Will Ford Leave GM and Nissan in Its Dust?

Ford Motors (NYSE:F) has announced that it will start shipping its first electric passenger car to dealers this weekend. People familiar with the matter said that approximately 350 Focus Electric cars will be sent to 67 dealers in California, New Jersey, and New York over the next couple weeks. On Friday, manufacturing executives signed off on the decision.

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Even though the plans are said to still be confidential, each dealer is expected to receive six cars, one of which will be a demonstration model. Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in April that he would not not consider it a failure if Ford sold fewer than 5,000 Focus EVs in the first year. By 2020, Ford expects hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars to represent up to 25 percent of its sales. The automobile maker asserts that hybrids will account for the majority.

The Focus EV will compete in the electric vehicle market with Nissan’s Leaf and General Motor’s (NYSE:GM) Chevrolet Volt. In the first four month of 2012, Nissan sold 2,103 Leaf electric cars, while GM sold 5,377 Volts. Both the Leaf and the Chevy Volt were launched in late 2010.

Automakers have managed to improve the fuel efficiency of their traditional gas-powered engines more quickly than expected. However, electric cars have been slow to gain momentum due to their high cost and consumer concern over their range. In order to tackle future challenges, Ford modified its Focus platform to build electric and gas-powered versions on the same assembly line. This move is a considerable difference from the moves by both Nissan and GM for the Leaf and Volt platforms.

Meanwhile at General Motors, the head of GM unit Opel is under pressure by the automaker to end heavy losses at the GM’s German arm by shifting production to countries with lower labor costs. On Monday, Opel Chief Executive Karl-Friedrich Stracke said that no decision had been made on their plant’s future beyond 2014.

The decision to close the Bochum plant would impact Europe’s carmakers as they try to restructure in response to more than four years of declines in demand and profit. The plant employs close to 3,100 people and has a production capacity of around 160,000 cars a year. GM intends to halt production of the Astra at Opel’s main plant in Ruesselsheim, Germany. GM is rumored to be resuming its efforts to sell Opel, and is said to have lost roughly $747 million on its European operations last year.

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