The Ford C-Max is a small and tall wagon-like compact car. Five-passenger upright cars that squeeze maximum utility from a small footprint are popular in Europe, but until recently have not been available to American car buyers. Ford started selling the C-Max in Europe in 2002, but only began offering it in the U.S. in 2012.
You might think of the C-Max as a bulked-up Focus, with a more commanding view of the road. The two cars share the same 104-inch platform. The C-Max uses the stylistic elements found in other Ford models, most notably an open Aston-like grille, long flowing headlights, raked windshield and sloping roof line.
The space-maximizing proportions of the C-Max are pleasant enough, even if they don’t stir emotions. What the C-Max lacks in visual excitement, it makes up in practicality and efficiency. It is only available as a conventional gas-electric hybrid, or as the Energi plug-in hybrid. Both are among the most efficient cars on the road.
When stacked against conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius, the C-Max is considered a much more capable and enjoyable ride. Acceleration is brisk and handling is compliant.
The 2014 Ford C-Max no-plug Hybrid’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and 118-horsepower electric motor combine to provide a healthy dose of 188 ponies. Total output for the Energi plug-in version rises to 195 horsepower because of the larger battery pack’s greater ability to deliver electricity to the motor.
If you are mostly staying within the C-Max Energi’s 20-mile or so real-world all-electric range, and use the car’s “EV Now” mode, you can avoid burning any gasoline and enjoy the telltale driving characteristics of an EV. “When you go into EV Now mode, you are literally locking out the engine pull-up, and driving on battery performance,” John Davis, the chief engineer for the C-Max in North America, told PluginCars.com. “Even if you go to fast acceleration, almost a wide-open throttle situation, you will get full battery capability, and we will prevent the engine from coming on.”
That means smooth, quick and quiet acceleration. However, when driving purely on battery and electric motor, with no assistance from the gas engine, the total power to the wheels is noticeably reduced by 70 horsepower.
There are a few conditions when you will reach the limits of the EV Now mode: when zooming down the highway above 85 miles per hour; when the state-of-charge of the 7.5-kWh battery pack gets low enough to begin transition from charge-depletion to charge-sustaining; or for the “very rare event” of high battery temperature.
Fortunately, Ford engineers have perfected the art of hybrid smoothness so that it’s barely perceptible if the gas engine is actually on or not.
C-Max Energi drivers can also use the “EV Later” button, similar to the Volt’s Mountain Mode, to save grid-supplied energy for later use—or keep the vehicle in “EV Auto” mode, in which the vehicle operates more like the conventional C-Max hybrid. Regardless of the mode, performance strikes a good balance of power, refinement and efficiency.
The EPA mileage rating for the C-Max Energi, when using a combination of gas and electricity, is 100 MPGe (or miles per gallon equivalent). After the EV battery is depleted and the C-Max reverts into a conventional hybrid, the gas mileage is 44 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway, for a combined EPA efficiency of 43 miles per gallon.
That combined 43-mpg number for the 2013 model had been 47 miles per gallon. But in August 2013, Ford admitted that the EPA’s method for calculating fuel economy might have resulted in inflated mpg numbers for the 2013 C-Max Hybrid. The company made a one-time “goodwill” payment of $550 to those who purchased the 2013 C-Max and $325 to those who leased the vehicle.
There’s a big difference between 100 MPGe (while driving using electricity) and the 43 mpg granted when the C-Max is working like a regular ol’ hybrid. So questions about individual real-world C-Max Energi efficiency come down to all-electric driving range.
The C-Max Energi is substantially more capable of driving purely as an EV than the Prius Plug-in—and its technology is an innovative step forward for plug-in hybrids. We have driven the plug-in Prius on several occasions, and experienced about 11 miles of all-electric driving. That number matches the official overarching EPA number for electric range—although the finer print on the window label indicates only 6 miles of pure-electric range.
Our major criticism of the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid is its lack of a true “keep this thing in all-electric mode” button. That is exactly what Ford provides with its “EV Now” button, giving C-Max Energi drivers the opportunity to go about 20 miles without using a single drop of gasoline.
So, it appears that the Ford C-Max Energi provides a new variation on the plug-in hybrid theme—somewhere between the “super hybrid” blended approach of the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and the “extended-range electric vehicle” strategy of the Chevrolet Volt. It’s a plug-in hybrid, capable of working like a pure electric car for drivers with a round-trip commute of 20 miles or less, and beyond that like one of the most fuel-efficient hybrids on the road.
The Ford C-Max Energi’s battery pack is relatively small at 7.6 kilowatt-hours. That compares to the 24-kWh battery pack of a Nissan LEAF, or the Volt’s 16-kWh pack. A smaller battery means lower driving range, but at the same time, less charging time required to fill up.
In other words, charging equipment in a plug-in hybrid like the C-Max Energi is really not that critical. Even with the relatively slow charging speed of the C-Max Energi’s 3.3 kW on-board charger, coming from a 240-volt home charger, the battery can go from empty to full in less than three hours—thereby restoring 20 miles of all-electric range.
In fact, there is a strong argument for simply using the cord set supplied with the vehicle, plugged into a common 120-volt home outlet, which can easily fill up the C-Max Energi’s battery pack overnight (in about 6 to 7 hours). This allows owners to avoid the expense and hassle of installing a home EV charger.
