Editor's note: Ford revised its EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2014 Ford C-Max Energi. The new numbers show an electric range of 19 miles, an MPG equivalent average of 88, and a gasoline MPG average of 38. This review has been updated to reflect the new numbers.
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|