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A plug-in hybrid that turns out to be quite functional, for some.
July 8, 2013
By: Nick Saporito

Today, just about every automaker has some version of a plug-in vehicle. The variants of hybrid, electric and plug-in propulsion systems are vast and often confusing. Ford has taken a more typical approach to its first round of plug-in vehicles by modifying its existing (and proven) hybrid system to adapt to a larger battery pack and plug-in capability with the C-Max Energi.

While the C-Max may be new to the United States, it has been on the market for several years in Europe. As part of the One Ford global strategy, the company brought the crossover stateside as a hybrid-only vehicle, much like the strategy behind the Toyota Prius.

C-Max is based on Ford’s compact architecture that also underpins the Focus and Escape and it shows. All three vehicles have certain common traits, including very similar design themes inside and out, with adaptations to each vehicle’s size and purpose. The commonality is not a bad thing, because all three are very attractive but in the case of the C-Max, functionality is equally high.

Considering its European roots, it isn’t surprising that the C-Max has the look of a European MPV since that’s what it is. With that minivan-like shape comes increased functionality and a ride height that is near perfect. Americans will find the C-Max sits just high enough to give passengers that commanding crossover feel, however seating egress is at a level where people of average height will be able to just slide in and out – very functional.

The C-Max design also means visibility is a huge plus for this crossover. The windshield is massive with a steep rake. After buyers adjust to its “spaceship” feel, they’ll find that they can see anything and everything from the front and sides of the vehicle.

Inside, the similarities to the Focus and Escape are very obvious. The modern, techno theme of their interiors is alive and well in the C-Max, with lots of lines and angles. The design works well despite teetering on the brink of being busy.

Each of C-Max’s five seating positions is comfortable and spacious. Its high roofline means headroom is never a problem and the interior design has managed to make the vehicle’s small width feel larger because of slim center console and door panel designs.

Material quality is also very acceptable and keeps with the functional theme. The navigation display is very upright and forward, making it an ergonomic win for drivers.

There are some ergonomic pitfalls inside, however. Like in the Escape, the gear selector blocks a good portion of the HVAC controls, which can be a bit annoying, especially when in park. The amount of steering wheel buttons is overwhelming and the “tacked on” buttons are hard to use.

Of course, the story with the Energi is what resides under the hood and under the cargo bay. A 2.0-liter Aktinson-cycle four-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable transmission powers Energi, generating 141 horsepower and 129 foot-pounds of torque, while the electric motor attached to it generates another 47 horsepower for a total engine output of 188 horsepower.

The combined power makes the C-Max a surprisingly fun vehicle to drive. During 90 percent of daily driving, the C-Max never feels scarce on power and only feels a bit lethargic during highway passing maneuvers. The power level would be acceptable for a non-hybrid vehicle, so adding the fact that the C-Max is supposed to save fuel, power level is a non-issue here.

As with all hybrid vehicles, C-Max operates in various modes. With a decent charge, it operates in EV only mode, meaning it runs strictly off of the battery back and electric motor. This mode has certain operating parameters such as a top speed of 85 mph and if those parameters are breached, the C-Max will enter a different drive mode.

Once the battery pack is depleted, the C-Max goes into hybrid mode, the mode the normal C-Max is in all the time. At this point, the C-Max Energi will do whatever is most economical for the current set of conditions. For example, it may stay in EV mode from a stoplight to 30 mph, then start the gas engine to assist.

Under extreme conditions—such as highway passing—the C-Max will go into gas-only mode, when only the gas engine turns the front axle.

Ford has undoubtedly programmed a massive algorithm to control the powertrain of this vehicle, because it is very difficult to identify operating patterns under specific conditions, but there’s never a deficit of information about what goes on with this complex vehicle.

The C-Max has two 4.2-inch LCD screens in the gauge cluster that divulge an avalanche of vehicle information. There are literally dozens of different displays that show the driver which mode the C-Max is in, that mode’s limits and of course, fuel economy information.

The information overload almost makes one feel like one is driving a video game but for hybrid enthusiasts, this information is golden. We’d recommend all C-Max buyers take several hours to familiarize themselves with all of the information and figure out which display suits them best.

Thankfully, the screens are the only indication to the untrained eye that a whole lot is going on under the hood. Transitions between EV and hybrid mode are nearly seamless, with the engine only being heard if it starts at a stoplight or in some other stationary position.

Most buyers are going to care more about the fuel economy of their C-Max then which mode it is in. Ford has plenty of information displays for fuel economy information but real-world results are what ultimately matter.

During our time with the Energi, we routinely saw 18 to 19 EV miles on the gauge when we first started it in the morning after a night of charging (which took 8-9 hours on a 110volt charger), however we ended up getting more EV miles out of it than that. The EPA says buyers will typically get 21 EV miles out of the C-Max Energi; we saw as high as 30 EV miles during our time with it.

It is worth noting that our 30 EV miles came after the car had depleted enough battery that it was switching between EV and hybrid modes regularly. On one particular trip, we drove 64 miles and used only 1.3 gallons of fuel.

After a week of driving in a variety of conditions, including cold weather, our overall average fuel economy was 93.3 mpg-e, according to the C-Max’s display, which isn’t too far from the EPA’s 108 mpg-e city and 92 mpg-e highway ratings.

From a handling perspective, the C-Max has a decent ride. Thanks to the heavy lithium ion battery pack in the back, the C-Max feels very planted on the road and is devoid of the body roll one would expect from this kind of vehicle.

Brake feel and steering effort are also very good and moderate, however the electric steering feel is a bit light for our tastes.

Overall, the C-Max Energi is an impressive plug-in hybrid. For those with a short commute who could get away with using little to no gas every day, the Energi makes a lot of sense – even with the $34,000 base price. Those with longer commutes will likely find the regular, cheaper hybrid version to be a more sensible option.

2013 C-Max Energi Specifications
Base Price$34,140 (including destination)
Price As Tested$37,020 (excludes government incentives)
Assembly LocationWayne, Michigan
Powertrain2.0-liter Atkinson cycle DOHC 4-cylinder
Permanent magnet AC synchronous motor
7.6 kWh Lithium-ion battery pack
Charge Time2.5 hours (240v) / 7 hours (120v)
Driving Range620 miles
Top Electric Speed85 mph
EPA Ratings108 mpg-e city / 92 mpg-e highway
Observed Fuel Economy93.3 mpg-e (mixed conditions)

FIN Moderator
2,106 Posts
Great review, nsap!

It's amazing how premium Ford's c-segment cars are today compared to the competition..... I wouldn't mind owning a C-Max.

306 Posts
Almost an impartial and informative test by Mr Snowbank. It makes my skin crawl when a Government Motors sycophant tests a Ford. Must grate on him how superior the blue oval is over the bailed out Obama motor brands. But I can find some glee in that.

220 Posts
My biggest gripe with the Energi in particular is the battery eats up most of the cargo capacity. If there were no difference between it and the "regular" C-Max, it would be a more compelling buy.
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