The world of the gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle is evolving at a far more rapid pace today than it has at any other point in its 12 or so years of existence. The emergence of newer, more compact and more powerful batteries, with quickly rising expectations for fuel economy on the part of the American consumer, as well as regular spikes in gas prices have all worked to create conditions that are excellent for hybrid-car development.
To date, Toyota has been the best at surfing this ever-growing wave of hybrid demand, but in the last year, Ford's plan to offer the most fuel efficient product in every market segment has started to bear fruit. From comparatively frugal turbocharged V6 power in its pickup trucks and utilities, all the way to fully electric vehicles, the current and pending line of Ford vehicles hopes to set economy standards for the rest of the industry. The C-Max, Ford's tall, narrow and capacious ode to European people movers is, perhaps, the most apt at carrying forward the message of the brand's new found fuel-frugalness, with both a hybrid model and this new plug-in hybrid, the C-Max Energi.
The Energi really offers shoppers a blend of the best parts of the C-Max hybrid with traits of a fully electric vehicle. The new C-Max makes use of Ford's 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine, combined with a permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor, powered by a 7.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Total system power maxes out at 195 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque.
The advanced powertrain is also configurable in one of three modes: EV Auto mode lets the C-Max brain choose to use both engine and motor at its own discretion, EV Now mode requires the vehicle to use only the electric motor for as long as the batteries have enough charge, and EV Later uses only the gasoline engine and stores up battery charge. Unlike the C-Max Hybrid, which maxes out its EV mode at 62 miles per hour, the Energi can travel up to 85 mph in pure EV form, while boasting a max gas-free range of 21 miles on a full charge. Topping off the battery pack takes around two and a half hours on a 240-volt charger, while the more common 120-volt affair increases full-charge time to about seven hours. That's still palatable, from the standpoint of a night's sleep or a standard shift at work, we'd argue.
The result of all this is pretty impressive when translated from the spec sheet to the road. Though far from being a rapid thing outright, the Energi delivers a torque-pop from standing starts that makes one disbelieve its modest 129 pound-feet output. Twist from the electric motor is delivered to the front wheels almost instantaneously and makes the slender C-Max a great tool for gap shooting in traffic-laden areas. Our test drive started smack in the middle of downtown San Francisco, heading north out of the city to the famed Golden Gate, so we had ample opportunity to play with the bob-and-weave factor. In fact, using the electric-only mode was well suited to this kind of intra-urban driving, as the full force of the horsepower isn't needed so much as that low-down power.
When joining the traffic past the bridge and onto Highway 101, we found all of Energi's 195 horsepower more useful. The engine doesn't make a happy noise at wide-open throttle – the one-note drone interrupts the otherwise near-silence of the cabin in a way that is neither inspiring nor sporting – but the power offered can easily be harnessed to keep up with a high-speed motorway. A pretty hefty curb weight (3,899 pounds) keeps this C-Max from feeling quick at higher highway speeds, where passing at 70 mph or more can take longer than we'd like. Still, if the benchmark plug-in experience is provided by Toyota's sluggish Prius, the Ford comes off as quick by comparison. Best of all, the transition from the electric to the gasoline system is as smooth a transition as we've yet tested in a hybrid – you'll barely even notice the change, if you aren't specifically looking for it.
That Prius-beating dynamic sense is amped up quite a bit when the driving moves from the freeway to surface streets, and especially on the enthusiastic two-lane roads like those that line the California coast. Keeping all that battery ballast low to the ground has a positive effect on the C-Max's outright handling. The car moves through corners smoothly and confidently, with nicely weighted steering helping a driver draw a true line with the front wheels on fast, sweeping turns. Push the plug-in hybrid and its hefty load of batteries a little harder through curves that are closer to the tight stuff we found in the hills north of San Francisco, and the front end will push wide, tires will struggle for grip, the suspension will start to float and bounce and the feel-free steering will make the whole experience a little scary at the limit. In fact, after quickly proving to ourselves that the Energi would not, in fact, be doing a Mini Cooper impression anytime soon, we settled in and drove it in a manner that's closer to what it was designed to do. That's not a gripe really; the C-Max is a lot more competent for the occasional burst of enthusiast driving than plug-ins like Prius and Volt, but it's no sports car.
