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2013 Ford C-Max Energi: The most practical plug-in

Ford's new plug-in hybrid vehicle boasts 620 miles combined range from gas tank and battery pack, and very roomy interior space with tons of headroom.

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Wayne Cunningham
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Wayne Cunningham

Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

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2013 Ford C-Max Energi

The C-Max Energi is the plug-in version of Ford's C-Max Hybrid vehicle, offering 21 miles of pure electric range to complement its gas engine.

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The best innovations in automotive technology involved win-win situations. Using heat from the engine to keep the passengers comfortable was one. The advent of gas-electric hybrid power trains, with their ability to turn braking energy into motive power, was another. The 2013 Ford C-Max Energi represents yet another win-win, augmenting the power from braking energy with electricity from the grid.

The C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid, uses a 7.6-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack to give the vehicle 21 miles of pure electric range in addition to the 599 miles it gets from a full tank of fuel. Despite the extra weight of the battery over that of a standard C-Max Hybrid, the Energi delivers a comfortable ride with well-balanced handling. At the same time, average drivers should get anywhere from 45 to 100 mpg, depending on how frequently they charge the battery.

Ford C-Max Energi boasts 21 mile EV range (pictures)

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During a press event, I drove the C-Max Energi, starting with a fully charged battery pack, from San Francisco north to Point Reyes and back, over winding, hilly roads that did a better job of highlighting the car's handling than its fuel economy.

Three drive modes
In downtown San Francisco, a Ford representative advised me to choose EV Now, one of three drive modes, the other two being Auto EV and EV Later. The EV Now mode keeps the car running as an electric vehicle until the battery is depleted. I was able to floor the accelerator and the engine remained shut down, the electric motor giving its all to move the car. Its all is not that much, however, as the 88-kilowatt electric motor quickly hit its limits as I pointed the C-Max Energi up a hill, and could only give minor acceleration after about 35 mph.

Ford says the top speed on electric power alone is 85 mph, suitable for any U.S. freeway. However, don't expect to go very far at those speeds. Electric range at high speed depletes much more rapidly than at a city pace.

On flat city streets, the C-Max Energi's electric mode propelled it effortlessly along. A light touch on the accelerator moved the car promptly off the line as each traffic light turned green. With its electronic continuously variable transmission, the car drove very easily, and offered smooth acceleration with no gear-change power drops.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

Ford combines a 2-liter engine with an 88-kilowatt motor in the C-Max Energi, for total output of 192 horsepower.

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Once I got it on the freeway heading north across the Golden Gate Bridge, my Ford representative passenger advised pushing the drive mode button again to put the C-Max Energi in EV Later. This mode put the car into normal hybrid drive mode, but also preserved the 10 miles of pure electric range I had left on the battery. The idea behind this mode is that, once I got to another city or other low-speed driving area, I could once again maximize the electric driving. In other words, I could power along the freeway, then go stealth when I reached my target area.

On the way back to San Francisco, I purposefully left it in EV Now mode to see what would happen once the battery depleted. After going up an assortment of hills along the coast, the car went into hybrid mode, or Auto EV, with a message on the instrument cluster saying "EV Now not available."

Most C-Max Energi owners will probably just leave the car in Auto EV mode. EV Now and EV Later seem aimed at the type of person who delights in keeping complicated spreadsheets about fuel economy, with graphs balancing how many miles were garnered from the grid versus how many from a fuel pump, with associated cost-benefit analysis.

That type of driver will appreciate the C-Max Energi's instrument cluster, a new generation of the SmartGauge Ford launched on the Fusion Hybrid. This new SmartGauge combines its variety of energy usage screens with the infotainment screens of MyFord Touch. The energy screens go on the left side of the speedometer, while the infotainment screens appear on the right side. Drivers can choose different configurations for the SmartGauge, from a driving efficiency coach to a meter showing how much energy the car accessories are using. As in the Ford Focus Electric, a braking coach screen pops up to show how efficiently you used the brakes when coming to a stop.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

The instrument cluster shows driver-configurable power usage screens on the left, and infotainment on the right.

