As part of its commitment to sell a broader selection of fuel-saving hybrid and electric-powered vehicles, Ford launched the 2013 no-plug C-Max Hybrid and plug-in C-Max Energi hybrid.
The C-Max is an American version of the European five-passenger C-Max that shares its underlying global C platform and many key components with the 2012 Ford Focus.
“C” refers to an international size class, which in the U.S. falls into the compact class. In Europe, the C-Max is called a multipurpose vehicle (MPV), while most Americans will dub it a hatchback.
Even though the Toyota Prius may be the undisputed benchmark of hybrid vehicles, Ford believes the C-Max near twins can chip away at Toyota’s market dominance of hybrid cars. And part of their strategy takes a page out of the Prius’ playbook — design.
“This is our Prius fighter,” said Ford’s then head of global marketing, Jim Farley, during a press announcement prior to their launch. “We did a lot of research that suggested having a distinctive shape that is easily recognizable not only helps Toyota sell more Prius hybrids but gives an image benefit to the rest of its lineup.”
The C-Max Energi began with a slow roll out to dealers, but the pace has picked up recently. “We have more than 700 dealers EV certified nationwide, and we are working quickly to have 900 certified by the end of the summer,” said Amanda Zusman, Ford electrified communications coordinator “We now have EV certified dealers in all 50 states, so Energi products are now sold nationwide.”
Third Generation Hybrid System
C-Max Energi and the less-electrified C-Max Hybrid are the first Ford models to employ the third-generation version of Ford’s hybrid system. They also mark Ford’s first integration of lithium-ion battery technology in a hybrid.
Both C-Max models use a lean-burning Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, scaled down from the 2.5-liter version in the Fusion Hybrid. Without delving into details, an Atkinson-cycle engine gives up a little power output in exchange for improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.
Ford rates the four’s output at 141 horsepower and 129 pounds-feet of torque.
The engine shares motivational tasks with a 118 horsepower AC electric traction motor that generates 177 pounds-feet of torque. When working together, the two power sources deliver 188 system horsepower and an estimated 200 pounds-feet of torque. (Ford doesn’t publish combined torque numbers.)
Ford’s hybrid system is a powersplit architecture design. In a powersplit hybrid, the gasoline engine and electric motor can work together in blended mode or individually to maximize efficiency.
The engine also can operate independently of vehicle speed, providing power to the wheels or charging the batteries via regenerative braking as needed.
The motor alone can deliver enough power to the wheels to whisk the C-Max to a speed of 85 mph, and can work with the engine at higher speeds.
A planetary gear set transmits power output of the engine, motor or the combination of both to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT) that directs the power to the front wheels.
An eCVT is essentially an automatic that replaces a finite set of gears with a planetary gearset. The intent is continuously changing gear ratios that more precisely match engine output with acceleration and fuel economy.
The C-Max Energi exchanges the standard hybrid’s 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion traction battery pack with a much larger, 7.6-kwh battery in the cargo area.
Energi’s lithium-ion batteries are engineered for recharging and extended discharge during all-electric mode, whereas the C-Max Hybrid batteries are designed for shorter surges of electrons.
Using a standard 120-volt outlet, recharging a depleted battery takes seven hours. C-Max Energi buyers would be well served to have a 240-volt recharging unit installed which reduces recharging time to three hours.
There are three selectable modes that allow drivers a choice of when and where to use electric power via a button on the center console. In EV Auto, the default mode, the Energi operates as a pure EV unless more power is requested by the driver. EV Now is all-electric driving until the battery is depleted, then automatically reverts to hybrid mode. EV Later operates as a hybrid and reserves battery-pack for later use.
There’s also an EV+ feature that can keep the vehicle in electric-only mode for longer durations once it learns a driver’s frequent destinations.
C-Max styling is heavily influenced by the Iosis MAX concept unveiled at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show. The design was created by Ford’s European design group and follows the company’s “kinetic” styling themes.
Up front, a large, lower, inverted trapezoid grille and small upper grille are becoming signature design elements of Ford cars. Long flowing headlights establish an athletic look and the short, sculpted hood leads into a sharply raked windshield.
Outer corners of the bumper boast eye-catching fog lights that direct the eye to prominent front wheel arches. Standard 17-inch aluminum wheels and 50-series tires do an effective job of filling the fenders.
