• BY JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT KERIAN
  • From the March 2013 Issue of Car and Driver

    Boldness is science fiction’s most important plot device. Heroes fearlessly  warp into voids in machines that can travel light-years without refueling, gallantly confronting new challenges and achieving ones once unimaginable (until somebody in Hollywood imagines it). There’s never any hesitation when you have total confidence in the technology. And the movie-franchise potential.

    But that’s Star Trek, and those guys don’t make the lease payments on their own starships. This is the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid people-mover, an urban shuttlecraft that asks you to be bold with your family’s transportation needs and to do so entirely at your own considerable expense.

    Do not be misled by the recharging port on the left-front fender or the strange name.

    The $33,745 Energi joins an exclusive list of pioneering hatchback plug-in hybrids, including the $32,795 Toyota Prius plug-in and the $39,995 Chevrolet Volt, with muscled-up battery packs and extension cords for wall charging. These three cars exist for the middling-bold of eco-buyers, or those who want all the benefits and public palaver that comes with courageously whispering along in an electric vehicle—except when they don’t. For then, after the juice runs out, the Energi and its competitors switch over to old-fashioned petroleum power, which, as dirty as it is, always trumps foot power.

    The Energi carries its heart in its tail, where a 7.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack overflows what could have been the spare-tire well if there were a spare tire. It’s a big leap up in capacity and cost from the 1.4-kWh battery used in its sister ship, the regular $25,995 C-Max hybrid. The larger battery is there to give the Energi something the C-Max hybrid lacks: a claimed 20 miles or so of electric-only driving. After that, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder internal combustion engine that is also being lugged along awakens, and the car operates essentially the same as any other hybrid does.

    Read the Window Sticker Carefully

    The EPA rates the C-Max Energi at 44 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, or 43 combined. But it rates the $7750-cheaper C-Max hybrid at 47 mpg combined. We got a real-world 33 mpg in the former, 32 in the latter. Those are big differences, but driven in short bursts in the city, it’s conceivable that something closer to the EPA ratings is achievable in both cars.
    Confused? EPA fuel-economy ratings always have been troublesome to those who don’t understand their context, but they’ve grown even murkier as manufacturers have developed hybrid and electric drivetrains. The EPA ratings are measured in a lab on a chassis dyno using five highly defined driving cycles to facilitate accurate vehicle-to-vehicle mileage comparisons. Auto companies are obliged by law to use the EPA ratings when they advertise fuel economy. Naturally, manufacturers optimize their vehicles to do well on the lab tests. Never mind that real-world-driving conditions vary, and only rarely do cars operate indoors.
    In the case of the two C-Maxes’ divergent EPA ratings, many factors contribute. Yes, the Energi has a larger battery pack, but it is also 259 pounds heavier, and this changes its test-weight class and resulting label. Ford says the heavier battery led to more-aggressive throttle mapping to minimize differences in the way the two C-Maxes accelerate off the line.
    We could have achieved better fuel economy if we had used the Energi as a true plug-in, i.e., on short city runs supplemented by frequent recharging. But we drove it the way we think you would. The Energi’s additional cost and complexity only make sense if you use it exactly as intended. Most people don’t drive their cars the way the EPA does, however, which is why Ford, like Hyundai and Kia, is getting sued over fuel-economy claims. Remember, the window sticker says: “Your actual mileage will vary . . .”

    The Energi can be charged fully in two and a half  hours using a 240-volt charger, or in seven hours using a standard 120-volt household outlet. Like any hybrid, it also supplements its electric range with regenerative braking. Besides the battery and the power electronics, not much else is changed in a C-Max hybrid to produce an Energi. Between the front wheels lies the same DOHC 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder that Ford rates at 141 horsepower, abetted by a 118-hp AC motor. Mash up the electric motor’s output with that of the engine through the Energi’s continuously variable transmission and you get a net 188 horsepower, or the same as in the C-Max and Fusion hybrids.

    The Energi also uses the same Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as the standard C-Max.

