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Since the first hybrids hit the market more than 10 years ago, the thought of being able to drive entire stretches of my commute without running the gas engine piqued my interest in this technology. There's one particular two-kilometre stretch by Memorial Park, over the Osborne bridge and through the Village in Winnipeg where choosing to drive home from downtown at the wrong time will frequently allow drivers to marvel at pedestrians' ability to outpace them.
The first time I drove a Prius in this scenario I was able to loaf along at a snail's pace without using but a drop of petrol. And that's where hybrids shine.
I was fascinated, then, last autumn when I first got my hands on a Fusion Energi and managed to drive my entire 12-km commute to work on electric power, regardless of the pace of traffic. I even had enough juice left in the battery pack to make it most of the way home again without recharging it.
But that was then, and this is winter.
Ford has loaned me one of their 2013 Fusion Energi press cars for six weeks in the depths of our Prairie winter. And this year, even though very little of our great nation has been spared the Old Man's wrath, it has been a particularly challenging one in the centre of the country, with extended stretches of -30 C weather accompanied by truly exceptional wind chills to make this the coldest winter in recent memory. It doesn't help that we've seen 63 per cent higher snowfall than normal as well. Usually it's one or the other; this winter we get both.
Plug-in hybrid technology slots between conventional hybrid and full electric technology. Technically, it has more in common with a conventional hybrid -- an Atkinson-cycle engine that is highly efficient but characteristically low in torque and thus well-suited to being paired with a torquey electric motor. But this is a hybrid with a twist: the lithium-ion battery pack has a total energy of 7.6 kWh (the regular Fusion Hybrid's battery has 1.4 kWh).
And rather than just relying on the gas engine and regenerative braking to charge the battery pack, the car includes a standard SAE J1772 plug interface to allow charging from the grid. A full charge from a 120V power source (what everyone has at home) takes seven hours; hook the pack up to a 240V source and that time drops to 2.5 hours.
The Fusion is not the only plug-in hybrid on the market; Ford also makes the C-Max with the same powertrain and Toyota offers a plug-in version of its Prius hybrid. And Honda has introduced a plug-in version of its Accord hybrid, but it's available south of the border only.
As with most electrified cars, this one holds big promise: According to the US EPA, this is a 100 mile-per-gallon (equivalent) car. The MPGe figure is intended to represent the car's combined consumption of gasoline and electricity. Transport Canada's figures show a combined rating of 1.9 L/100 km, which equates to 124 miles per equivalent U.S. gallon; a figure we expect to be optimistic.
But how optimistic? Ford's press material gives the Energi a pure-electric range of 34 km; we will be putting the system to the test by monitoring its range in various temperatures and with different heating loads and looking at whether the gas engine is relied upon in cold weather, even when there's a charge in the battery pack.
Several technologies are in place to help attain Ford's goal of allowing a good number of drivers to get around without starting the gas engine. There's an AC compressor that draws directly from the battery pack for cooling while the engine isn't running. An electric coolant heater is in place to get warm air into the cabin without requiring the engine to run.
A power-split transaxle manages power delivery from the electric traction motor and gasoline engine to propel the vehicle. It also allows the engine to run as a generator to feed charge back into the battery pack. And regenerative braking has been the primary method of using "free" energy from decelerating and turning it into an electrical charge for the battery. In a conventional system, this energy is lost through friction and subsequent heat generation; a regenerative braking system makes use of the energy and as a side benefit allows the brake pads and rotors to last significantly longer.
The 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle engine produces 141 hp and 129 lb-ft of torque; together with the electric motor the total system power jumps to 188 hp.
As a vehicle with leading-edge technology, the Energi is predictably pricey. A base Ford Fusion can be had for $22,499, but the Energi costs a Fiesta more at $38,899. It is well-equipped, however. There's the high-tech powertrain contributing to most of that price difference, but the Energi SE also gets heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, MyFord Touch user interface, a 110-volt power point, fog lamps, LED tail lamps, and a whole bunch of other goodies.
Our tester is the $41,399 Fusion Energi Titanium, which adds upgraded 12-speaker Sony audio, parking sensors, rear-view camera, push-button start and factory remote start. Add the $300 ruby red paint, $600 active park assist, $1,500 adaptive cruise control, $700 navigation system, $1,450 driver assist package (blind-spot and lane-departure warning, automatic high beams and rain-sensing wipers), plus some other miscellaneous charges, and you arrive at our as-tested price of $46,339 before destination and taxes. Yes friends, we're surpassing the $50K mark including taxes for a Ford Fusion.
From a practical perspective, the Energi differs from other Fusion models in one very important way: cargo volume. Where the gas-powered Fusion enjoys 453 litres of trunk volume, the Energi's cargo hold is cut in half at 232 litres. Plus, there's no pass-through. The batteries eat up half of the Fusion's available cargo capacity, not to mention adding 136 kilograms to the car's weight at the curb.
We tried going to my daughter's hockey practice -- four of us, a hockey bag and a stick -- and realized the hockey bag had to occupy one of the five passenger positions and the stick had to be inside the car, too, because neither of these fit in the trunk. So now, the Fusion sits in the garage when the four of us go to hockey.
I've done a few of these winter tests with non-conventional powertrains in the last several seasons; a Lexus HS 250h, Audi A3 TDI, and Kia Optima Hybrid each had an extended stay with me over the frigid winter months. It's certainly a case of "your mileage may vary," but the Audi and Lexus consumed roughly the same amount of fuel in winter city conditions over their stay with me; the Optima's consumption was shockingly high.
I'll exercise full disclosure right here: In general terms, I'm not a hybrid fan, mostly because people seem attracted to them for the wrong reasons. This is not a financial decision, and there is no point in calculating a breakeven point with the premium paid up front versus money saved at the pump. But, I find the technology fascinating and will provide some real-world data based on my experiences in a good, old-fashioned Canadian winter.