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.
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.
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.
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.
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2013 Ford C-Max Energi review: The e-vehicle lifestyle, without the range anxiety
For those not ready to jump feet-first into the electric-vehicle pool, the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi offers a toe-dipping experience, a chance to check the water temperature before committing to the deep dive. And after experiencing the C-Max Energi, any reservations about electric cars should be erased.
The C-Max Energi is a variant of Ford's C-Max Hybrid, a funky European-derived car abounding in sheer practicality. In our testing, the C-Max Hybrid achieved consistent low-40s fuel economy, while offering a large amount of versatile interior space.
Due to a larger lithium ion battery pack, the C-Max Energi sacrifices some of its cargo area, but gains the ability to drive under pure electric power for 19 miles, according to Ford.
The EPA estimates the C-Max Energi at an average 38 mpg for combined city and highway driving, and 88 mpg equivalent, the last number based on it being driven under electric power. After a week of testing, my fuel economy in the C-Max Energi came to 58.2 mpg.
And that mileage observation is almost completely useless.
The problem with giving a real-world fuel economy number for a plug-in hybrid is that the number will vary across an exceedingly wide range depending on how frequently the car is plugged in. If you commuted 20 miles to work every day and always started with a full charge, maybe half of your miles would be driven under electric power, and you would be looking at about 70 mpg.
Under the right circumstances, the C-Max Energi can save a lot of gas. Under the wrong circumstances, such as rarely plugging in, you are better off with the C-Max Hybrid.
While driving the C-Max Energi, I conducted a couple of electric range tests. For the first test, I drove gently over mostly flat ground. At the end of 13.8 real-world miles, the car showed I had only used up 12 miles of its electric range.
For the second test, I took it less carefully, and went over one moderate and one fairly steep hill. In this case, I covered 12 real miles, and the car lost 14 miles of electric range.
What impressed me most during the second test was how well the C-Max Energi climbed the 30-percent-plus grade of San Francisco's Divisadero Street under electric power. It gamely responded to the accelerator, using its 117 pound-feet of instant-on electric torque to propel itself ever upward, remaining unfazed by the cruelty of hill starts caused by stop signs at each cross street.
These tests also showed my real-world electric range coming in around 18 miles, barely short of Ford's 19-mile figure.
18 or 21 miles of range may not sound like much, and it isn't, which is why the C-Max Energi also has a 141-horsepower 2-liter gasoline engine. Once I had burned up all its electric range, the car automatically entered hybrid mode, trading off gasoline and electric propulsion to help maximize fuel economy.
Ford gives drivers control over when the car runs on electricity. An EV button toggles the Energi between Auto, EV, and EV Later modes. In EV mode, the car goes up to 85 mph, running until its battery is depleted, when it switches to Auto mode.
The EV Later mode holds the pure electric range remaining on the battery in reserve, letting you decide when to operate the C-Max Energi as an electric vehicle.
For most of my driving, I left the car in Auto mode. It tended to drive as an electric vehicle as long as it had enough juice, although it cranked up its engine under heavy acceleration.
I nicknamed the C-Max Energi "Lurch" after maneuvering out of a parking garage. The instant torque from the electric motor propelled the car harder than a gasoline engine would, and the brakes grabbed quickly, making the C-Max Energi wobble on its suspension. It was not graceful.
A wider-than-typical turning radius also added some backing and filling to my parking garage escapes.
However, the C-Max Energi traversed the roads smoothly, the lurching behavior masked by greater speeds. The electric power steering made turning easy at low speeds, and showed a comfortable inclination to keep the wheels straight on the highway.
A braking coach, displayed on the instrument cluster, made stopping the car into a game. Braking at just the right pace, which involved estimating the distance to stopped cars ahead, returned a percentage score of energy recovered. I cursed at cars that stopped short in front of me for ruining the possibility of a perfect score.
On the open road, the ride felt stiff, probably due to suspension tuning set to compensate for the extra 259 pounds of weight the C-Max Energi carries compared with its non-plug-in sibling. However, it was never uncomfortable, and that stiffness helped its handling in the turns.
The C-Max Energi may primarily be a suburban runabout, but I took it down one of my favorite mountain roads anyway. It did not power through the turns like a sports car, but I kept it at the speed limit easily, not having to slow much when the road twisted.
By this point, the car was operating in hybrid mode, its electric range completely sapped. However, on the long grade down from the mountain the regenerative braking managed to put 2 miles of range back on the battery, which I promptly burned up when the highway flattened out.
The transmission, a continuously variable unit relying on a mysterious interaction between planetary gearsets to mix electric and gasoline power, offered a Low range. When I used it going downhill, it did not seem to engage regeneration, so I rode the brakes, comfortable in the knowledge that instead of burning up discs and pads, the car was charging its battery.