    Along with the Fusion Energi, the front-drive, five-seat C-Max Energi is the most technologically advanced production vehicle Ford builds. But the C-Max never does anything more exciting than send out an instant message when its battery is charged. Driving it is like being the night watchman at a nuclear power plant. It’s best to just sit back and leave it in automatic mode and let the Energi almost imperceptibly dance between electric drive, gas power, and whatever combination the computer thinks best. Since there’s no tachometer, the driver must rely on audible cues to know when the engine is even running. At speed, the subdued wind noise and the substantial tire noise are enough to drown out any song sung by the four-cylinder.

    The C-Max Energi weighs in at a thick 3898 pounds. That’s 259 pounds or almost a full Rob Gronkowski more than the C-Max hybrid. The Energi is nearly 1000 pounds heavier than the lightest four-door Focus, with which it shares its basic structure, 104.3-inch wheelbase, suspension, and Wayne, Michigan, assembly plant.

    In the driver-selectable all-electric mode, there’s a satisfying first jolt of torque off the line since the full 117 pound-feet is available immediately. But that’s over in an instant. Like virtually every electric motor, this one works in near silence and with the smoothness of Greek yogurt. But 117 pound-feet can only do so much with the Energi’s substantial mass. In pure-electric mode, the Energi accelerates as if it is eroding. It takes an unbearable 16.1 seconds to run from zero to 60, and the quarter-mile lasts an agonizing 20.2 seconds, yielding 65 mph. It seems like the Rock of Gibraltar could weather down to a pebble while you’re goosing the Energi up to freeway speeds.

    Specifications >

    VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon

    PRICE AS TESTED: $35,440 (base price: $33,745)

    ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter inline-4, 141 hp, 129 lb-ft; permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor, 118-hp, 117-lb-ft; combined power rating, 188 hp; 1.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack

    Displacement: 122 cu in, 1999 cc
    Power: 141 hp @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 129 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm

    TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic

    DIMENSIONS:
    Wheelbase: 104.3 in
    Length: 173.6 in
    Width: 72.0 in Height: 63.8 in
    Curb weight: 3898 lb

    C/D TEST RESULTS (Hybrid/Electric):
    Zero to 60 mph: 7.9/16.1 sec
    Zero to 100 mph: 21.3/– sec
    Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 8.0/16.4 sec
    Top gear, 30–50 mph: 4.4/7.0 sec
    Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.2/14.1 sec
    Standing ¼-mile: 16.1 sec @ 88 mph/20.2 sec @ 65 mph
    Top speed (governor limited): 104/85 mph
    Braking, 70–0 mph: 187 ft
    Roadholding, 200-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.75 g

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway: 44/41 mpg
    C/D observed: 33 mpg†
    †Not counting battery-charging electricity.
    *Stability-control-inhibited.

    TEST NOTES: Low-grip tires don’t do much on the skidpad, and keeping the undefeatable stability control at bay requires attention. Still, the C-Max is stable and provides fear-free understeer.

    Continued…

  • BY JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT KERIAN
  • Let the engine help and the trip to 60 mph drops to a more acceptable 7.9 seconds and the quarter-mile prances by in 16.1 seconds at 88 mph. It’s reasonable, but it’s a soft-legged sprint, accompanied by the drone typical of CVT-equipped vehicles. And the ride is stiff, exacerbated by the 38-psi inflation pressure specified for the piously named P225/50R-17 Michelin Energy Saver A/S tires.

    Still, around town in the stop-and-go crawl of urban traffic, the Energi moves fleetly enough on electricity. The steering is decently quick and the brakes feel fine. The Jetsons–spec whirr from the regenerative braking system at least hints that something special is going on. At first there’s even a playful element about the computerized regenerative-braking coach, which judges the driver’s ability to recover energy during every full stop and displays it on the dashboard as a percentage of potential. But the novelty wears off as you discover that your natural braking style produces consistent, sub-60-percent energy-recovery stops. Eventually it becomes annoying as the car frequently informs you that regenerative braking is yet one more thing in your life at which you are tragically inadequate.

