NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - I recently drove the Ford ( F) Fusion Energi 170 miles over one week. The car compares most directly with the Honda ( HMC) Accord Plug-In Hybrid, which was launched in January. But since Honda has not yet sent me that car to test, I compared the Fusion to the Chevrolet Volt, because the Volt is the second-most similar car in the market today.The Ford Fusion Energi has the same drivetrain as the C-Max Energi, which I tested in January: Endurance Test: Ford C-Max Takes On Chevy Volt. It has an electric motor fed by a 7.6 kilowatt-hour battery (6.6 kWh usable), which could take you an average of 21 miles, if you drive gently. For faster acceleration and driving like a normal car for longer distances, it also has a fairly average two-liter gasoline engine. The electric motor and the gasoline engine are mated together in a power-split continuously variable transmission (CVT) similar to all other Ford and Toyota ( TM) hybrids over the last decade or so. The difference here is that the battery is larger and is made from lithium, the electric motor is stronger, and you can plug in the car to fill up this larger battery. The exterior is beautiful, in my opinion -- especially the front of the car. It's got Ford's recently adopted Aston Martin-look. The overall great look also goes for the C-Max and Focus. Does it look better than the Volt overall? Opinions here differ greatly, and so I call it a draw. The front seats are more comfortable than the front seats in the Volt, and the seating position a hair better too. As for the instrument panel and center stack, it's a complicated situation with many pluses and minuses. Suffice it to say that very few cars get this right, and Ford doesn't have a winner here.
Many of the on- and off-screen controls are not easy to understand, or lag in response time, such as the one to scroll through a SiriusXM channel list. The two things that bugged me the most were the lack of an analog AUX input for my iOS podcast player and the lack of a tire pressure monitor. Both are present on the Chevy Volt, and in my book, that makes the Volt the winner in cabin tech. Ford does hold the advantage on lights, windshield wipers, heat and A/C, as they all work better than on the Volt. The other area where the Ford shines is on overall NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), which is absolutely superior on the Ford. I have seen this spectacular NVH treatment also in the Focus and C-Max. Ford's body team has been nailing it recently. It's slightly easier to get into the back seat of the Ford, and you have slightly better foot and knee room. In addition, you can fit a third passenger in the back seat. The Volt is strictly a four-seat car, a deal-killer for some people. On the other hand, the Volt has at least an inch more headroom in the back, which makes a big difference. Ford's trunk space is a joke. It's the biggest drawback to this car, and it will surely be a deal-killer for many otherwise prospective buyers. You can fit only a few small things. Picking someone up at the airport? Most likely, you must use the back seat for all but the smallest luggage. Going to Costco ( COST)? Again, better not have more than two or three people max in the car. The rear seat does fold forward, but the opening to the trunk is akin to a mailbox slot. It may come in handy for that one particular IKEA tabletop, but hardly for anything else. It's mostly useless. In contrast, the Volt has a fairly conventional trunk space for a small hatchback, and will serve most needs okay.
The Ford's electric motor is dramatically less powerful than the Volt's, and so there is no comparison in terms of power and acceleration. If you drive very gently, however, in calm city/suburban traffic, the Ford is pleasant enough. Combined with the outstanding chassis, noise suppression and comfy driver's seat, it's truly like riding a limo. The one use case where the Ford has a slight advantage over the Volt is for long drives. If you're going on that 1,000 mile drive to Vegas, the Ford will likely perform at 33 miles per gallon (which I got with the C-Max in January) while keeping the cruise control at 70 miles per hour sharp. I guess the only problem here remains: Going to Vegas without more luggage than a toothbrush? That tiny trunk again... While the Volt will perform at 35 to 37 MPG on that Vegas road trip, it will be noisier and the front seat and driving position won't be as good as in the Ford. The question is therefore: Will you be spending most of your time in your home metropolitan area, or on thousand-mile runs to Vegas? The Fusion Energi is priced almost identically to the Volt. A base version can be had around $40,000, and loaded with most options, it's around $44,000. The Volt, however, gives you a $7,500 Federal tax credit, whereas the Ford is half at $3,750. Since the Volt has about twice the battery size and a more comprehensive cooling/heating system for its battery, and has a usable trunk, the Volt is inherently worth more than the Fusion Energi. Furthermore, the Volt is selling as much as $5,000 below MSRP. That means the Ford needs to sell at least $10,000 below its MSRP in order to be competitive with the Volt. Ford's own C-Max Energi sells for about $6,000 less in terms of MSRP, and that goes a long way to narrow the value-gap. Compared with the Fusion, the C-Max has more rear-seat space and a slightly more usable -- not necessarily larger -- trunk. The front seats, however, are not as plush. For these reasons, I recommend Ford buyers go with the C-Max Energi instead of the Fusion Energi. Ford should be commended for producing the Fusion and C-Max Energi models. There is much to like here, but the lack of trunk space is a problem for both models. Furthermore, the small batteries and weak electric motors make them an inferior value compared with the Volt. What Ford needs to do is, among other things:
- Bigger batteries that can yield at least 40 miles of range.
- More powerful electric motors, where you can go "full power" on all-electric.
- Larger (minivan) choices with much more luggage space and seating for seven or eight.