Most of us have been driving for quite some time. We’ve picked up habits, mainly due to a traffic-driven mob mentality, that aren’t conducive to optimizing fuel efficiency. We drive about ten over the limit, wait too long to brake, use excessive throttle actions around town, and a host of other habits that, while not necessarily wrong when driving a gas powered vehicle, work to suck money out of our pockets on a regular basis.
In my short career as a budding automotive journalist, I’ve been handed the fobs to a few of Ford Motor Company’s plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. While experiencing these cars I’ve come to see the points where my bad fuel efficiency habits have taken hold. My week with the C-MAX Energi gave me a chance to unlearn some of them. If unlearn isn’t a word, it should be. We all know that these techniques are inefficient, but we do them anyway.
The Ford C-MAX Energi is one of the first plug-in hybrids Ford is offering to American drivers (Fusion and Focus will soon gain Energi branding, too) and the first hybrid, plug-in or not, I was able test over the course of a week. Let’s just get right down to it since, as far as most drivers of hybrids are concerned, like the first term of the Clinton administration “It’s the (fuel) economy, stupid”.
At the beginning of my week with the C-MAX Energi, I didn’t know its EPA numbers. I did know the numbers for the standard C-MAX hybrid, which I had an opportunity to try out this past summer, of 47 mpg city, 47 mpg highway and 47 mpg combined so I set a goal of matching or exceeding those numbers without taking drastic hypermiling measures. First, I had to get the C-MAX Energi back to home base.
The trip west from Manhattan to Warren County, NJ, a 50+ mile commute that isn’t as outrageous as you might think, was driven in the same fashion I usually drive. Maintaining a middle lane appropriate speed of 70-75 mph on a lovely, warmer than usual fall afternoon, I achieved an average of 45.5 mpg with a low of 43.7 mpg as I exited the interstate for some lower speed rural and in town driving. I had received the car with just 11 miles of EV charge left and with a 31 mile average FE of 46.9 mpg on the trip computer, so the overall drop off of just 1.5 mpg over 40 miles from its starting average didn’t cause any concern. The relatively high speed interstate portion of the ride is what dragged the number down to a back of the napkin derived 40.1 mpg highway.
Compare that to a trip I took later in the week after I had unlearned some bad fuel efficiency habits. I put the Energi in EV later mode, one of the three (Auto, EV and EV later) available by pushing the button below the HVAC controls and reset the trip odometer for a drive to Fort Lee to meet up with Dan for the photo shoot. On this trip, I set the eco-cruise control on 67 mph and kept right as much as possible ultimately achieving a 47.9 mpg average. Well, that was easy…
Unlearning those bad habits has a beneficial effect
There are techniques you’ll learn as you drive the C-MAX Energi that assist with efficiency. With regenerative brakes, both C-MAX models can recoup some energy that would normally be lost to excess heat via the friction brakes. Actuating the brake pedal will cause a “Brake Coach” to appear to the left of the speedometer. If you are just slowing down, it will indicate whether you are using regen or friction. If you come to a complete stop, it will score you based on the percent of energy you recover versus the maximum. At this time, I’ll be happy to pat myself on the back (since you can’t reach) for repeatedly getting a 100% score from the old brake coach. Actually, its not all that hard to do once you get used to the feel and learn to softly apply the brakes. Another habit some of us may have to unlearn is using engine braking to slow down or maintain a lower speed (and save some brake pad) when traveling down hills. In the C-MAX you’re better off riding the brake pedal lightly to replace some of the energy lost climbing up the hill in the first place.
Using the wheel-mounted directional pads to operate the left or right side displays, you can choose from a plethora of screens that can show anything from simple fuel usage and level to dynamic displays for power source, battery usage, the trip computers and other efficiency info on the left. The screen I liked showed power draw on a circular gauge (which, except for the graphics looks very much like the kicker display in Madden Football) and changed from blue to white when C-MAX Energi changed over from EV to charge sustaining mode. It included fuel level as well as battery and total range. The right side display is for redundant MyFord Touch displays including Navigation and Entertainment, as well as the graphic leaf display I mentioned in the C-MAX Hybrid quick drive. Using the displays to keep the C-MAX Energi from directly engaging the 2.0L Atkinson cycle I4 will allow you to take advantage of its 108 MPGe city and 92 MPGe highway mileage. I reached 102.2 mpg on one trip shorter than the EV range. If you can continue without drawing power to the wheels from the gas motor, when it does kick in to recharge the cargo area mounted battery stack, it’s rated up to 43 mpg.
