First Drive: Ford C-Max Energi

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

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

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

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

The Prius seesits gasoline engine cut in at moderate acceleration, or if you drivenear or a bit above 60 MPH. As such, the Prius really operates in"blended" gasoline/electric mode for 11 miles (6 of whom areelectric), 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 theacceleration isn't directly comparable with the Prius. If you forcethe C-Max into all-electric mode, it is obviously smooth, quiet andefficient, whereas the Prius will engage the gasoline engine whetheryou like it or not, at that point obviously performing like a regularPrius in terms of acceleration. You can operate the C-Max in thatkind 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 sportsdepartment. Not only is the Volt much more powerful with its 111 kWmain electric motor, sometimes helped by a secondary 55 kW electricmotor. The Volt is also a relative sports car, physically speaking,where you sit low like in a Camaro or Corvette, and have a lowercenter of gravity. Simply put: The Volt is the sports car of thebunch, with spinning tires at every red light, and exceptionalacceleration/response.

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

The instrumentation is similar to the other latest all-new Ford modelssuch as the Focus, Escape and Fusion. The broader appearance is a bitbusy, but functionally it is very good. Ford's economyand mid-range corporate dash is among the best in the business,avoiding incomprehensive complexity in favor of old-fashionedsimplicity.

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

So far, so good: The C-Max Energi fits five huge people, and the dashis 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 inall-electric mode raise the luggage compartment's "floor" so that itlooks positively weird -- in a bad sense. Unlike any other car in themarket that I can recall, the "floor" is now so high up that it's likereaching for a shelf in an upper kitchen cabinet.

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

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

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

For just a couple thousand dollars more, the Chevy Volt gives yousuperior electric range (38 miles vs. 21) and much more powerfulacceleration and sport dynamics. However, the Volt sits low, and withsmaller doors making it relatively difficult to get in and out. TheVolt'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 needsin this comparison. The Prius wins if you need to transport five peopleand the most amount of luggage. The Ford wins if you need totransport five large people and can't stand the Toyota's lesserperformance. The Volt wins if you want a 2+2 sports car with superiorelectric car performance.

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

1. Bring models to market with larger battery capacities. If thebattery is at least 16 kW, it becomes eligible for the maximum federaltax credit, $7,500. This is therefore the sweet spot in the market.Then place that bigger battery either in the center tunnel, or in thefloor 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 fromprospective electric car buyers is that they fit too few (or toosmall) people and too little luggage. Ford needs to bring to marketthree-row minivans and SUVs, and they need to have a lot more luggagespace to boot.

Electric car buyers are not as concerned with price as they are withother key metrics. They want the all-electric range to be at least35-40 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 thismarket with the Model X due by early 2014, but there is an opening forFord, Toyota, GM and others well, if they just realize what the trueconsumer preferences in this market are.

Tesla has shown that the demand for $80,000 to $110,000 all-electriccars is strong. GM has shown that the demand for $40,000 ChevroletVolts 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 kWbattery, large electric motor, and a 2 liter 4-cylinder rangeextender.

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

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

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

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