Endurance Test: Ford C-Max Takes On Chevy Volt

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- After over 20,000 miles in General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt, it was time to testFord Motor's (F) answer to the Volt, the C-Max Energi, for a 1,247-mile drive,mostly at high speeds of 65-75 miles per hour. The verdict is complicated.

Let's start with the body: The Ford is a tall but somewhat shortstation wagon. Think of it as a mini-mini-minivan. The only drawbackis the battery intrudes materially into the trunk space, whichwill be a deal-killer for many potential buyers.

The Ford's back seat is one of its key selling points. It's easy toget in and out, and you can fit three very large and tall basketballplayers. In contrast, the Volt fits only two people no taller than 6feet, and it's a chore to get in and out given the low seatingposition and smaller doors.

The Ford's other major advantage is its behavior at high speeds. It is asquiet as a BMW 750, with outstanding steering. There are zero shakesor rattles. The thick and heavy doors close like a big Mercedes S550. Setting the cruise to 75 MPH and driving over 500 miles per day was apleasure.

The Volt is also good for those 500+ mile days, except for two things. First, there is more wind noise and other noise coming from thesuspension. Second, its 1.4-liter engine doesn't produce enoughenergy to climb very long (15+ miles) and steep mountain passes at 75MPH without engaging "Mountain Mode" some 15 minutes before you startheading uphill.

What about fuel economy? This goes into two parts. Let's start withelectric drive. The Volt goes 38 miles on electric, except if thetemperature falls below 35 degrees, at which point the gasoline engineengages from time to time. This switching operation is ultra-smooth.

The Ford can go 21 miles on electricity, but I found it to be verysensitive to some combination of cold temperatures (more like 50degrees than 35 degrees) and various unspecified "maintenance modes" where thegasoline engine often came on despite being put into "EV only" mode.

On the whole, it was very unrefined when compared to the Volt, withthe gasoline engine delivering herky-jerky power when driven at verylow speeds.

Furthermore, the Ford's EV-only mode has a lot less power -- at leasta third less -- than the Volt. When flooring it in a steep curvyuphill road, the Ford simply lacks power, and even engages thegasoline engine even though half the battery power remains. Incontrast, the Volt has sports car power and never turns on thegasoline engine if there's battery power left.

This speaks to the Volt's main advantage: Its much larger battery,which is liquid-cooled/heated and has much more powerful electriccomponents.

Yes, this costs more to manufacture, but theperformance/smoothness advantage is also huge. Being able to drive 38miles on electricity at full power is dramatically better than 21miles with herky-jerky low-speed gasoline engine interruptions, and atmuch lower power in the Ford.

What about when the battery is down to the level where the gasolineengine HAS to kick in, no matter what? The Volt is rated at 35 MPG onthe highway, and I yielded 37 MPG on the exact same 1,100 mile testloop as the Ford, with other ideal conditions also identical.

The Ford yielded 32.6 MPG on the same test, despite being rated at 43MPG. Chew on that for a minute: The Volt performed 2 MPG ahead of itsEPA estimate; the Ford at least 10 MPG below. That's a HUGE delta,and both cars weigh approximately 3,800 lbs.

So from a performance perspective, the Volt holds almost all of thecards: It drives almost twice as far on electricity alone, it does sowithout being forced into gasoline mode with annoying and herky-jerkyfrequency, it does so with much more power, and when it switches togasoline mode it's no less efficient than the Ford despite the EPArating suggesting otherwise.

Ford's only advantage is that onceyou're driving far, therefore on gasoline, it's got more power andit's quieter, especially on long uphill climbs at high speeds (70MPH+).

What about the electronics and the dashboard? Ford gets a bit of anincomplete here because although you can download the iOS app, itdoesn't yet work with this car. So it wasn't possible to test.

The screens in the Ford have plenty of information to show, but doesmuch of it very poorly. The numbers mixes electric-only and hybriddriving for a deceptive combined number. Huge swaths of thehigh-quality LCD displays are filled with all sorts of irrelevantinformation, including illustrations of a bunch of growing trees. Ikid you not. How juvenile!

Other key statistics on the screens appear for only a few secondsafter you turn off the car, then vanish to never again return. Forexample, you can never really find out how many electric-only milesyou have driven since you last fully charged the car. That's thedefault setting in the Volt, and it's the thing you really want toknow.

The Ford's audio system and navigation are as incomprehensible as theyare in so many other cars these days, and even more so than in theVolt. I can't for the life of me create shortcuts for radio stations,let alone anything more complicated.

The Ford is completely missing an AUX jack, which means that I had toconnect my iPad via USB. When playing podcasts, the Ford apparentlyfailed to keep the podcast bookmarks.

Let's say you started listeningto a podcast in a car, then left the car and wanted to continue --bookmark nonexistent. To remedy this, I simply ended up driving theFord with a set of big Bluetooth headsets over my ears, connectingdirectly to the iPad, completely circumventing the car's audio system.

Other minor irritations in the Ford: The steering wheel doesn't havenice leather. The climate controls, plus some other buttons, areright in front of the transmission shifter, hidden. The climatecontrols also default to some high fan setting, causing me to have toturn it down almost all the time. The cup holders and other storageopportunities around the driver are also un-smooth for smartphones,keys and related items.

A loaded Ford C-Max Energi is around $36,000, but you might beeligible for a $3,750 Federal tax credit and $1,500 tax rebate inCalifornia. In contrast, a loaded Chevy Volt is around $44,000, butyou might be eligible for a $7,500 Federal tax credit and the same$1,500 California tax rebate.

The net price difference may be $4,000 on paper, but with the Voltoften offering $2,000 or more on discounts, the real-world pricingdifference is minimal -- at least as long as the Ford isn't discounted.

Considering the Volt offers a battery that is more than twice thesize and capacity of the Ford, and that the electric motor is beefier,you are simply getting more powertrain for your money in the Volt.

So why would you want to buy the Ford over the Volt? It's simple: Thecar has more passenger space. If you need to fit five people instead offour, you must pick the Ford. Also, if you are a very tall/large person,or perhaps elderly and are having difficulty getting in and out oflow-slung sports cars such as the Volt, the Ford C-Max makes for avery comfortable alternative.

These are both great cars. The Ford needs some more polish in termsof its software and powertrain architecture. The Chevrolet needs tobe offered in more minivan or SUV body styles. In both cases, thesecars perform the 500+ mile-per-day test at 75 MPH with almost flawlessgrades.

At the time of publication the author had a position in AAPL.

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

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