Review: 2013 Ford C-Max Energi

Ford\'s new plug-in hybrid five-door is put to the test to see if it lives up to its fuel economy claims.

Tainted by early reviews from media and owners alike, the Ford C-Max Energi entered the Leftlane garage with something of a stigma before we'd even hopped behind its wheel.

Simply put, our colleagues and buyers plunking down cold, hard cash (or at least signing a check or two) haven't been impressed with this plug-in hybrid's real-world fuel economy.

To put these concerns to the test, we ordered up a C-Max Energi to see how it would perform in our hands.

What is it?

Dig deep into the C-Max Energi's DNA and you'll find what the European market calls an MPV - a multi-person vehicle. More of a tall hatchback than a van, it straddles the increasingly fluid line between crossover and van. MPVs are big business in Europe, but this bodystyle hasn't really caught on in the U.S.

Overseas, the C-Max line consists of several powertrains, but all those set to be sold here are hybrids motivated by a four-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor tied to a lithium-ion battery. The Energi tacked onto our tester indicates that it features a larger battery and a power cord stowed under the rear passenger footwell that allows it be operated on electric power only for what Ford pegs as a 21 mile range. Notably, the C-Max Energi lets drivers select when they want to use the stored-up EV power.

The C-Max Energi can either be charged up in seven hours using a standard household outlet or about 2.5 hours when plugged into a 240V outlet. Of course, you don't have to plug in the C-Max Energi to enjoy it, but that would defeat the purpose of dropping about $8,500 more on the Energi than its regular hybrid sibling.

Plug-In hybrid fuel economy figures using the EPA's test are tough to explain. Not using its stored EV power, the C-Max Energi is rated at 44/41 mpg (city/highway) and 43 mpg combined. Factoring in the electric motor, the Energi scores a commendable 100 mpg-equivalent, a complicated figure derived from the amount of energy required to deliver a full charge, among other measures.

Underneath, C-Max rides on the same platform as the Ford Escape and Ford Focus, which helps explain why all three models have essentially identical dashboards.

Our particular test car was further loaded up with most of the available options Ford offers, including a $1,195 fixed glass roof. We like seeing the stars as much as anyone, but it seems odd to have a moonroof that can't actually be opened.

What's it up against?

There's not much continuity in the plug-in hybrid class, which makes it something of a rag-tag group. Consider cross-shopping the C-Max Energi against Ford's own Fusion Energi, the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius Plug-In.

Of those, the 50 mpg combined Prius is the most fuel efficient when driven like a hybrid, while the Volt's 38 mile EV range reigns supreme thanks to its much bigger battery.

What's it look like?

Differing little from the standard C-Max aside from a swivel-opening electric power port in the driver's side front fender, the Energi looks kin of like a Ford Escape that was melted by a six-year-old with a magnifying glass. Or maybe a Ford Focus hatchback that was left in the microwave for too long.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Nowhere near as dowdy as its MPV billing might suggest, the C-Max Energi benefits from Ford's new Aston Martin-inspired corporate grille, as well as a set of particularly classy alloy wheels. Viewed head-on, the C-Max looks narrow, which befits its European heritage. From the rear, it appears more like the mini-minivan that it is.

And on the inside?

C-Max's aforementioned Focus and Escape-sourced dashboard isn't great to look at, but it has at least become pretty familiar over the years. We're not big fans of its lumpy, alien-inspired shape, although at least most of the controls are mounted up high for the climate and audio control systems.

Unfortunately, the latter is connected to the controversial MyFord Touch infotainment system. Improvements have made MyFord Touch more reliable and easier to use, but it still features a hefty learning curve for both its touchscreen and its voice commands and it occasionally lags behind user inputs. The system froze once during our test, requiring us to restart the C-Max entirely. Given our experience with other MyFord Touch-equipped vehicles, this is hardly an isolated event.

The LCD screens that make up the C-Max Energi's instrument cluster work much better, delivering standard trip computer functions on the left side of the speedometer and a choice of modes on the right that include a nifty "leaf growing” page to indicate how efficiently the driver has been operating the brakes and throttle.

When the C-Max Energi is shut off, the left screen handily displays fuel economy and electric-only use for the last trip.

Functionally, the C-Max Energi's interior is also a mixed bag. Front and rear passenger space is excellent all around and the big side windows offer terrific outward visibility. However, what lies behind the rear seat could be a deal-breaker for some.

Since Ford adapted the C-Max to fit the Energi's bigger battery pack, its cargo space is seriously compromised by an eight inch higher load floor. Put a carry on-size suitcase on its side and it will block part of the rear window - it's that bad.

But does it go?

Like the standard C-Max, the Energi starts with a 141-horsepower, 129 lb-ft. of torque 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Adding the electric motor and 7.6 kWh lithium-ion battery bumps that figure to 188 horsepower or, during charge depletion mode - think full throttle - 195 ponies.

As a result, the C-Max feels relatively sprightly, aided by a continuously variable transaxle that seemed to be on its best behavior during our evaluation by droning only a bit at higher rpms during highway merging. A rocket it is not, but the C-Max is more than adequate in terms of its ability to keep up with traffic.

Moreover, its steering is delightfully direct and nicely weighted, especially up against the sloppy Toyota Prius. Add to that terrific tiller a firm but compliant ride plus commendably strong brakes and the C-Max's European roots become clear.

Speaking of brakes, the C-Max Energi's instrument cluster includes a handy "braking coach” display to coach drivers on how best to regenerate otherwise lost energy during braking.

But that's where the positives end. In our testing, we simply couldn't come close to any of the EV range and fuel economy figures quoted on the vehicle's window sticker.

The C-Max Energi allows drivers to select when they want to use the car's EV power, although the system defaults into EV mode with every restart. Even fresh off the charger and delicately driven on low speed neighborhood streets, we could never coax more than 15 miles of electric-only range. By comparison, our last Volt routinely saw upwards of 30 miles per charge.

Moreover, normal driving in hybrid mode never netted anywhere near the 43 mpg average. Driven as delicately as possible (aka "Prius driver mode”), we saw 38 mpg, while more normal "keeping up” driving netted as low as 31-32 mpg.

According to the trip computer, more than one-third of our evaluation was spent in EV mode, which leads us to conclude that the C-Max Energi's gas engine is something of a guzzler.

If anything, our testing seems to indicate that Ford has engineered the C-Max Energi specifically for the EPA test. That's understandable, if not necessarily excusable, since clearly the EPA test doesn't match up to real world-style driving.

Leftlane's bottom line

Though the C-Max's driving dynamics are at the top of its class, we have a hard time coming up with any compelling reason to select the Energi.

Not only did it fail to deliver anything near the advertised fuel economy and EV range, its compromised trunk limits its practicality.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi base price, $32,950. As tested, $36,635.

Package 302A, $1,695; Panoramic moonroof, $1,195; Destination, $795.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.

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