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Move over Toyota Prius, Ford C-Max Energi is a more engaging plug-in hybrid

The C-Max Energi shows that going green can be enjoyable

Published: March 20, 2014 10:30 AM

The C-Max plug-in hybrid is a variation of the previously tested C-Max hybrid. Dubbed C-Max Energi, this tall wagon is EPA-estimated to get 100 miles per gallon equivalent (combining gas and electric), and 43 mpg overall on regular gasoline. Being Consumer Reports, we’ll believe it when we test it.

A healthy measure of skepticism is warranted, as the results from our C-Max hybrid test—at 37 mpg overall—were 10 mpg less than the EPA’s fuel economy numbers. While this number is still excellent, we have to take any hybrid estimate with a grain of salt. (Read: "Ford took advantage of EPA loophole big enough to drive a hybrid car through.") And, the 100 MPGe is meaningless without the context of the electric range and frequency of charging.

Our new Energi was sticker priced at $34,940, including an optional navigation and up-level audio system, and thus far, we’re generally impressed with it.

The Energi may appear ostentatiously greener-than-thou, but it’s a highly capable, enjoyable, and sophisticated piece of machinery. With a solid feel, agile handling, comfortable ride, and quiet interior, it drives like an expensive car. Getting in and out is a breeze, and visibility is excellent.

So far, we’ve been seeing an electric-only range of about 15 miles from the Energi’s 7.6-kWh battery. A full charge takes about 2.5 hours using a 240-volt connection. Unlike the Toyota Prius Plug-In, the C-Max doesn’t shy away from using its electric drive even when climbing hills or when it’s cold outside.

The Energi uses the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and CVT transmission as the standard C-Max, producing a similar driving experience. But in electric-only mode, the Energi behaves like an all-electric vehicle, with instant, quiet, and brisk acceleration. A gauge on the instrument panel lets you know how far you can push the accelerator before the gas engine will kick in.

One bonus is that the car’s electric resources don’t have to be used right away. A button can toggle between EV now and EV later, in case you want to preserve the battery for, say, just the low-speed, urban portion of your trip.

Most recent Fords deliver an ideal blend of agile handling and steady, supple ride. Likewise, the C-Max Energi corners with alacrity, maintaining an even keel despite its tall stance. Another nice touch is that the cabin stays largely free of road and wind noise.

With comfortable, power-operated (and heated) leather seats, the Energi feels almost luxurious. The MyFordTouch screen takes a long reach, though, and the screen is fussy, with small fonts and tiny landing areas for your fingertips. Redundant steering-wheel controls alleviate some of that frustration.

Next to the speedometer is a space where you can call up any of several screens to display myriad energy usage stats, graphs, diagrams, you name it. Paying attention to all this information can become confusing and distracting. And we’ve learned that you can’t view the trip odometer, average mpg, range, and the all-important EV threshold gauge all at the same time. Boo.

Despite the many positives for the Energi, our annual reliability survey shows that both C-Max versions have a much-worse-than-average first year reliability record, mostly due to audio/infotainment problems.

The C-Max Energi feels more substantial than the established Prius and Prius V and more committed to electric driving than the Prius Plug-In. It may not be as sexy as the Chevrolet Volt, nor have its electric-only range, but the Energi brings an inviting blend of space, functionality, comfort, and frugality in a straight-laced package. We just hope that Ford is on a fast track to correct those reliability issues.

—Gabe Shenhar

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