Editor's note: Estimated mileage ratings have been lowered to reflect a June 2014 Ford audit of this car's stated mileage.
Ford's hybrid strategy is evolving, with the company committed to offering consumers a variety of powertrains for some of its mainstream models. For 2013 Ford has added a new trim to the relatively new C-Max hybrid lineup: a plug-in hybrid option, or "Energi" model in Ford-speak.
Like the regular 2013 Ford C-Max, the Energi is a fun-to-drive hybrid that delivers comfort, style and efficiency, but it compromises cargo capacity and has an electric range that's too limited for the plug-in's additional cost.
The Energi can be driven roughly 19 miles on electric power alone. When the battery reaches a certain level of depletion, the gasoline engine kicks in to keep the car going. Recharging the Energi takes about 2½ hours on a 240-volt level 2 EV charger or up to seven hours on a standard 120-volt household power outlet.
If that kind of operation sounds familiar, it's because two other vehicles on the market work in similar ways: the Toyota Prius Plug-in and the Chevrolet Volt. (It's just the regular Prius that comes as a plug-in; the larger Prius v does not.) In our week with the C-Max Energi, we found it to be the best-driving car of the trio, but we question whether the plug-in feature's additional cost is worth the benefit. To see the C-Max Energi compared side-by-side with its competitors, click here.
Which Kind of C-Max Am I Looking At?
Outwardly, the Energi is much the same as the basic C-Max. Only the charge port on the left front fender and the reduced cargo room allude to this being anything but a normal C-Max. The C-Max Energi replaces the normal hybrid's 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack with a much larger, 7.6-kwh battery in the cargo area, which does indeed cut into the rear storage area. It also eliminates the regular C-Max's flat floor when the rear seats are folded. The additional 250 pounds that came with the C-Max's conversion to a plug-in don't, however, affect the car's excellent driving dynamics too much, aside from some rather clunky braking. A four-element LED light ring surrounds the charge port, lighting up in segments as a visual cue to let the driver know the battery's charge status upon parking the vehicle and plugging it in. It's a unique element, but a more useful one might have been a warning inside the car that the charging-port door is open before driving off. Leaving it open is fairly easy to do after unplugging the car.
We've already covered the regular C-Max (see the review), and pretty much all the opinions on that model hold true for the Energi model. Driving any C-Max is a pleasure. Its fit and finish, refinement and interior material quality put it considerably above hybrid models from Toyota and Honda. Using the C-Max, however, is less pleasant, due to design issues for interior controls that simply must be addressed. For instance, when placed in Park, the shifter completely obscures half the car's buttons, including the fuel-door release switch. The climate-control knobs are bizarre little nubs that are difficult to grip with bare fingers and impossible with gloves. MyFord Touch and the latest Sync system operate without issue maybe two requests out of three. The C-Max looks good inside; it just doesn't work as well as it should.
Does It Do What It Claims?
An interesting variety of weather conditions allowed us to see how temperature and use of the climate system affect the car's electric range. Driving in conditions ranging from 20 degrees in the snow to 60 degrees in the rain, we drew some eye-opening conclusions. As with all vehicles, mileage may vary, but when it comes to EV range on the C-Max Energi, it's less theory and more reality. The EV range estimator was erratic during our week of testing, ranging from 17 miles of predicted EV range at full charge down to just 10 miles. Deciding factors seemed to be twofold: ambient temperature and climate-control use. Just turning on the automatic climate control system — even with the car already warmed up — instantly drops estimated EV range by 4 miles. As expected, colder mornings saw lower EV range estimates than warmer mornings. But whatever the weather, only once did we see an estimated EV range approaching the EPA-rated 19 miles, demonstrating just how easily ambient temperatures affect the C-Max Energi and its air-cooled battery pack.
Birds of a Feather
Given the C-Max Energi's EV capabilities, comparisons are natural between the C-Max Energi and the Chevrolet Volt, which also uses a range-extending gasoline engine once its onboard electric battery has been depleted. Unlike the Volt — which provides full electric acceleration, never rarely intentionally using its gas engine until the battery pack is depleted — the C-Max Energi can often uses its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in conjunction with the electric motor for the majority of its propulsion. To make the most of that flexibility, the Energi has a selector button that lets the driver choose among three operating modes: Auto, EV and Battery Saving. Auto allows the car to determine when to use the engine — either for extra oomph, like when merging onto a highway, or when electrical needs get too great, like blasting the air conditioning on a hot day. EV mode keeps the car in electric mode — most of the time. The engine is not truly defeatable, so it will still switch on if it absolutely thinks it needs to. In Battery Saving mode, the engine will be the primary power source for propulsion and electrical needs, saving the battery charge for later use.
