Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ford C-Max Energi - Partway to a Pure Electric Future

For numerous reasons, more new alternative fuel vehicles are arriving in the marketplace. I hope it's because we really are tired of (and worried about) burning fossil fuels and wrecking our planet, but some of it is because the manufacturers have to meet stricter U.S. Government standards. And, manufacturers are competing with each other.

Toyota has claimed the green mantle so far with its popular Prius hybrid. In fact, Toyota currently has two thirds of the market. Ford is second--way down at about 12 percent--but it's growing. And a major reason is its new hybrid C-Max models.

In the U.S., you can get the C-Max only as a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid. Designed in and for the European family minivan market, it is available as a normal petrol-powered car there, but here, Ford is creating a new specific model to go head-to-head with the Prius, while still offering the same engine/motor combination in the midsize Fusion sedan.

The plug-in hybrid is a step between an all-electric car, such as the Nissan Leaf, and a normal hybrid. Hybrids use a gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor and a larger battery. The battery, not associated with the 12-volt one used to start the engine or power your radio or air conditioner, generates all of its power by regenerating it whenever you use the brakes. This works well, because hybrids never require plugging in. The system uses computer brainpower to know when to use the engine or the motor--or both.

A pure electric vehicle is great, until you run out of juice. Charging stations are few, and it takes a while, normally hours, to recharge a depleted battery. So, you could end up stuck somewhere, or be forced to limit the use of your car. A plug-in hybrid allows you to charge up for a limited amount and then, when that battery is dry, you automatically switch to hybrid mode and keep going.

Charging is easy, but you have to spend a couple of minutes every night pulling out the cord and connecting your car to your home's power supply. The durable cord coils up onto a portable holder that is stashed neatly under the driver's seat. It's enough of a bother to put it back there that I left it out on the rear floor during the C-Max's stay, only returning it to its hidden home when I gave back the car.

On the left front fender, the round plastic door flips up and over and you plug in what looks like a gas nozzle without the tube into the socket. Then, a circle around the filler glows in a clockwise moving circle. As you charge the car, it displays, in  quarters, what percentage the battery has charged. When it's 100 percent charged, the light goes out. It worked overnight on 110 current; a 220-volt system would presumably be much faster.

The C-Max is a very pleasant car to drive, with responsive steering, a firm, but not harsh ride, and an airy and attractive interior. You sit high, almost like in a crossover SUV. And, the electric charge is effective--until it runs out. But the transition from smooth, silent electric to gas/electric is virtually undetectable.

I commute 30 miles to my office each day, so my real-world experience was that I enjoyed about 21 fuel-free miles, and at about 2/3 of the way there, the car became a regular hybrid. Even then, part of my driving, even on the freeway, was electric, so, the first day, I ended up driving 23.6 miles on pure electricity for a 29.4 mile trip. That's excellent. I verified a similar performance on subsequent days.

Of course, with no chance to charge, my trip home was simply as a hybrid, but even then, I had 13.5 miles in "EV" (electric vehicle) mode.

The ideal case for this car would be to have a shorter commute, with a charger at both ends. Then, perhaps, my commute would use no gas at all.

One weekend day, I ran several errands around town, to the dry cleaner, bank, pet food store, and realized when I pulled into my driveway that I had done it all on electricity alone. And that feels good.

The C-Max combines a 2.0-liter gasoline engine with a motor to get 188 horsepower combined. The engine accounts for 141 of that. The battery is a Lithium-ion type rather than the older style nickel-metal-hydride, which means it's more efficient and can be smaller. As it is, the plug-in model must steal several cubic feet of rear cargo space for the battery. I was still able to open the hatch and slide in a variety of substantial items. 

The C-Max's accommodations look just like today's Fords--lots of angles, nicely finished surfaces, and a a lot of activity combined with a strong, solid feel. You also live with Ford's SYNC system for attaching your phone and devices, including voice activated phone and navigation system commands. There is a learning curve, but after several cars like this, I know how to use the quartered home page screen and to touch the corner to open up that feature, such as Audio, Navigation or Climate.The voice commands are usable for dialing someone while you're underway.

The instrument panel features Ford MyTouch, which gives you the power to change what you see on the right and left sides of the simple round speedometer. The left side displays fuel economy information and gives you insight into which powerplant is working and how hard it's working. There are several different views, but I liked the one with a double rainbow of bars that at a glance told the story. Of course, there are numbers available--the average miles per gallon being the one I cared most about. And the left side automatically gives a report after each trip on how efficiently you drove.

The right side of the instrument panel shows entertainment and other features, but is most fun as the Efficiency Leaves display. Drive gently and electrically and you can add various-sized leaves to the plant. When you're stomping on the gas on the freeway, the leaves fall off and disappear. You begin to feel guilty about "killing" the plant. This strategy may work for some drivers.

How does the EPA calculate fuel economy on cars that sometimes drive without fuel? The agency issues an MPGe number that is an "equivalent" value. So, the numbers for the regular hybrid are 47 for City, Highway, and, naturally, Combined (although I and others have not achieved that in real world driving). The official figures for the Energi are 108 City, 92 Highway, and 100 Combined. That sounds spectacular, but it will vary greatly depending on your driving. Driving only about a third of my miles in pure electric mode, I averaged a still good 49.5 miles per gallon (equivalent) over the test week. If you kept your driving more local and stayed on battery power, then the number would be closer to 100 MPGe.

And that's part of what you need to consider when looking at the C-Max--or any other hybrid, plug-in, or electric car. Hybrids normally are most efficient in town, so if you drive primarily freeway miles, a very efficient standard gasoline car might make more sense, particularly considering the price premium for hybrids. Certain, the Energi is great to drive, but I always was a little disappointed when the three-dimensional representation of a battery morphed before my eyes into the two-dimensional battery-shaped image used by  the hybrid drivetrain. I wanted it to last longer.

Prices for the C-Max Energi start at $33,345; the regular hybrid begins at $25,200. That's a significant difference for what could turn out to be an incremental fuel savings. These numbers are competitive with the Prius, and especially with the Prius v, the more wagon-shaped version in Toyota showrooms. If budget is your top priority, a gas-powered Ford Fiesta subcompact gets up to 41 miles per gallon on the freeway and starts at just $14,000.

If you're interested, in a C-Max, drive it and the Prius back to back. The numbers are close, but the Ford feels more fun to drive and the Energi's pure-electric range is greater than the plug-in Prius. I expect, in the near future, to see an improved electric range in the Energi--and probably a C-Max all-electric vehicle in what is shaping up to be an epic battle for green buyers.

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