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 test Ford 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 short station wagon. Think of it as a mini-mini-minivan. The only drawback is the battery intrudes materially into the trunk space, which will be a deal-killer for many potential buyers.

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

The Ford's other major advantage is its behavior at high speeds. It is as quiet as a BMW 750, with outstanding steering. There are zero shakes or 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 a pleasure.

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 the suspension. Second, its 1.4-liter engine doesn't produce enough energy to climb very long (15+ miles) and steep mountain passes at 75 MPH without engaging "Mountain Mode" some 15 minutes before you start heading uphill.

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

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

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

Furthermore, the Ford's EV-only mode has a lot less power -- at least a third less -- than the Volt. When flooring it in a steep curvy uphill road, the Ford simply lacks power, and even engages the gasoline engine even though half the battery power remains. In contrast, the Volt has sports car power and never turns on the gasoline 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 electric components.

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

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

The Ford yielded 32.6 MPG on the same test, despite being rated at 43 MPG. Chew on that for a minute: The Volt performed 2 MPG ahead of its EPA 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 the cards: It drives almost twice as far on electricity alone, it does so without being forced into gasoline mode with annoying and herky-jerky frequency, it does so with much more power, and when it switches to gasoline mode it's no less efficient than the Ford despite the EPA rating suggesting otherwise.

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

What about the electronics and the dashboard? Ford gets a bit of an incomplete here because although you can download the iOS app, it doesn'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 does much of it very poorly. The numbers mixes electric-only and hybrid driving for a deceptive combined number. Huge swaths of the high-quality LCD displays are filled with all sorts of irrelevant information, including illustrations of a bunch of growing trees. I kid you not. How juvenile!

Other key statistics on the screens appear for only a few seconds after you turn off the car, then vanish to never again return. For example, you can never really find out how many electric-only miles you have driven since you last fully charged the car. That's the default setting in the Volt, and it's the thing you really want to know.

The Ford's audio system and navigation are as incomprehensible as they are in so many other cars these days, and even more so than in the Volt. 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 to connect my iPad via USB. When playing podcasts, the Ford apparently failed to keep the podcast bookmarks.

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

Other minor irritations in the Ford: The steering wheel doesn't have nice leather. The climate controls, plus some other buttons, are right in front of the transmission shifter, hidden. The climate controls also default to some high fan setting, causing me to have to turn it down almost all the time. The cup holders and other storage opportunities 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 be eligible for a $3,750 Federal tax credit and $1,500 tax rebate in California. In contrast, a loaded Chevy Volt is around $44,000, but you 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 Volt often offering $2,000 or more on discounts, the real-world pricing difference is minimal -- at least as long as the Ford isn't discounted.

Considering the Volt offers a battery that is more than twice the size 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: The car has more passenger space. If you need to fit five people instead of four, 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 of low-slung sports cars such as the Volt, the Ford C-Max makes for a very comfortable alternative.

These are both great cars. The Ford needs some more polish in terms of its software and powertrain architecture. The Chevrolet needs to be offered in more minivan or SUV body styles. In both cases, these cars perform the 500+ mile-per-day test at 75 MPH with almost flawless grades.

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.