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Electronic amenities
The car I drove, in SEL trim, came with Ford's complete MyFord Touch system, leather seats, a power-adjustable driver seat, and the same power hatchback as on the new Ford Escape, which you can open just by holding your foot under the rear bumper. MyFord Touch includes a center touch screen along with at-a-glance information for audio, phone, and navigation on the instrument cluster. Sync remains part of the system, letting you use voice command to make phone calls from a Bluetooth paired phone or request music by name from local digital-audio sources.

The navigation system in MyFord Touch remains a little clunky, but phone and audio offer easily navigable interfaces and many, many features. As with the Focus Electric, Ford adds app-based telematics features for the C-Max Energi's electric side. An app for Android or iPhone shows you the current charge state and lets you set remote charging. It includes a map of charging stations, also showing the car's current range, so you can figure out which charging station the car can make it to. The app and car work with Microsoft's Value Charging system, which monitors electricity rates and tries to get you the cheapest charge. That could be as low as 35 cents for the C-Max Energi's 21 miles of electric range. Compare that with a gallon of gas.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

The charging port is on the front right fender.

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Of course, you only need to stop at a charging station if you want to maximize fuel economy. Ford pairs the 88-kilowatt drive motor with a 2-liter engine, giving the C-Max Energi a total of 192 horsepower. While Ford cites a 100-mpg-equivalent figure from the EPA for the C-Max Energi's electric drive mode, there is also the 43 mpg combined city and highway number to consider when the car is running in standard hybrid mode. Real-world fuel economy will vary greatly depending on the amount of electric driving. Because of the battery weight, the C-Max Energi gets an average of 5 mpg less than the C-Max Hybrid when using its engine.

In many respects, the C-Max Energi and C-Max Hybrid are very similar. Both are somewhat oddly shaped vehicles for the U.S. market, yet offer very practical interior space. The high roof means plenty of headroom, able to fit your above-average basketball player. The seating feels oddly high, although the driver's seat can be lowered substantially. The only compromise in the C-Max Energi comes in the cargo area, where the larger battery pack takes up extra space, eliminating the possibility of a flat load floor with the rear seats folded down.

But even with its extra 260 pounds, the C-Max Energi does not feel like a heavier vehicle. Slewing along mountain roads, it felt remarkably well-balanced, with easy, precision steering. The power steering tends toward the boosted side, never gaining too much heft, but it felt appropriate for this type of vehicle. This type of handling I attribute to the C-Max Energi's European roots, where even economy cars are tuned to offer driver engagement. By contrast, the Toyota Prius Plug-in does feel like a heavier car than the standard Prius.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

The battery pack takes up extra space in the cargo area, eliminating the possibility of a flat load floor with the rear seats down.

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Along with its back-road capabilities, the C-Max Energi's cabin did not suffer from much road noise while cruising down the freeway. Ford has doubled down on building quiet cabins recently, and it shows in this car. Along with the usual sound-deadening hardware, Ford includes a noise-canceling audio system, which uses a microphone in the cabin to listen for road noise, then sends opposing frequencies through the car's audio system to cancel it out.

Prius competitor
Ford definitely set its sights on the Toyota Prius Plug-in, which currently is the most direct competitor for the C-Max Energi. Ford sets the base price of its plug-in hybrid at $32,950, while the Prius Plug-in comes in at a base price of $32,000. At the same time, the Prius Plug-in gets a federal tax credit of $2,500, while the C-Max Energi qualifies for $3,750 because of its larger battery pack.

I came away from driving the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi impressed both with the body style of the vehicle and its associated practicality, and its plug-in hybrid drivetrain. The electric aspects of the drivetrain serve to enhance rather than intrude on its drivability. The ride quality is very nice, although I did find the turning radius a little wide. Ford has some great cabin tech features with Sync and MyFord Touch, although I still find the navigation system somewhat problematic, with an overly complicated interface and some performance issues.

The typical prospective buyer likely will find the big battery bump in the cargo area a make-or-break issue. Most important, though, is to consider whether a plug-in hybrid fits your lifestyle. The C-Max Energi should work beautifully for people with a place to plug it in and a commute to work that's under 30 miles. Under those conditions, the car will get ridiculously good fuel economy.