    While the C-Max is available either as a hybrid or plug-in hybrid in North America, it’s offered in other markets with a conventional drivetrain. The conversion into a hybrid has ragged edges, most obviously in the rear cargo area where the Energi’s larger battery pack sticks up higher, resulting in 19 cubic feet of cargo space versus the C-Max hybrid’s 25. A Focus hatchback, on the other hand, offers 24 cubic feet of space without the huge price or teetering body. Even with the second-row seat down, the C-Max Energi’s 43 cubic feet of space can’t match the Focus hatch’s 45.

    There’s a lot of Focus in the C-Max’s dash design and driver interface. You ride higher than in the Focus and on seats that seem thinner, less contoured, and lacking in thigh support. Plus, the standard leather-trimmed upholstery is so brutally processed that it feels like a shower curtain.

    For someone with a prescribed commute and charging opportunities on either end—say the Chairman of the Environmental Studies department at UC Santa Barbara—the C-Max Energi might almost make some sense. That professor could go months without buying gas, operating almost indefinitely on electricity alone. That is, unless his commute includes the 7.8-mile trip from Santa Barbara up to the 2224-foot-elevation San Marcos Pass. Just four miles into our trip up that road on a full charge, the Energi was begging off electric mode and engaging the engine. According to the Energi’s display, at the top of the pass the battery was completely spent despite the gas engine’s help, showing zero range left in reserve. The Energi reported that six miles of electric range was recovered on the trip back down the hill.

    Throw in a long trip to, say, Palo Alto for the Lichen Sustainability Conference at Stanford, and the fuel-economy numbers are only just okay. After several trips across Southern California racking up more than 400 miles, we achieved 33 mpg overall, with about 100 of those miles in all-electric mode. The point is that the EPA-rated, lab-generated 43 mpg combined and the much higher MPGe figures are desperately contextual [see above]. Two-ton vehicles can only be so fuel efficient no matter what’s churning under their hoods and tails.

    At $7750 more than the C-Max hybrid, and almost twice the $16,995 that Ford asks for the cheapest Focus four-door, the Energi isn’t just asking you to be bold. It’s asking you to be blind to its shortcomings and minimal gains while being a little reckless with your money. For drivers with longer freeway commutes, a conventional Focus may be at least as economical. And the base price doesn’t include a home charging station and its installation or account for the $3751 federal tax credit or any state bribes that Energi buyers are eligible to receive.

    In science fiction this car may make sense. But in reality, the brave new world is still on back order.

    Specifications >

    VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon

    PRICE AS TESTED: $35,440 (base price: $33,745)

    ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter inline-4, 141 hp, 129 lb-ft; permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor, 118-hp, 117-lb-ft; combined power rating, 188 hp; 1.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack

    Displacement: 122 cu in, 1999 cc
    Power: 141 hp @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 129 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm

    TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic

    DIMENSIONS:
    Wheelbase: 104.3 in
    Length: 173.6 in
    Width: 72.0 in Height: 63.8 in
    Curb weight: 3898 lb

    C/D TEST RESULTS (Hybrid/Electric):
    Zero to 60 mph: 7.9/16.1 sec
    Zero to 100 mph: 21.3/– sec
    Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 8.0/16.4 sec
    Top gear, 30–50 mph: 4.4/7.0 sec
    Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.2/14.1 sec
    Standing ¼-mile: 16.1 sec @ 88 mph/20.2 sec @ 65 mph
    Top speed (governor limited): 104/85 mph
    Braking, 70–0 mph: 187 ft
    Roadholding, 200-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.75 g

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway: 44/41 mpg
    C/D observed: 33 mpg†
    †Not counting battery-charging electricity.
    *Stability-control-inhibited.

    TEST NOTES: Low-grip tires don’t do much on the skidpad, and keeping the undefeatable stability control at bay requires attention. Still, the C-Max is stable and provides fear-free understeer.

    View Photo Gallery

    By JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN

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