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2013 FORD C-MAX ENERGI: The power and glory

New plug-in hybrid enters the ring

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Ford says the C-MAX Energi sips less fuel than the Toyota Prius, scoring a combined 100 miles per U.S. gallon on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new MPGe rating, compared with the Toyota's 95 estimate.

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The C-Max introduces a host of unique features, including an industry-exclusive hands-free rear liftgate, a versatile seating configuration with five seats in the main cabin and two smaller seats in the third row, twin sliding doors and active park assist.

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As a mover of people, any C-MAX is wider and taller than any Prius, offering more room for passengers.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Each time Ford launches a new electrified vehicle of some kind, inevitably, rival Toyota takes a licking.

Two months ago, Ford launched its new 2013 Fusion Hybrid sedan. And the American automaker's media presentation was chock-a-block with references to how much better its hybrid sedan was over its rival Japanese automaker's Camry Hybrid sedan -- especially in Toyota's wheelhouse, fuel economy.

Gathered here again in the electrified vehicle-friendly State of California, Ford is showing us its new 2013 C-MAX Energi plug-in gas-electric hybrid. And we're not two slides into the PowerPoint presentation when Toyota's Prius Plug-in Hybrid is taking it on the chin.

Ford says its C-MAX Energi betters the Prius Plug-in with more horsepower (195 versus 134), a higher top speed in electric mode (137 kilometres an hour, 37 more than the Toyota), a greater range on a single tank of gas and a fully charged battery (1,221 kilometres, or 352 more than the Prius) and almost three times the electric-only range (42 km).

Most importantly, Ford says the Energi sips less fuel, scoring a combined 100 miles per U.S. gallon on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new MPGe rating, compared with the Toyota's 95 estimate.

Then, to seemingly twist the dagger in Toyota's heart deeper, Ford officials are quick to point out that, overall, the U.S. automaker leads the Japanese automaker in fuel economy in every new-car segment -- not just the low-volume, electrified stuff.

The C-MAX Energi plug-in electric hybrid is the latest in a deluge of electrified Fords, ranging from the gasoline-electric Fusion and C-MAX Hybrids, the pure-electric Focus and forthcoming Fusion and a future Fusion Energi plug-in. Both front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact C-MAX tall wagons are based on the current Focus platform.

Originally, gas-only C-MAX models were planned as natural rivals to the likes of the Mazda5 and Kia Rondo. At some point, though, Ford canned the internal-combustion-only C-MAX for North America (gas and diesel versions are sold in Europe), saying it wanted to have a "dedicated line of hybrid vehicles," much like how Toyota markets its burgeoning Prius family.

The biggest difference with the $27,199 C-MAX Hybrid SE and the $36,999 C-MAX Energi SEL (beyond its new front-fender electrical socket and more standard features with the SEL trim) lies in the Energi's rear cargo area.

There lies a higher-capacity lithium ion battery pack than now packs 7.6 kilowatt-hours, compared with the Hybrid's 1.4 kW-h. Using the C-MAX Hybrid's 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gas engine, battery-driven electric motor and a continuously variable automatic transmission, the Energi's higher-capacity battery pack allows it to deliver its electric-only-driving capability and better fuel economy overall.

Oh, yeah. There's also the extra hassle of remembering to plug the C-MAX Energi in. In that regard, Ford says its battery pack can charge in as little as 2.5 hours when using a 240-volt charging station. (Canadian Best Buy stores are selling home versions for $1,599.)

Over the C-MAX Hybrid, the Energi also gets a new driver-selectable system that can choose among three modes: EV Auto, where the car's computer decides how much to toggle between the gas and electric motors; EV Now, which delivers electric-only power; and EV Later (a gas-only mode that charges the batteries).

During our 75-km drive route from San Francisco's Embarcadero hotel district north to the coastal town of Point Reyes, our C-MAX Energi's battery dried up after 26 km and we averaged an indicated 50.1 mpg. (or 4.7 L/100 km). Of course, that's not anywhere near Ford's claims, but most EVs deliver the same real-world letdown.

Fuel economy aside, the other area where Ford loves to take Toyota to task is how more driver-oriented its electrified vehicles are. And with good reason.

Inside, the C-MAX Energi's ergonomics are more intuitive than those of the Prius, with a better driving position and a conventional dash design similar to the Escape and Focus. The Ford's build quality is higher, too.

While the extra weight that the battery-packed C-MAX Energi needs to carry means it loses some of its body composure on tight corners and big dips, the Ford's steering has more meat than the Prius Plug-in and its ride isn't as flinty. And, as a mover of people, any C-MAX is wider and taller than any Prius, offering more room for passengers.

Although Ford asserts that the No. 1 priority with new-car buyers is fuel economy, there's a reason why electrified vehicles are still only a sliver of the market: They're much more expensive to buy.

Ford estimates that driving a C-MAX Energi saves almost $7,000 in fuel costs over the course of five years compared with the "average new vehicle." But that saving doesn't even make up the almost-$10,000 price difference from the C-MAX Hybrid (not including the $1,600 home charging gear.)

So, while Ford may have beaten Toyota's plug-in one-on-one, the C-MAX Hybrid seems like the smarter decision.

--Postmedia News

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