ROAD TEST: Energi to spare

Ford C-Max hybrid is a recent arrival in Canada

September 13, 2013
by Tony Whitney

From the July-August 2013 print edition of Fleet Management

Ford’s C-MAX range of compact multi-purpose vehicles has been available in Europe and other markets since 2003, but this interesting Ford product is only a recent arrival in Canada, launched for the 2013 model year. It fills a significant gap in the Ford lineup and adds interest to a vehicle segment that’s not particularly well served in North America.

The C-MAX has an optional rear camera and power tailgate.

This second-generation C-MAX competes with rivals like the Mazda5 (which shares a similar platform), the Kia Rondo, the Chevrolet Orlando and several other products. The C-MAX does not have the sliding rear doors of the Mazda5, nor its three-row seating, but remains a vehicle of great versatility and considerable fleet potential, with both versions offering outstanding economy.

In world markets, the vehicle is offered with several power options including gasoline and diesel models. In Canada, Ford has aimed straight at the heart of the hybrid market by listing not only a conventional hybrid, but a plug-in hybrid too. There is no gasoline-only or diesel version for our market right now and no sign of one on the horizon.

At a glance:

Body Style: Four-door, compact van

Engine: 2L, 4-cylinder, plus electric motor

Transmission: CVT

Performance: 0-100kmh in 9 seconds

Fuel economy: 4.3L/100km City; 4.7L/100km Hwy.

Price: MSRP $36,999

This road test was with a C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. There are two trim levels for the hybrid vehicle—SE and SEL—but the Energi plug-in comes only in SEL trim. This is a nicely styled four-door, five-place vehicle with a big rear hatch and a rear seat that folds flat so large loads can be carried when the need arises. There is a certain price to be paid on the cargo front thanks to the battery location, but it’s not too bad. It’s compact and easy to park, making it great for urban use, yet it’s very roomy inside and business users get most of the benefits of a larger van in a smaller package.

The nose treatment is a grille much like the one on the Fusion sedan. There are sporty-looking bulges around the wheel arches, though this is by no means a sporty vehicle. The wheels, with their cast alloy rims, fill these arches nicely and there’s no hint of those stance-ruining gaps some vehicles are cursed with. In all, it’s a fine looking rig, even if it is a little on the tall side.

Both C-MAX models use next-generation Ford powersplit technology and the company claims the vehicles offer electric mode at higher speeds than any other hybrid—135 kmh for the Energi with its 195-hp engine. Ford is aiming to match or better the economy levels of most rivals in the hybrid class. As with other hybrids and plug-in hybrids, the C-MAX uses a combination of gasoline engine and electric motor. Using a dash-mounted EV button, the driver can select one of three modes offering various levels of fuel conservation. The C-MAX can be operated either as all-gasoline (when a charge is needed), all electric (when the battery is topped up) or “normal” which brings in the hybrid system that switches from gasoline to electric automatically as dictated by conditions.

The gas engine is a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder which combines great economy and commendable refinement with a worthwhile amount of power and torque. Lithium-ion is used for the battery system and the batteries in the C-MAX are 25 to 30 percent smaller and 50 percent lighter than the nickel-metal-hydride units used in first-generation hybrids. The C-MAX uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and it certainly functions with great smoothness, even under hard acceleration.

The vehicle can be plugged into a standard 120-volt household outlet for charging, or use one of the increasingly common public charging stations, which provide quicker charges from a 240-volt supply. Many fleet operations have had charging stations around for years, but they’re easy enough to find around towns and cities. Many municipalities offering these chargers don’t demand a fee for using them either. There’s a smartphone app available to help drivers find charging stations, which comes in handy when in unfamiliar territory. Regular charging is the secret to getting the very best out of a plug-in hybrid.

While many would-be buyers might think all the technological effort has been directed to the novel drive train, this is far from the case. The version we tested was loaded with all kinds of features that may not be available in rival vehicles, including a navigation system, a rear camera, an automated parking system and even a power rear liftgate. Of course, packing in all these options does run up the price a little (not to mention the weight), but you’ll end up with one of the most full-featured hybrids on the market and after all, you’re not going to be spending much on fuel. Considering how well the C-MAX Energi is fitted out, it might even deserve to be called a “compact luxury vehicle”.

Multi-coloured displays make interpreting data on the motors easier.

It’s comfortable for everyone on board and would be a great choice for long road trips. Fuel-stingy it may be, but it’s fun to drive and the torque from the electric motor adds some useful power on hills. It also handles reasonably well without being a “performance car” and with a full suite of state-of-the-art electronic braking and stability aids, it should be exceptionally safe. The instrument panel is contemporary, with multicolored readouts to help you keep track of what the electric motor and gas engine are up to. It’s very easy to keep a constant track on fuel economy and the tendency is for the driver to get the best out of the vehicle, even if only for bragging rights on fuel consumption. As with all recent Fords, the fit and finish is first-rate, with excellent interior ambiance and plenty of soft-touch materials.

This C-MAX variant is far from cheap for a compact, but when it comes to operating expenses, the savings will be significant. In fact, Ford claims the vehicle can save over $7,000 in fuel expenses over five years compared to an average new vehicle. That could be the clincher for many buyers.