Meanwhile, there is some interesting packaging going on with the C-Max, including a mix of passenger and cargo volume that allows the Ford to compete with Toyota's Prius V as well as with the smaller Prius Plug-in. Obviously the Energi and Prius Plug-in make for "natural" competitors because of their drivetrains – there simply aren't enough plug-in hybrid vehicles on the market yet to start effectively breaking them up into size-based sub-segments – but don't forget that Ford was aggressively targeting the larger V when it first let us behind the wheel of the C-Max Hybrid.
The very tall C-Max shape means that headroom, in the front and the rear of the car, is more than ample. Driver and front seat passenger will find more than enough room for feet, knees and elbows, too, while the backseat room feels almost as capacious. The passenger compartment feels every bit as roomy as the larger Prius V.
By comparison then, the C-Max offers quite bit more room for passengers than does the Prius Plug-in, while coming up slightly shy in terms of raw cargo space. The volume measurements bear that out, as does the shape of the Energi's hatch, which is significantly impacted by the large battery pack in the bottom of it. Ford has done its best to add utility around the battery – there's a small space just in front, and with a cargo net that would be big enough to secure a gallon of milk but too small to fit a standard paper grocery bag. But ultimately you're going to lose a significant bit of hauling capacity if you opt for the Energi over one of the other members of the C-Max line or one of the Toyotas.
Part of the value equation for Ford here is that its small-footprint plug-in is nevertheless packed with content. The Prius has proven that folks with luxury-car money are shoppers here, and Ford would like to ensure that downsizing or green-leaning affluent buyers don't feel short-changed by the options list. And, because Ford has brought out so many new products of late, the suite of technology available to the C-Max is impressive. Not only does this small car offer the best of the company's MyFord Touch infotainment system, but it can also be had with a hands-free liftgate, active park assist, full leather and a truly massive glass roof panel, which sadly does not open. Overall, the interior is as comfortable a place to be as Ford's new Fusion, for example, and should make for a highly competitive cross-shop with Toyota and Chevrolet products.
If we limit the competitors to other plug-ins like the Volt and Prius, this C-Max Energi stacks up really nicely. All three vehicles are eligible for different Federal tax incentives, with the most generous going to the Volt ($7,500), second biggest to C-Max ($3,750) and a still-significant $2,500 to the Prius. The net result is a Ford that starts at just under $30k, a Toyota that asks just over $30k and a Chevrolet for about $32,500. In other words, all three cars are really close. We love the greater range and power of the Volt, for sure, but our enthusiasm is tempered by the increased cargo and passenger space of the C-Max. The Ford feels quite a bit more cutting edge than the Prius, though the Toyota does earn back serious brownie points for having a strong track record of reliability and great resale value. We'd still give the C-Max the edge (just) in this trifecta, if it were our money on the line, for having the best price, the best overall fuel economy, the most malleable interior space and the most entertaining handling.
Of course, if it really were our hard-earned cash being thrown down for a monthly payment, we'd still probably opt for the $5,000-cheaper, 47-mpg C-Max with the boring old parallel hybrid powertrain. We'd drop the eye-popping economy figures for some that are merely excellent, and come away with enough money to keep it gassed up for a few years, at least. It's worth saying that unless you can consistently make do with 21-miles of EV only range, it'll take some time to make up the purchase price premium on better fuel economy alone.
The stunning technology that makes the C-Max Energi possible is cheaper than ever before, as well as easier to live with and more powerful overall. But a buyer has still got to pay for the luxury of fewer tailpipe emissions and fewer trips to the gas station. That's okay – we see the forward progress in this segment and are encouraged by it. This plug-in hybrid may not quite be a best-solution-for-everyone vehicle yet, but it is an application that more drivers than ever might find an attractive real-world vehicle. The gasoline-electric hybrid is just getting warmed up, folks.