The profile of the steeply raked windshield continues with a sweeping, coupe-like roofline that ends with a strong-rising C-pillar, similar to the smaller Fiesta. The shape is not only striking, but plays a major role in the C-Max’s aerodynamic drag coefficient of just .30.
At the business end are an upright tailgate and taillight shapes that mimic the headlights.
The only attribute that distinguishes the Energi from its sibling is the round “filler door” on the left front fender. A four-element LED light ring surrounds the perimeter of the port, lighting up in segments as a visual cue to let the driver know the battery’s charge status upon parking the vehicle and plugging it in.
The Inside Story
Like the Focus, the same Ford kinetic design shapes the distinctive features and surfaces of the Energi’s dashboard, reflecting the modern character of the exterior. Center console controls are inspired by modern mobile phones, and it’s clear the design is targeted at a generation that’s grown up with all manner of mobile infotainment devices.
Thanks to its 5.3-foot-tall height, the cabin has a spacious feel. With a full 41 inches of front-seat headroom and the slightly less 39.4 inches in the rear, it’s roomy even for 6-footers.
Ford has done a commendable job with the C-Max Energi’s interior. The mostly leather cabin with its metal accents give it an upscale ambience. The touch points are soft and every inch of the cabin uses high-quality materials.
Front seats are firm yet comfortable and are infinitely adjustable. Rear seating is more roomy than most cars of this size, accommodating three average-sized adults.
There are some quibbles, however. For instance, when placed in Park, the shifter completely conceals several function switches, including the fuel-door release. Also, climate-control knobs are so small they are difficult to grip.
A more noteworthy downside is the Energi’s cargo space. The battery pack’s placement beneath the floor of the cargo area reduces capacity to 19.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats compared to the hybrid model’s 24.5 cu. ft. Worse, when the rear seats are folded, exposed is the battery pack’s intrusion that creates a shelf behind the rear seats that is a about seven inches higher than the load floor.
The Energi is available in just one well-equipped trim level that’s comparable to the C-Max Hybrid’s SEL trim. Standard are leather-trimmed seats with heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, hands-free calling system, wireless Bluetooth audio for access to music on a smartphone, and three years of free, personalized news, sports and business news.
Also standard is Ford’s MyFord Touch system with SYNC voice commands. This system combines climate, entertainment, telephone and navigation function into an integrated system that responds to voice commands.
Available options include navigation with SYNC, a Sony audio system, a hands-free power lift gate and a hands-free self-parking system.
Too Much Information?
Data geeks will do flips over the information that can be gleaned from a variety of menus. To learn what’s available, the Reader’s Digest-size owner’s manual devotes 23 pages to information displays.
Steering wheel controls allow selecting information from either right or left hand displays on the instrument cluster. Right side is primarily infotainment features while the left screen is a virtual maze of info with categories named Inform, Enlighten, Engage and Empower.
In addition to instant miles per gallon, the left screen can display instant MPGe, miles traveled on electric power alone, total gallons of gasoline used and total kilowatts of electricity used, plus a list way too long to include.
My favorite feature is the clever Brake Coach, for which Ford has filed patents for the algorithm and display function. It coaches the driver in a manner that maximizes the energy returned to the battery pack through regenerative braking – brake early and lightly.
Rounding out the high-tech goodies is the MyFord Mobile app, which can keep owners connected to their Energi. Free for five years, the app can locate charging stations, show the battery pack’s state of charge, preset charging times for off-peak utility hours and a host of other functions. These can all be done via a smart phone or laptop.
On the Road
As a plug-in hybrid, the C-Max Energi is essentially two cars in one – a battery electric vehicle and a hybrid vehicle.
Driving in EV mode, the Energi performs quite well. Thanks to the instant-on torque from the electric motor, acceleration can be rather brisk when needed, but that action can devour electrons rapidly.
It cruises city streets in quiet fashion and easily keeps up with the flow of traffic. Considering the 38-psi inflation pressures for the Michelin Energy Saver P225/50R-17 tires, the ride is quite smooth.
Ford engineers did a remarkable job of eliminating the flutter-rumble that many hybrids make when transitioning from electric mode to gas engine and vice versa. There is no vibration or shimmying when the gas engine kicks in to help the electric motor.
When the battery charge depleted, the hybrid powertrain delivered more than sufficient acceleration to give it enough oomph to quickly merge onto freeways, and passing on two-lane highways was accomplished with ease.
