First Drive: Ford C-Max Energi

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Ford ( F) C-Max Energi just entered production in October and I got a chance to take it for a very brief city spin a week ago. A more meaningful test, which would involve at least two to three days of highway driving and electric-range testing, will hopefully be forthcoming sooner rather than later.

In terms of its powertrain, the C-Max Energi slots in slightly closer to the Toyota ( TM) Prius Plug-In than GM's ( GM) Chevrolet Volt. The total size of the battery capacity in the C-Max Energi is 7.6 kW, compared to 4.4 in the Prius and 16.5 in the Volt.

While the Prius will only take you six miles on electricity, the C-Max will do 21, which is still far behind the Volt's 38 miles. Once those all-electric miles are over, the Prius performs at 50 MPG, the C-Max at 43 and the Volt at 38 MPG.

The C-Max differs compared to the Prius by being able to operate in all-electric mode for its first phase. It does so by limiting performance a little bit, however, topping at 85 MPH.

The Prius sees its gasoline engine cut in at moderate acceleration, or if you drive near or a bit above 60 MPH. As such, the Prius really operates in "blended" gasoline/electric mode for 11 miles (6 of whom are electric), again compared to the C-Max's 21 all-electric miles.
Ford's 2013 C-Max Energi

Because of how differently the Ford operates, the "feel" of the acceleration isn't directly comparable with the Prius. If you force the C-Max into all-electric mode, it is obviously smooth, quiet and efficient, whereas the Prius will engage the gasoline engine whether you like it or not, at that point obviously performing like a regular Prius in terms of acceleration. You can operate the C-Max in that kind of mode as well, and at that point it smokes the Prius -- relatively speaking.

That said, the C-Max is no match for the Volt in terms of the sports department. Not only is the Volt much more powerful with its 111 kW main electric motor, sometimes helped by a secondary 55 kW electric motor. The Volt is also a relative sports car, physically speaking, where you sit low like in a Camaro or Corvette, and have a lower center of gravity. Simply put: The Volt is the sports car of the bunch, with spinning tires at every red light, and exceptional acceleration/response.

The C-Max is very spacious for five people. I would go so far as to say that all five occupants could be professional basketball players -- the American kind, not the North Korean. The doors are big, and the car itself is tall. This accessibility and space is one area where the C-Max gets top honors, and easily trumps the Volt.

The instrumentation is similar to the other latest all-new Ford models such as the Focus, Escape and Fusion. The broader appearance is a bit busy, but functionally it is very good. Ford's economy and mid-range corporate dash is among the best in the business, avoiding incomprehensive complexity in favor of old-fashioned simplicity.

The only drawback in the dash area I could find was the plastic steering wheel. It's the one thing you touch by far the most with your hands, and therefore the steering wheel should be thick and made out of leather. The Volt gets this right, as well as the Tesla ( TSLA) Model S. BMW also also allows you to order a comfortable leather steering wheel. The thin plastic ones are slippery and uncomfortable -- a deal killer for some people.

So far, so good: The C-Max Energi fits five huge people, and the dash is mostly pleasant to use. Now for the bad part: The luggage space.

The extra batteries to enable you to drive an average of 21 miles in all-electric mode raise the luggage compartment's "floor" so that it looks positively weird -- in a bad sense. Unlike any other car in the market that I can recall, the "floor" is now so high up that it's like reaching for a shelf in an upper kitchen cabinet.

What is left of the luggage space is discouraging to those who plan on transporting more than a couple of briefcases. Trips to Costco? Forget it, unless you plan on folding the rear seat or utilizing that space for groceries otherwise. Aside from the Fisker, I have not seen any car, except for extreme exotic cars, with less trunk space. Certainly this is the station wagon with the least amount of luggage spare in the market today.

The Ford C-Max Energi starts around $30,000 after a $3,750 Federal tax credit. In addition, many states offer additional incentives. For example, California offers a $1,500 rebate. In comparison, the Chevrolet Volt starts at only $32,500 after a $7,500 Federal tax credit. The base price of the Toyota Prius is similar to the Ford C-Max Energi.

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.

Tesla has shown that the demand for $80,000 to $110,000 all-electric cars is strong. GM has shown that the demand for $40,000 Chevrolet Volts is strong, selling thousands every month globally.

Now the opportunity is there for Ford, GM, Toyota and others to fill that $40,000 to $80,000 space with large minivans and SUVs that have a 16 kW battery, large electric motor, and a 2 liter 4-cylinder range extender.

The Ford C-Max Energi is a praiseworthy but very small step in this direction. Much more is needed.

At the time of submitting this article, the author had no positions in the companies mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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