As an EV, the Energi works quite well. It's torquey, quiet and quick about town. In some ways, though, it's also limited as an actual EV. Where the Volt can go through a typical day's use before needing a charge, the C-Max Energi's much smaller battery (it's less than half the size of the Volt's) lasts half as long. While the range estimator varies widely depending on conditions and use, it is fairly accurate. If it says 14 miles, so long as you drive carefully and slowly, the car will achieve 14 miles. Once the battery is depleted, the C-Max then achieved roughly 37-38 mpg using its gasoline engine – pretty much what the revised ratings from Ford and the EPA put it at. Originally the C-Max was rated at 47 mpg combined, which then got revised to 43 mpg after Ford received countless complaints from customers who, tried as they might, could not achieve anywhere close to that number. A second revision brought that estimated number down to 38 mpg, which is what the C-Max stands at now. What the C-Max Energi did not do was achieve anywhere near the 47 mpg average that the basic C-Max is rated: Despite very careful driving and maximum use of EV mode, the on-board computer typically registered trips at 37-38 mpg, occasionally rising to 41 mpg in milder weather when the climate control was switched off.
The C-Max has not yet been crash-tested. Standard safety features include seven airbags, plus the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Ford's standard MyKey system allows parents to limit vehicle speed, stereo volume and other features when their teens drive. Click here for a full list of safety features or here for our evaluation of child-safety seat accommodations.
Is It Worth the Money?
The marginal benefit of 10-20 real-world miles off electricity makes us doubt that the Energi model is worth its $7,750 premium over the basic C-Max. The Energi starts at $33,745, and our fully loaded tester came to $36,635, including a $795 destination charge. It comes in just one trim level: SEL, which includes a power driver's seat, heated leather upholstery, MyFord Touch and keyless access with push-button start. A power liftgate with a foot-activated sensor, a backup camera, front and rear parking sensors, an automated parking feature, Sony audio and a navigation system are available in an optional popular equipment package. A moonroof is a stand-alone option on the Energi.
What's This Car's Competition?
Even maxed out, the Energi is still $3,300 less than an entry-level Chevrolet Volt, but comparing those two cars is, frankly, difficult to do. The Volt qualifies for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, while the Energi's tax credit tops out at $3,750. This knocks the Volt's price down to $32,495, which is still more than the Energi's credit-adjusted price of $29,995, but there are caveats to these credits. They're not rebates, but they are income tax deductions, so how much you get depends on your income level. (If you lease instead of buy, the leasing company gets this benefit, which translates to lower monthly payments.)
From a feature standpoint, each car has its own benefits. The C-Max seats five to the Volt's four, has far better outward visibility and greater overall range, and is less expensive with more standard equipment. It's also more sprightly and entertaining to drive and runs on regular gasoline. The Volt requires premium, but has a big edge when it comes to electric operating range and cargo room, and it frankly just feels like it was designed to be an electric car from the start. The C-Max Energi's electric drive feels less sorted out.
While Ford has consistently made its pitch for the C-Max against the similarly sized Toyota Prius v wagon (see the review), the Energi's function more logically puts it up against the Prius Plug-in hatchback (see the review). The Prius Plug-in and the Energi function similarly, but the Prius has a few disadvantages: Its battery is smaller than the Energi's at only 4.4 kwh, and its electric range is just 15 miles, according to Toyota (11 miles according to the EPA). The Prius' overall system output is just 134 horsepower, compared with the C-Max Energi's 195 hp, giving the C-Max a considerable edge in both drivability and speed. Realistically, the Ford can go farther on electric power before using its gas engine, but once both models are on gasoline power, the Prius is far more fuel-efficient: It gets an EPA-estimated 51/49/50 mpg city/highway/combined versus the Energi's twice-revised 40/36/38 mpg.
The Ford drives better than any car in the Prius lineup; the Prius Plug-in is pokey in EV mode, whereas the C-Max Energi is sprightly and quick. In just about every measurable aspect, the C-Max is a better vehicle — with the exception of price: The Prius Plug-in starts at $32,795, including destination. That's nearly $1,000 less than the C-Max Energi (before tax credits) and includes features like a standard navigation system. When tax credits are considered, the Prius Plug-in's $2,500 credit drops it to just $30,295, giving the C-Max just a few hundred dollars' edge once its credit is factored in. The Toyota can be optioned up rather heavily, however, topping $40,000 with items simply not available on the C-Max, like a head-up display, radar-based cruise control and adaptive headlamps.
A basic C-Max provides a realistic, well-executed competitor to Toyota's Prius models, but the Energi variant just doesn't seem worth the price.