Ford's Response to Prius and Volt - TheStreet

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I recently got a chance to drive the hybrid gasoline-electric versionsof Ford Motors' (F) - Get Report two new cars, the C-Max and the Fusion.

A few shortmonths from now, these two cars will be followed by variants thatincorporate larger batteries and a wall plug. More about thoseversions later in this article.

The Ford Fusion hybrid competes squarely with

Toyota's

(TM) - Get Report

Camry hybrid.

Everyone can see that the Fusion beats the Camry's fuel economyrating 47 miles per gallon to 41, but what about the rest of the car?

Most peoplewill agree the Ford looks a lot better on the outside, and Ifound the Ford to have the edge on the inside as well, althoughperhaps to a lesser degree.

Driving the cars, I found the Ford is at least as powerful andthat the gasoline-electric-gasoline transitions are even smoother thanthe already smooth Toyota. Both cars perform very well overall, butit's hard not to draw the conclusion that Ford has out-engineered thenew Fusion in comparison to Toyota's already very excellent Camryhybrid.

I also drove the Ford C-Max hybrid, which shares the identicaldrivetrain with the Fusion hybrid. The C-Max is basically a short andslightly tall station wagon, which competes with the regular and "V"(station wagon) versions of the Toyota Prius.

Most people would agree the Ford C-Max looks better than any ofthe Prius models. It doesn't look as stunning as the Fusion, perhaps,but I found it to be better than the Prius for sure.

In terms of the interior, and the dashboard in particular, the C-Maxadopts Ford's new nearly universal corporate ID, and is therefore alot more conservative than the regular Prius and the "V" stationwagon.

Which one is better? It's a matter of taste here. Atechnology fan such as me would normally prefer the Prius, but in thiscase I think I would tip in favor of the Ford C-Max, because it is sorelatively uncomplicated.

In terms of interior space, the Ford C-Max sits somewhere in betweenthe regular Prius and the "V" station wagon. The Prius V clearly hasmore luggage space, and it also has an adjustable rear seat for theultimate in small-car rear-seat comfort. However, the C-Max comparesfavorably both in terms of size and comfort to the regular Prius.

In terms of fuel economy, the Ford C-Max hybrid, at 47 miles per gallon, sitsin-between the regular Prius at 50 mpg and the Prius station wagon at42 mpg. Performance-wise, it was clear to me the Ford offeredmore power and is also perhaps slightly smoother in theelectric-gasoline-electric transitions. All in all, the Ford is fullycompetitive performance-wise.

So what about the bottom-line Ford C-Max vs. Toyota Prius verdict?With a few caveats, primarily the one about the Prius station wagonoffering slightly more space, I think the Ford C-Max has bested theToyota Prius from the throne of "regular" non-plug-ingasoline-electric hybrids, however barely. The Toyota Prius familywas already superb, and Ford has now delivered "Superb Plus."

The Next Step: Ford's Plug-In Cars

A few months ago, Ford started delivering the Focus Electric,which is a powerful all-electric Focus. At $40,000, it is not cheap,especially when a more capable Chevrolet Volt (from

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

) similarly equipped canbe had for perhaps as little as $2,000 more. As a result, the salesfor the Ford Focus Electric have been dismal to date, with only a fewhundred cars sold nation-wide this year.

Here is what Ford is doing to dramatically ramp up its presence in theplug-in electric market: In the next few months, Ford will bebringing to market versions of the C-Max and the Fusion with largerbatteries (7.5 kWh instead of 1.4 kWh) and wall plugs, so that you cancharge them anywhere you have access to electricity.

Both of these cars will be called "Energi" -- the C-Max Energi will beshipping by December this year, and the Fusion Energi approximatelythree months later. Obviously, these versions will cost a little more-- the C-Max Energi starts at $33,745 and although the price of theFusion Energi has not been announced yet, we can imagine it will beabout the same as the C-Max.

These two models will be competing with the Toyota Prius plug-in andthe Chevrolet Volt -- at least superficially. On paper, they are allplug-in gasoline-electric hybrids, but that's where the comparisonlargely stops. Let me explain in detail.

The Toyota Prius plug-in has a relatively small battery and weakelectric motor. This has at least two implications:

1. The all-electric range is very limited. The Environmental Protection Agency certified this car for 11 miles of combined electric/gasoline range in terms ofexhausting the part of the battery that was "filled" from the wallplug. Of those 11 miles, only six are on pure electricity. Obviously,at that point the gasoline engine kicks in and you can drive hundredsof miles.

2. If you accelerate more than moderately, or drive faster than, say,somewhere between 50 and 65 miles per hour, the gasoline engine will kick in.

These two Ford models handily beat the Toyota Prius plug-in on both ofthese accounts, as exemplified by these two facts:

1. The Ford C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi can go at least 20 mileson pure wall-plug electricity before the gasoline engine kicks in.

2. Equally important, the Ford models also have an "EV only" buttonthat keeps the car from turning on the gasoline engine if youaccelerate hard or drive fast.

There is a limitation here, though, and that is you only have 70 kW at your disposal in terms of power, so you are not going to get the full power, which will limityour acceleration and the top speed to 85 miles per hour.

The journalistic corps, including me, has not yet been given theopportunity to drive these two models yet -- this will happen inNovember and February -- but based on this technical information I cansay that it is crystal clear that the two Ford plug-in hybrids aresignificantly more capable than the Toyota Prius plug-ins.

The Toyota Prius plug-in starts at $32,760, or about $1,000 less thanthe Ford. Both of them are eligible for a $3,750 Federal tax creditand some state incentives, such as $1,500 in California.

What about the Chevrolet Volt?

The Ford plug-in hybrid models may be more capable than the ToyotaPrius plug-in, but they pale in comparison to the Chevrolet Volt.There are two reasons for this:

1. The Volt's battery is much larger, enabling the Volt to go 38miles before the gasoline engine kicks in. That's almost twice asmuch as the Ford models.

2. Unlike the Ford models, you get 100% of the performance in theVolt when you are on 100% electric. This means you can go up to 100miles per hour and accelerate 0-60 in 8.5 seconds without the gasoline enginekicking in.

The bottom line: The Ford models are not as powerful and capable ofoperating at full force in all-electric mode as is the Chevrolet Volt,which is the sports car of the bunch.

At the time of publication the author had no positions inthe companies mentioned.

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

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