As we do the figures, that suggests an actual cost approaching $100,000 per Ecostar.
Can you say “massive subsidy”? That’s what it will take, because it’s fair to surmise that consumers aren’t going to pay half that amount. Probably not a quarter of it. No matter how many mountain bikes they can toss in the cute little cargo bay.
Sodium and Sulfur Make One Hot Battery
You know a lead-acid battery has solid plates and liquid electrolyte. Think of Ford’s sodium-sulfur battery as having liquid “plates” and solid electrolyte. A minutely porous ceramic material separates the two chemicals and acts as a pathway for the reaction that generates electricity. It’s a design Ford patented back in 1965, and it creates a battery of relatively high energy density (lots of kilowatts for its kilograms).
Each of the 480 cells in an Ecostar battery consists of an aluminum can about 1.5 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. The ceramic electrolyte, shaped like a long test tube set upright in the can, contains the sodium and is surrounded by the sulfur. Near 600 degrees, both chemicals are liquid, and they react across the electrolyte because it allows passage of sodium ions. A sodium atom gives off an electron and can then pass through the ceramic to interact with the sulfur and form sodium polysulfides. The free electrons constitute the current flow. The process is reversed during recharging, as electrons coming from your wall outlet break the reaction products back down into sodium and sulfur.
Two stainless-steel cases, separated by an evacuated, fiberglass-packed gap, contain this “hot battery” process like a giant Thermos. The energy equivalent of two 100-watt light bulbs is generally enough to maintain the battery’s internal body temperature. The outer case usually feels just warm to the touch. Sodium and sulfur are solid at room temperature, and such “freezing” could crack the electrolyte and ruin the cell. So the electronics tending the battery are programmed to maintain internal heat as priority number one. —Kevin Smith
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