The Ford C-Max Hybrid, the basis for the plug-in Energi, has plenty of head- and legroom for four tall passengers. It has a high roof, and large windows providing excellent visibility. The cargo area, while generous for a sedan, is relatively small for a wagon.
Here's the problem. Ford’s current plug-ins are built around existing platforms, which necessitates packaging the battery packs in spaces other than beneath the cabin. So where cars like the Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF are designed, from the ground up, to keep their batteries discretely and unobtrusively hidden below their passengers, the Ford C-Max Energi sacrifices storage space for electric range. This creates an unattractive trade-off for already-more-expensive plug-in variants of existing models.
Where the C-Max Hybrid provides 24.5 cubic feet of storage behind the rear passenger seats, the Energi sacrifices more than 20 percent of that space to the battery pack, coming in at just 19.2 cubic feet of storage—less than the Prius sedan (the basis for the plug-in Prius) and significantly less than the Prius V. With the rear seats folded down, the Energi loses almost 10 cubic feet of cargo space versus the hybrid, which carries 52.6 cubic feet of storage.
For buyers who have their hearts set on driving electric, these space trade-offs are just another consideration to weigh—in deciding among the limited plug-in options currently available on the market. But for customers who are on the fence about whether to take the plunge into plug-in ownership, they could represent a deal-breaker—pushing them to the no-plug hybrid version.
Ford's strategy of moving more and more of their lineup onto a few basic model-flexible platforms may make plenty of economic sense for the greater market, but by necessitating the placement of battery packs into areas needed for cargo, it could limit the market potential of Ford's plug-in models.
The C-Max Energi performed well on safety tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, receiving four stars overall. It earned five stars in the side crash tests; and four stars respectively in the front crash and rollover tests.
The long list of safety features includes: driver air bag; passenger air bag; rear head air bag; side air bag; four-wheel ABS; break assist; electronic stability control; child safety locks; integrated turn signal mirrors; and traction control.
Good news. Ford priced the plug-in version of the C-Max so close to the conventional hybrid version that—after considering federal and state incentives, as well as trim packages—shoppers can drive away with the plug-in at virtually the same price as the conventional hybrid C-Max.
As usually, the devil is in the details. With three different add-on premium packages available for the C-Max Hybrid, shoppers with sharp pencils might make a different argument. But considering that a loaded C-Max Hybrid SEL tops out at $30,000, and the base price of the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid is $33,745, the difference in the price of admission for the two vehicles is less than $4,000.
When you subtract a federal tax credit of $3,750 for the Energi, and a $1,500 cash rebate from California, you actually come ahead from Day One with the plug-in model. Every day after that, especially for drivers with commutes within the 21-mile EV range of the Energi, the cost of electric fuel is less than half the cost of gasoline. Also, the estimated efficiency jumps from 47 MPG in the hybrid, to 100 MPGe in the plug-in. (For now, let's leave aside higher resale value, or external benefits like reduced emissions.)
There are trade-offs. Buyers would be forgoing some of those luxury features, like premium audio, heated seats, and hands-free liftgate, in exchange for keeping the price of the plug-in to the same level as the hybrid. Also, as we indicated, the hatch cargo space in the plug-in drops from 52.6 cubic feet to 42.8 cubic feet.
Nonetheless, Ford shatters the EV price premium myth by showing that a plug-in with a relatively modest battery pack and decent all-electric range doesn’t necessarily have to cost that much more its gas-powered counterpart.
Comparisons of Similar Cars
The closest competitor to the C-Max Energi, in terms of price and overall functionality, is is the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which sells for about $2,000 less. Yet, as we explained, the Prius plug-in offers a less satisfying experience for drivers wanting to primarily stay in battery mode. On the other hand, it's hard to beat the Prius’s combination of efficiency, creature comforts, reliability and utility in the form of generous passenger and cargo room. We strongly recommend back-to-back test drives.
The Chevy Volt, while offering a considerably more robust EV experience and a sportier drive, is a bump up in price. Also, the versatility of the Full is diminished because it only seats for passengers.
A jump in price from the C-Max’s low-$30,000 op to the $40,000 range brings the possibility of a full-size sedan plug-in hybrid, like the Honda Accord or Ford fusion Energy. Those vehicles take the form of popular, stylish, and capable mainstream sedans, rather than the smaller yet utilitarian format of the wagon-like C-Max.
Ford has been repeatedly criticized for promoting the availability of its plug-in cars, but not supporting its EV efforts at the dealership level. Local dealerships, even in markets where EVs are popular, have not been informed about plug-in cars. Sales staff has not been ready to demonstrate and sell the vehicles. This announcement from Ford about the growth of certified dealers suggest that the company is getting better prepared.
What's involved in the certification process? Here are the basics listed by Ford: "Certification means the dealerships have met the automaker’s guidelines for dealers selling electric vehicles—including installation of at least two on-site charging stations (one in the service area and the other located in the customer area) and participation in highly specialized training in the field of electric vehicles."
In addition, a minimum of one Focus Electric and one C-Max Energi must be on site at all times. EV Certified dealers are the only Ford dealerships allowed to sell plug-in vehicles.
Ford also announced that it expects its three plug-in vehicles—the Focus Electric, C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi—will become available in all 50 states within the next few months.
Ford claims the increase in EV Certified dealers is a result of "increased demand for the company’s electrified vehicles."