Ford rates the total output for the C-Max Energi at 188 horsepower, also giving torque figures of 129 pound-feet for the engine and 117 pound-feet for the motor. No matter how hard I stood on the accelerator, I could not get the front tires to chirp. But the car took off adequately enough for merging and getting out ahead of traffic. It even climbed hills effortlessly.
The instrument cluster includes all sorts of driver-selectable displays, car data on the left and infotainment features on the right. I've seen them before on other Ford models. With the C-Max Energi, my favorite left-hand display, named Engage by Ford, showed the mix of electric and gasoline power going to the wheels. I liked being able to see how much power came from each source.
Directional-pad-style controls on the steering wheel made it easy for me to choose displays on the left or right. For the infotainment side of the instrument cluster, I could also quickly choose a contact from my paired phone to make a call, or change the audio source.
That right-hand screen mimics some of the functions available on the center LCD, which is all part of the MyFord Touch interface. This interface suffers from performance problems, the touch screen reacting too slowly to input. But underneath its color-coded screens, it has an excellent feature set.
The MyFord Touch interface comes standard, but navigation, a system that I often find frustrating, is optional. Based on an SD card, the maps render slowly on the main touch screen. What must be a weak GPS antenna also leads to moments when the system cannot pinpoint the car, most often when it has been parked in a garage and has to reestablish its positioning.
When the system works, I like its route guidance. It shows good, full-color directions for upcoming turns and reads out the relevant street names. The maps appear in perspective or 2D views, and render buildings in urban centers. Street names show up in an easy-to-read format.
The system also shows traffic conditions, not only for highways and freeways, but also for some surface streets. I found its traffic alerts when I was using route guidance inconsistent. When operating as I would expect, it popped up a dialog box asking if I wanted to avoid traffic ahead on the route. But during a couple of trips, it sent me into the thick of a traffic jam without so much as a warning.
I believe the system did not find what it considered a suitable alternative to the major freeways going in my direction, a problem not restricted to Ford's system. It would be nice if navigation systems let you adjust how aggressively they try to avoid bad traffic. In Los Angeles, for example, locals often use surface streets to stay clear of problem freeways. Navigation systems should be able to mimic that behavior.
Because of the slow touch-screen response, entering destinations can be tedious. Voice command works as an excellent alternative in the C-Max Energi. When entering a street address, it let me say the entire string, instead of asking for street and city separately. Likewise, when using its points-of-interest database, I successfully used voice command to search for the nearest Taco Bell.
The voice command system worked very well for making phone calls, letting me say the name of the person I wanted to call when it was stored in my phone. Similarly, Ford Sync remains the best at fielding music requests through voice command, letting me ask by album, artist, genre, or song name for music stored on USB drives or iOS devices plugged into the car's USB ports. Ford deserves credit for putting two USB ports in the C-Max Energi, which is much appreciated.
Using the touch-screen interface to browse a device's music library was a little clunky, with an extra screen to drill down through. Bluetooth streaming worked well as an audio source, although I could not use voice command or the touch screen to select music. However, Ford shows full track information on the main LCD.
Without Sync AppLink, there is no Pandora or other online music service integration.
I was pleased to find the optional Sony audio system in the C-Max Energi I tested. It qualifies as a very good value among premium car audio systems. It may not have all the power and sublime reproduction of systems found in luxury cars, but it blows away systems in many competitive vehicles.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi does not fit every lifestyle. It helps to have a place to plug it in, whether at home or at the office, preferably both. You can get a 240-volt charging station for the garage, which will bring the battery to full in 2.5 hours, or rely on the 110-volt adapter, good for a full charge in about 7 hours.
With a relatively short commute, you might not use a drop of gasoline all week.
The dimensions of the C-Max Energi make it very suitable as an all-purpose family vehicle, although the loss of cargo area space for the battery pack makes Ford's C-Max Hybrid ultimately more practical. Its driving character is uncomplicated, and technophiles will enjoy fine-tuning the car's performance with the EV button. Its brake coaching will help anyone drive more efficiently.
Among non-luxury carmakers, Ford offers a lot when it comes to tech. By itself, Sync does an excellent job of connecting personal electronics to the car, and making them safe to use while driving. Because the MyFord Touch system comes standard, Sync AppLink is not available in the C-Max Energi.
|Model||2013 Ford C-Max Energi|
|Power train||2-liter 4-cylinder engine with 88-kilowatt electric motor, electronic continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||88 mpg equivalent, 38 mpg combined city and highway average|
|Observed fuel economy||58.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||iPod/iPhone, USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Sony 9-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$35,440|
Ford recently introduced the five-seat C-Max to America; in a nutshell, it’s a Focus platform–based, high-roofed wagon. But whereas the European C-Max is available with conventional drivetrains—and seven seats—the U.S.-spec version follows the Toyota Prius’s script in being all-hybrid, all the time. That makes it Ford’s first dedicated hybrid model for our market, a move the company hopes will give the little vanlet added visibility among environmentally sensitive shoppers.
