To call Dr. Andrew Frank a true believer in plug-in hybrids is an understatement. The UC Davis professor has been studying plug-in hybrid technology since the 1970s, and at a roundtable organized by Ford at the introduction of the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, he was happy to tell anybody willing to listen--and several who weren't--that plug-in hybrids aren't transitioning us to a future of fully electric vehicles. They are the future.
Possibly, and if the future is anything like the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi, then it's looking a bit brighter. "Energi" is Ford-speak for "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle," or PHEV. With a bigger battery and a few other tricks compared to the regular C-Max hybrid, the Energi model's EV-only range is up to 21 miles on a full charge--splitting the difference between the Chevrolet Volt's 35-mile range, and the Toyota Prius Plug-In's 12-mile range--all while undercutting them both on price. But there's more to the C-Max Energi than just fuel economy. This is a plug-in hybrid that's not just thrifty, but pleasant to drive, too.
Model and PriceWe spent the afternoon driving a Blue Candy Metallic 2013 Ford C-Max Energi through San Francisco and places north in Marin County. The Energi comes as one model, with a base price of $33,745, including the $795 destination charge. However, subtract the $3,750 federal incentive for electric vehicles, and you're looking at $29,995, making the C-Max Energi the lowest priced plug-in hybrid currently available. Our particular vehicle was loaded with the highest-end option package, adding navigation, a high-end audio system, active parking--which parks the car on its own--and Ford's hands-free power liftgate, which requires just a sweep of your foot under the rear bumper to open the hatch. Add in the $395 paint, subtract the incentives, regroup, carry the one, and you're looking at $32,885. That's about the same as a much larger and fully loaded non-hybrid Ford Fusion, or a mid-range Ford Edge, but remember the only way those cars can move without gasoline is if they're rolling downhill.
Safety and Key FeaturesLike any modern car, the C-Max Energi comes with airbags a-plenty, stability and traction control, and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment. It has not yet been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nor the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. However the C-Max has aced its European crash tests, and we expect it to do the same here.
The C-Max Energi's plug-in hybrid system allows for up to 21 miles of gasoline-free driving, as long as you have a full charge…and a light foot. You can select between three EV modes: EV Now, EV Later, and the default automatic mode. EV Now overrides the automatic mode and forces the C-Max Energy to run as an EV, up to 85 mph, until its batteries run dry. EV Later does the opposite, forcing the car to run as a standard hybrid, and letting you save your battery life for when you want it. The C-Max Energi also "coaches" you in how to drive efficiently; the braking coach, for example, teaches you how to maximize your regenerative braking to recharge the batteries (hint: brake early and softly).
Family Friendliness and UtilityIf you're looking for a plug-in cargo hauler, the C-Max Energi may not be your best pick. The battery raises the floor in the cargo area several inches compared to the C-Max hybrid. That may not sound like much, but there wasn't a lot of room to begin with, and you're stuck with just enough room for about 8 or so grocery bags, or two small suitcases side by side. The rear seats fold forward for added space, but then you've eliminated the five-passenger capacity, one of the C-Max Energi's primary selling points compared to the four-passenger Chevy Volt. Leave the seatbacks up, and the rear is surprisingly roomy; thanks to the C-Max's high roof there's plenty of headroom, and a six-footer can sit behind another six-footer without much problem. LATCH points were easy enough to reach, although fitting three LATCH boosters in back would be a challenge, to say the least. At least kids can get in and out easily.
Comfort and QualityThe driver and front passenger seats in the C-Max Energi are comfortable, if a bit upright. The view out the expansive front windshield is excellent, and there's good visibility all around. But when you compare the Energi to the Prius Plug-In, it's simply no contest: The Ford trounces the Toyota's interior quality, design, and execution. Where Toyota uses a funny looking little lever to choose a gear, the Ford simply uses a standard PRNDL gear selector. Soft touch surfaces on the Energi's dash and doors impart a sense of quality lacking in the Toyota. On the road, Ford's careful attention to quelling ambient noise shows; there's extra sound deadening in the dash, and it even uses active noise cancellation, piping in sound waves through the stereo's speakers to suppress external sounds. The upshot is that where the Prius is fatiguingly loud, the C-Max is--relatively speaking--limo quiet.
How it DrivesFor the most part, the C-Max Energi performs the same as the standard C-Max, with one major exception: It goes for a long time on just batteries. The car's onboard computer estimated 16 miles of EV range, and that's what we got, enough to get us from the Embarcadero across the Golden Gate Bridge. When the engine kicked on, we noticed it partly because of the added noise, but also because we suddenly had all 195 horsepower available to us. It's a drawback to the Energi; at its heart it's a traditional hybrid, and it needs the gasoline engine to make full power. But the Energi redeemed itself with surprisingly good handling on the winding roads of Marin County. Compared to the Prius Plug-In, the C-Max Energi is an order of magnitude more refined as it goes down the road. For example, while it's true that you can't really hear the Prius engine when it kicks in, that's only because the little four cylinder's song can't break through the ambient noise in the cabin.
SummaryToyota has ruled the roost when it comes to the hybrid game for more than a decade, but that time may be ending. The C-Max Energi is a next-generation car. It's refined, comfortable, roomy, pleasant to drive, and even looks good in a funky European way. It's not without its drawbacks--the cargo space is limited; we wish we had full power in EV-only mode; and we wish it had more EV-only range--but they're compromises we could definitely live with. The bigger question is whether the C-Max Energi can push past the millions-strong headwind already established by the Toyota Prius brand. If Ford can convince eco-concious buyers that its C-Max Energi is more Prius than Prius, we think it can be a hit.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $32,885
EPA City: 108 mpge/44 mpg
EPA Highway: 92 mpge/41 mpg
EPA Combined: 100 mpge/43 mpg
Estimated Range: 21 miles (EV only); 620 miles (manufacturer's rating)
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not yet rated