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 21 miles, according to Ford.
The EPA estimates the C-Max Energi at 44 mpg city, 41 mpg highway, and 100 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, a little short of Ford's 21-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.