Thinking about a plug-in hybrid? Ford just lengthened your short-list by 50 per cent
San Francisco, Calif. — Throughout the short but hectic history of hybrids, automakers have tried a bewildering array of variations on the technology itself. But whatever form the actual hardware has taken, one decision has remained simple: either package the gas-electric powertrain in a unique body specific to the hybrid, or offer it as an additional powertrain choice in an existing product line.

Now here comes Ford with a hybrid family that bridges both categories. The Ford C-Max is already well established in Europe as a mainstream compact people-mover offering a wide choice of conventional powertrains. At one point, Ford was even planning to bring gas-engined C-Maxes to Canada and the U.S.

That plan is now on the back-burner, however, and instead the C-Max is to be sold here only as a Hybrid. Hence, this side of the pond, it has the same exclusivity as a Toyota Prius: when people see you driving a C-Max, they know you're driving a hybrid, the whole hybrid and nothing but the hybrid.

Actually there are two C-Max hybrids

2013 Ford C-Max Energi(Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

The basic C-Max Hybrid operates like any other conventional hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) that makes its own electricity as it drives; the object of our attention here, however, is the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) with a larger battery that can be pre-charged with an initial dose of electricity from a wall-plug or a charging station.

Like other PHEVs (notably, the Chevy Volt and the Prius Plug-in) the C-Max Energi bridges the gap between conventional hybrids and full electric vehicles. After an overnight charge the PHEV can operate in purely electric mode for most if not all of the average commuter's daily drive. After that initial charge is used up, the PHEV reverts to normal hybrid operation, with the gas engine and the electric motor taking turns or working together as needed.

In the case of a PHEV, determining the optimal electric range is not as simple as "the more the better." More EV range requires a bigger battery, which adds weight, which hurts fuel economy in HEV mode. Not to mention more interior space being taken up by the battery.

There is little agreement among automakers on how much EV range is appropriate for a PHEV. The Chevrolet Volt, for example, is batteried-up for an electric range of around 60 kilometres; the Prius plug-in, conversely, settles for around 18 km (all range figures based on U.S. EPA tests). Other areas of divergence include how fast the automaker let their PHEVs go in EV mode, and how long they take to recharge.

Along comes C-Max

2013 Ford C-Max Energi(Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

Into this spectrum comes the C-Max Energi, which projects about 34 km of range, or an EV top speed approaching 140 km/h (the Prius plug-in is limited to 100 km/h) and a 240V recharge time of around 2.5 hours (Prius, 1.5 hours; Volt, four hours). Ford also claims a combined EV and HEV range of 1,000 kilometres, which it says is 130 more than the Prius Plug-in.

This is Ford's third-generation hybrid powertrain. An Atkinson-cycle 2.0-litre gas engine is paired through a power-split CVT transmission with an 88-kW electric motor — all also shared with the C-Max Hybrid.

Although both C-Maxes share the same five-seat body, the Energi's larger batteries add about 259 lbs of mass and also encroach into cargo space, down from 24.5 to 19.2 cu.-ft. with the seats up and from 52.6 to 42.8 seats down. The wagonoid Prius v is closest in size to the C-Max, though the Prius Plug-in is based on the smaller hatchback version. The Fords boast more passenger room than either Prius, but the Toyotas out-space their respective Ford equivalents in seats-up cargo room.

The Energi's $36,999 MSRP is almost $7,000 more than the regular C-Max Hybrid ($30,199) with the same SEL trim (the Hybrid is also available in an SE grade starting at $27,199). Depending on your province, however, available government rebates narrow the gap. In Ontario, for example, the plug-in qualifies for $5,808 while the plain hybrid gets only $1,000.