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First Drive: Ford C-Max Energi

Stocks in this article: F TM GM TSLA

So which one to buy? The Ford beats the Toyota on every metric except the tiny luggage space. This is a deal killer for some, but not for others.

For just a couple thousand dollars more, the Chevy Volt gives you superior electric range (38 miles vs. 21) and much more powerful acceleration and sport dynamics. However, the Volt sits low, and with smaller doors making it relatively difficult to get in and out. The Volt's back seat fits only two people easily if they're shorter than 5'11.

In conclusion, there is no clear-cut winner for every person's needs in this comparison. The Prius wins if you need to transport five people and the most amount of luggage. The Ford wins if you need to transport five large people and can't stand the Toyota's lesser performance. The Volt wins if you want a 2+2 sports car with superior electric car performance.

Where does Ford need to go from here in order to achieve plug-in electric car dominance? There are two major metrics where Ford needs to invest:

1. Bring models to market with larger battery capacities. If the battery is at least 16 kW, it becomes eligible for the maximum federal tax credit, $7,500. This is therefore the sweet spot in the market. Then place that bigger battery either in the center tunnel, or in the floor as with so many other electric cars such as the Tesla Model S, Nissan LEAF or the upcoming BMW i3.

2. Bring larger cars to market. The biggest complaint I hear from prospective electric car buyers is that they fit too few (or too small) people and too little luggage. Ford needs to bring to market three-row minivans and SUVs, and they need to have a lot more luggage space to boot.

Electric car buyers are not as concerned with price as they are with other key metrics. They want the all-electric range to be at least 35-40 miles. They want the car to offer as much utility as a minivan (Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Chrysler/Dodge Town & Country/Caravan) or SUV (Chevy Suburban).

Tesla is making an all-electric stab at this market with the Model X due by early 2014, but there is an opening for Ford, Toyota, GM and others well, if they just realize what the true consumer preferences in this market are.

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