In early 2013, Ford will start offering Americans a second variant of the C-Max, the plug-in hybrid Energi, which we recently sampled. It uses essentially the same powertrain as the hybrid—an efficient 148-hp, Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled to a 118-hp electric motor through Ford’s own HF35 eCVT Powersplit transaxle. The combined peak output is 188 hp, considerably more than either the Chevrolet Volt or the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, the two other affordable plug-ins currently on the market. (Wall-chargeable versions of the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion will be available soon.)
The key enhancement that turns a C-Max hybrid into an Energi is a much larger lithium-ion battery pack under the floor of the luggage area. With a capacity of 7.6 kWh, the Energi’s battery can propel the car for the first 21 miles of a journey on electric power, according to the EPA tests. When that battery is depleted, the gasoline engine fires up and the Energi runs just like the hybrid, using the combination of the gasoline engine and the electric motor to achieve an EPA combined mpg of 43. City mileage is pegged at 44 mpg, highway at 41.
Creating the Energi required more than more cells, though. There’s also a shorter final drive ratio for improved acceleration, a big deal because, in electric mode, the Energi is down 70 hp. Beefed up cooling for the electric motor and control electronics helps keep those items from overheating during sustained use.
We started our daylong test drive in and around San Francisco with a fully charged battery, although the instrument-panel readout only showed a range of 18 miles. After about 20 minutes of loading and unloading gear with the lights on, that figure fell to 14 miles, but during our short, electron-fueled run, the electric motor’s instant response made it very easy to squirt through city traffic. The steep hills in San Francisco posed no challenge for the Energi’s electric powertrain.
On the highway, however, the 118-hp electric motor was breathing hard. While it could sustain 75 mph—top speed in electric mode is listed as 85 mph—flooring the “gas” pedal above 70 mph gave only basically no indication of acceleration; we had to look at the speedometer needle to verify that we were, in fact, gaining speed.
We killed the battery after 11 miles, at which point the gasoline engine fired up automatically and completely imperceptibly. With all 188 ponies available, the C-Max Energi’s highway behavior becomes somewhat normal, and it fairly quickly topped 90 mph. In doing so, however, the CVT revs the gasoline over 5000 rpm and delivers the familiar constant and somewhat annoying drone.
Like nearly all current-generation Fords, the C-Max is very nice to drive. The body structure is tight and solid; the suspension has a European, well-damped feel; and the steering is accurate and nicely weighted, although without much feel in this case.
Hustling along a back road is fun until you reach seven-tenths—enthusiast-speak for the point where most people start to grow uncomfortable. Go beyond that and approach the car’s limits, and the estimated 3900-pound curb weight, the low-rolling resistance tires, and the high center of gravity make their presence felt. Confidently easing the car into corners isn’t helped by a brake pedal that feels synthetic in the first quarter of its travel—a not-unusual trait in blended regenerative and friction systems such as the one found in the Energi. The CVT isn’t the driver’s friend on winding roads either, as the transmission is always out of step with what you’re asking it to do.
Now, let’s go back to the peaceful reality where 99.9 percent of Energi buyers live. Most of those folks won’t be searching for sports-car roads to conquer in the C-Max Energi. The car is a highly practical urban people mover that packs a huge amount of space within its 173.6-inch length. Thanks to the tall roof and upright seating positions, four six-footers will fit in the C-Max without banging their heads or knees. And even with the load floor raised about eight inches to accommodate the large battery, the Energi has 19 cubic feet of luggage space, rising to 43 with the rear seat folded.
Compared with the Volt and the Prius plug-in—both of which are about three inches longer than the C-Max—the Ford is roomier in the front, and much more spacious in the back. Also, it has almost double the luggage space of the Volt, although a little less than the Prius.
Priced at $29,995 after a $3750 federal electric-car tax credit, the C-Max also delivers good value, undercutting the Volt by some $2500. Of course, the Volt does offer 38 miles of electric-only driving range—almost double the C-Max Energi’s. The Energi’s EPA-estimated 620-mile driving range between gas fill-ups is another point in its favor, though. And compared with the Prius plug-in, the C-Max nearly doubles the Toyota’s 11-mile electric range, costs $265 less, and can exceed the Toyota’s 62-mph pure-electric top speed.
Ford believes that these qualities put the C-max Energi in the sweet spot of the plug-in hybrid market. We’re inclined to agree, although the car’s biggest competitor might just be the regular-ol’ non-plug-in C-Max hybrid, which is cheaper by about four grand when taking the credit into account, has 25 percent more luggage space, and is rated for 47 mpg. Whichever option they choose, though, C-Max buyers shouldn’t be disappointed.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
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; 7.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Length: 173.6 in
Width: 72.0 in Height: 63.8 in
Curb weight (C/D est): 3900 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 9.0 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 16.9 sec
Top speed: 102 mph
EPA city/highway driving (gas): 44/41 mpg
EPA combined driving (gas/electric): 100 MPGe
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Cmax energi 2013
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