In terms of handling, the Energi was more than competent and was devoid of vices and totally predictable. It cornered well and the electric power steering had good on-center feel and offered decent driver feedback. The all-independent suspension provides a compliant feel that makes it ideal for long trips and daily commuting.
As noted in our review of the standard C-Max Hybrid, there are several class action suits against Ford claiming that owners can’t come close to the 47 mpg EPA rating for city, highway and combined driving.
Since the Energi has the same powertrain and the larger battery boosts weight by 259 pounds, we were curious if Energi’s EPA estimate of 44 mpg city, 41 mpg highway, 43 mpg combined and 100 mpg equivalent (the last number based on it being driven under electric power) was attainable.
During our week with the Energi we clocked 608 miles, 540 of which were tallied on a round trip from Olympia, Washington to Sun River, Oregon. That route included about 220 miles of Interstate with the balance mostly two lane highways including the elevation climb on Mt. Hood Highway.
After our week of testing, the fuel economy in the C-Max Energi came to 45.3 mpg, exceeding the EPA estimate by 2.3 mpg (ed. note: full disclosure, Larry also managed on his first try to get 58 mpg from a 2012 Camry Hybrid, beating its EPA estimate by 17 miles. He is good at maximizing efficiency short of being a take-no-prisoners hypermiler).
As for electric drive range, with a fully charged battery we drove the city streets of Olympia for 19.3 miles before the juice ran out. I think we could have made the Ford claimed 21 mile mark had it not been for a nearly two-mile unavoidable steep hill. The readout display indicated 108.4 MPGe, again better than the EPA estimate.
The C-Max Energi’s direct competitors are the Toyota Prius Liftback Plug-in and Chevrolet Volt.
While the C-Max and Prius function similarly, the Energi has some advantages. For example, the Energi’s battery is larger than the Prius Plug-in’s 4.4 kwh battery, giving Ford the edge of 21 miles versus 15 miles (11 miles according to the EPA) of electric driving range.
Also, the C-Max’s overall system output of 188 horsepower versus the Prius’ 134 horsepower gives C-Max drivers more speed and better drivability.
However, while the Energi can travel farther on electric power, when both are on gasoline power, the Prius delivers better fuel economy with an EPA estimate of 51 city/49 highway and 50 mpg combined versus the Energi’s 44/41/43 mpg.
Standing taller than the Prius, the Energi offers more front and rear headroom. But the Prius’ longer wheelbase provides more front seat legroom. In what could be a deal breaker for some, the Energi’s 19.2 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second-row seats is overshadowed by the Prius Plug-in’s 21.6 cubic feet.
Comparing prices, the base Prius Plug-in starts at $32,795 (including destination charges), nearly $1,000 less than the C-Max Energi before tax credits, and includes features like a standard navigation system.
When federal tax credits are plugged in (pun intended), the Energi’s $3,750 credit versus the Prius’ $2,500 gives the C-Max a $300 edge. If you want all the bells and whistles, the Prius Plug-in Advanced model offers features not found on the Energi like radar-based cruise control, head-up display and adaptive headlamps and can top $40,000.
While the Chevrolet Volt plugs in, its drivetrain is different from the C-Max Energi in that it employs a gasoline engine that powers an electric generator, and the engine only occasionally sends power to the wheels.
The most obvious difference is the Energi seats five to the Volt’s four. And while the Energi offers more head- and legroom than the Volt, the Volt’s cargo space can expand to around 30 usable cubic feet when rear seats are folded with a nearly flat load floor.
Energi trounces the Volt’s 35 mpg city/40 highway/ 37 combined gasoline fuel economy but the Volt can travel 38 miles on electric juice compared to the Energi’s 21 miles. The Energi also posts a 100 MPGe compared to the Volt’s 98 MPGe.
Volt’s base price is $39,995 and qualifies for a federal tax credit of $7,500, lowering the price down to $32,495. That’s $2,200 more than the Energi after the tax credit, but if your round trip commute is in the 35 to 40 mile range, that difference could be offset with the savings in gas-free commuting.
Choosing between these three plug-in cars will require determining what your needs are and how a car fits into your daily life.
Toyota’s Prius Plug-in has the least amount of electric-only driving range but the best gasoline fuel economy. The Chevrolet Volt offers the most EV range of the three and is a must drive if you’re considering a plug-in.
The Ford C-Max Energi is an excellent green-oriented family hauler and commuter vehicle. And, if your commute is around 40 miles and you can plug-in at work, it’s a very pleasing electric car.