Ford Splits Hairs Comparing C-Max Energi to Prius Models
With each new press release about the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, Ford takes great pains to show how it beats various Toyota Prius models. But I just don’t get it. The distinctions are so fine that everyday consumers are not likely to be moved by (or even understand) the differences. Of course, Ford should be applauded for putting its first plug-in hybrid on the market. But the success of the Ford C-Max Energy will depend much more on production numbers and sales execution, which has been less than stellar for the Ford Focus Electric.
The headline of Ford’s C-Max Energi press release from yesterday is the vehicle’s top electric-only speed. Ford claims that the C-Max Energi will travel 85 miles per hour purely on electricity—20 mph higher than the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid. The extra speed purely on electricity will apparently occur when drivers engage the “EV Now” button. But the fine print explains that the “gasoline engine will not operate unless…the accelerator pedal [is] full depressed.” It also states that the “drivers are given coaching cues to maximize EV mode.”
In my time behind the wheel of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, what annoyed me was not the engine coming on a speeds above 65 miles per hour. It was the engine coming on when I punched the accelerator at lower speeds—like when needing to jump across busy city traffic. When the engine came on, it stayed on until it went through a cycle for a few minutes. I only needed a burst of speed for three seconds, but the gasoline engine ran for a few minutes. In a blended plug-in hybrid, like the Ford C-Max Energi and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, the gas engine can be brought into action—burning a small amount of gasoline—at any point in the driving cycle when the accelerator is pressed hard enough.
EV purists won’t like having to change their driving style to dodge use of the gasoline engine. If avoiding the use of gasoline at any speed, but enjoying extended range via a gas engine, is your goal, then go with the Chevrolet Volt. That’s what it does. There is a larger point that gets lost in Ford’s attempt to take on Toyota in its marketing: It’s actually a good thing for the gas engine to be used at speeds above 65 miles per hour. I’m pretty sure Ford engineers recognize that at such high speeds, using the gas engine (for anything more than a few miles) will provide more overall efficiency, rather than draining the battery pack.
The Plot Thickens
Ford gets the facts completely wrong when it claims that the C-Max Energi is “more than triple the electric-only range (20-plus miles versus six miles)” of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. The EPA rates that range at 11 miles—not six—and drivers are commonly reporting around 15 miles of pure electric range. (Again, gas and electricity are blended so it depends on how you drive.) Regardless, Ford has an advantage here with more energy storage, but blows it by getting the Prius Plug-in’s all-electric number wrong.
Ford is not yet talking about the efficiency of the C-Max Energi after the battery pack is depleted. I assume the MPG will be close to the non-plug C-Max Hybrid, which gets an impressive combined 47 MPG. That’s 7 MPG better than the Prius V, but 3 MPG less than what the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid gets after its batteries are drained. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid has the advantage here. But like the other stats, these differences are negligible, and will be outweighed by other purchase considerations, like styling, creature comforts, and brand.
Ford marketers get a bit loopy when they claim that the C-Max’s overall range of 550 miles beats the Prius Plug-in Hybrid’s 540 miles of range. That 1.8 percentage difference will be made up many times over by differences in how and where people drive. I also doubt that drivers in a double-blind test will see feel much difference between the C-MAX Energi’s 195 horsepower versus the 188 horsepower provided by the Toyota Prius.
Caveat: The C-Max Energi has not been made available for media test drives, so I reserve judgment on all these accounts until the two vehicles can be compared in real-world use. But my point is that the arguments made in a press release issued at this stage will be lost on most shoppers (certainly by the time the C-Max goes on sale in a few months). I suppose Ford marketers are looking for as many ways as possible to say that Ford is in the plug-in game.
Just how serious Ford is about the game comes down to price and availability. Ford managed to nudge the post-incentive price of the C-Max Energi below $30,000—by five bucks. I’m not finding documentation for the federal tax credit amount, but the simple math puts it at $3,800. Meanwhile, the base price for the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, after its $2,500 federal tax credit, is $30,260—a modest $265 dollars more than the C-Max Energi. Trim options and financing numbers will erase that difference. The Chevy Volt, a four-seater with less space than its competitors but with a lot more electric capability—is $32,495 after its $7,500 federal credit. Shoppers also need to look at state incentives, and compare lease deals. (There are amazingly low lease deals offered on the Volt through early September.)
The C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid begins arriving this fall at EV Certified Ford dealers in 19 markets, followed by nationwide rollout in all 50 states in early 2013. How easy or difficult will it be to buy the C-Max Energi? It’s too early to say, but judging by the lack of availability and information at dealerships about the Ford Focus Electric, it might be tough. Let’s hope Ford will treat distribution of its first plug-in hybrid with a more results-oriented approach than its all-electric Focus. The Focus Electric went on sale in May—but through July, the company has managed on 135 sales (with only 38 sales reported in July).
Meanwhile, Toyota has sold more than 5,000 plug-in versions of the Prius since it went on sale in March. The year-to-date tally for Volt sales passed the 10,000-unit mark in July.
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