The new Ford (NYSE: F) Focus Electric gets 100 miles per gallon.*

Yep, that's an asterisk. Being an electric car that doesn't actually burn any gas, the latest Focus doesn't really get 100 miles per gallon. But the long-awaited model is expected to be the first car with a backseat to get a 100-mpg equivalent rating from the EPA, a milestone in the emerging electric car race.

That sounds like a big achievement. So is it a game changer?

About that headline number...
What Ford's PR crew actually said on Wednesday was that the new Focus Electric, a purely electric-powered version of Ford's acclaimed new Focus compact, is expected to receive the first 100-miles-per-gallon-equivalent, or MPGe, rating awarded to a five-passenger car by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The MPGe is an alternative rating system introduced by the EPA last year for cars that can run entirely on electric power, like Nissan's (OTC: NSANY) Leaf (99 MPGe) and General Motors' (NYSE: GM) Chevy Volt (93 MPGe when running on electricity only). In a nutshell, MPGe expresses the car's "mileage" in units of electrical energy that are roughly equal to the energy in a gallon of gas. It appears on the window stickers of new electric cars just as the EPA's conventional MPG numbers do on their gasoline-powered cousins, giving consumers some basis for comparison.

While the Focus Electric hasn't officially received the 100 MPGe rating yet, it's already something of a landmark vehicle in other ways, albeit an incremental one rather than a revolutionary one.

A step forward, not a leap
For the past year, the Leaf has represented the state-of-the-art in mass-market all-electric vehicles that consumers (in some parts of the country, at least) could actually buy. It has enough range ("about 100 miles," according to Nissan or 73 miles, says the EPA; the actual range in any given moment depends heavily on driving conditions) to be a viable commuter car for many. And it's a real car with mass-market appeal made by a major global automaker, supported by more than a thousand dealers around the country, with state-of-the-art safety features and creature comforts.

The Focus Electric doesn't radically shift the technology, but it might move it forward a little. While it's not the first car to break the 100 MPGe barrier -- that honor goes to Tesla Motors' (Nasdaq: TSLA) Roadster, which rates 119 MPGe -- it is the first one with a backseat and a five-figure price tag to do so. That's a good talking point for Ford, but there are more substantive points that buyers in this segment are likely to consider:

  • Faster recharging. Ford says the Focus Electric is the first EV to be compatible with higher-speed 240-volt rechargers, which will allow a full recharge in a little more than three hours -- half the time, Ford says, that it takes to recharge a Leaf. Of course, you'll have to buy one of these chargers and have it installed by an electrician to get this advantage. But it seems likely to be worth the investment.
  • More usable range, maybe. Ford has been a bit coy about the Focus Electric's actual range (expect it to be a little, but not much, better than the Leaf's) but emphasizes that the ability to recharge more quickly will increase the car's usable range "in a busy day of driving and recharging." The fast rechargers will refresh the car at a rate "up to 30 miles per charge hour," Ford says.

Of course, these incremental improvements will come at a price: $39,995, to be exact. That's about $5,000 more than a Leaf, a sizable jump. In fact, it's about what a Volt costs but without the Volt's onboard gas engine for backup. Will it sell?

The upshot: Don't expect too much
Even though electric cars have been coming under fire (so to speak) lately because of issues with the Volt's batteries, I'm sure Ford will find buyers for the Focus Electric. I'm also sure Ford will improve the car significantly and bring its price down as better batteries become available over the next few years. But I think it's unlikely to sell in significant numbers, for a few reasons.

First, the price is steep -- a sizable leap from a Leaf, and in the grand scheme of things not all that far from what a bare-bones entry-level Tesla Model S is expected to cost. And the Model S will be a bigger car with better range. While Tesla can't match the reach of Ford's dealer network, Ford's dealers won't be able to match Tesla's kid-glove customer service.

Second, as more plug-in hybrids become available, the case for a pure EV like the Focus Electric gets somewhat thin. In the spring, Toyota (NYSE: TM) will launch a plug-in version of its super-popular Prius hybrid that is expected to get a rating of 87 MPGe, though Toyota says its electric-only range is only 15 miles. And Honda (NYSE: HMC), which will have an EV version of its popular Fit on sale in the U.S. soon, is also expected to debut a plug-in Accord hybrid late next year, a car that might be a real game changer in this space.

Finally, there are lots of reasons to be skeptical of the idea that mass adoption of EVs is going to happen anytime soon -- and lots of reasons to believe that most green-conscious buyers will continue to choose hybrids over EVs in years to come. But for all that, the Focus Electric is important: It's one more sign that Ford is fully competitive with the leading Japanese automakers and continuing to build strength and expertise with a technology that is almost certain to become even more important and popular in markets around the world in the years to come.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.