Volt Wins Car of the Year in Detroit, Electric Focus Debuts in Las Vegas

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(Photo: GM)

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) The hybrid-electric Chevy Volt beat out its all-electric rival, the Nissan Leaf, and the other finalist the Hyundai Sonata to win 2011 North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The Chevy Volt has been racking up honors—it earned "car of the year" awards from Motor Trend, Automobile Magazine and the Detroit Free Press—despite barely being on the market. Chevrolet has sold just 326 Volts since cars began shipping to dealers last month, though reported demand remains high.

Truck of the year honors went to the Ford Explorer, the third consecutive win for Ford in that category.  To be eligible for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards a vehicle must be all new, or "substantially changed" from the previous model. A jury of 49 veteran automotive journalists selects the winners.

Interest in electric vehicles even spread to Las Vegas where Ford took center stage at the Consumer Electronics Show to unveil their competitor to the Leaf and Volt: the new all-electric Ford Focus, available later this year, Ford says.

The Electric Focus is more like the Nissan Leaf than the Volt: it would be zero emissions (while driving that is, unless the the charging station is solar powered), all battery powered and charge through 240 volt charging stations in about three to four hours, according the the company. They wouldn't say how many miles it will get per charge, a key statistic in determining its functionality for potential drivers, but the top speed will be a swift 84 mph.

The Nissan Leaf by, comparison, gets an official 73 miles per charge according to the Environmental Protection Agency with a fuel efficiency of 99 miles per gallon equivalency.

Possibly the best news for EVs included in the Ford announcements are

their partnerships with other major corporations, showing a broadening investment and profit expectation for EV infrastructure in the non-auto business environment. Best Buy is planning to sell Ford wall mounted charging stations, and their Geek Squad—normally support for fixing your computer—will install it for you and even help you navigate any electrical modifications you might need. Microsoft is partnering with Ford to offer smart grid charging technology that would let users charge their cars at the cheapest utility rates. Rolling out the Electric Focus at the CES and partnering with electronics companies throws a more techie image on the car than Chevy is pushing for the hybrid Volt with the slogan, "It's more car than electric."

Ford,  however, seems to be embracing the CES's gadget gaga crowd  as a branding opportunity. Ford will offer several mobile phone apps to help you track the charge of your electric car, change charge settings or find stations, or find your car if you lent it to the kids last night and they haven't come back yet.  (The Department of Energy also offers a handy map for that here.)

It's not all around the Focus. Ford has plans for a suite of five plug-in powered vehicles to be unveiled in the coming months and roll out by 2013. Ford tells The Detroit Bureau Online that they plan to launch a plug-in hybrid-electric minivan the C-Max Energi, that would use a "power-split drive," which would allow it to operate on pure battery power even at highway speeds until the battery runs out.