Driving C-MAX in my normal cycle of rural two lanes and crosstown traffic generated a wide range of efficiency numbers as low as 38.5 while in EV later mode, purposely driving it poorly, to a high of 52.2 on the exact same 40 mile route in EV auto mode and driving conscientiously. The majority of my trips ended in the low to mid 40’s, mainly based on around town type driving. You could make the argument that in the real world of speedy interstate commuting the C-MAX Energi and hybrid will fall off the EPA figures. You wouldn’t be wrong since the highway test is done about 15 mph slower than most of us drive regularly, but that’s no different in any vehicle. If you want better mileage, pull your damn foot out of it. I can accept 40 mpg at 70-75 mph.
Lets take the time here to discuss operating costs. Local pricing for regular, which is the recommended fuel, at the time of the test was $3.59 per gallon. I put $26.00 or 7.24 gallons in the C-MAX Energi while I had it. Local electricity rates from JCP&L are $.1424395 per KwHr. I didn’t charge it the first night, but using the standard 25 ft. long 120V charge cord I did charge it six nights and three times during the day, though those were not full charges. I estimate the total KwHr at about 62 which is a cost of about $8.83. For the week, that’s $34.83. Some of those nighttime charges were on very cold nights, mostly in the mid twenties for overnight lows with the coldest night getting down into the mid teens. I saw fully charged ranges as low as 14 miles on that night and as high as the claimed 21 on a night that stayed in the low thirties. That’s a big difference. Not unexpected, but big. After a week with C-MAX, I ended with a $.095 per mile energy cost based on those figures and 366 miles driven. Remember, that included some runs where I was purposely driving inefficiently, so a careful driver can likely beat that.
The Energi shares the standard C-MAX’s powertrain, as do all of Ford’s standard and Energi branded hybrids. There are many hp ratings for the PHEV, the 2.0L engine is rated at 141 hp@6000 RPM and 129 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 RPM. The electric motor is rated at 47 hp. Adding them together gives you the 188 hp rating in charge sustaining mode listed in most advertising, while in charge depletion mode that number can climb to 195 for the Energi. If you intend to reach the upper end of the RPM range, I would suggest cranking up that 9 speaker audio system to cover up the gravelly sound of the Atkinson cycle engine. PHEV’s tend to be silky smooth when the engine isn’t in use so that may be why the sound is so intrusive when it does kick in. If you can ease into the throttle gently, C-MAX Energi will use only the electric motor right up to 85 mph while the standard hybrid will hit 65 before engaging the engine.
Acceleration is reasonably brisk if you floor it and cruising and passing at highway speeds are nearly effortless.
Acceleration is reasonably brisk if you floor it and cruising and passing at highway speeds are nearly effortless. I didn’t get a chance to pass anyone on one of New Jerseys nearly extinct two lane passing zones, but as long as the car you’re passing doesn’t try to turn it into a street race you should have no issues.
Based on the same basic underpinnings as Focus, C-MAX has a comfortable ride that doesn’t pretend to be sporty. The electric power assisted steering doesn’t feel as if there is any sensation at all feeding back to the driver. Though it does respond to inputs quickly enough those inputs induce some body roll, mainly in the rear, that wasn’t evident in my (very) short test of the standard C-MAX. On the trip west from NYC, I interpreted it as feeling a little “tail happy” at highway speed. The battery stack and charger are mounted in the cargo hold behind the rear seats and sit well above the bumper height. Besides adding weight in general, placing it that high in any vehicle will create that sensation. That stack also cuts into cargo space behind the seats to the tune of around 5 1/2 cubic feet, and like the Focus Electric, it does reduce the utility of the taller wagon.
There are a couple other complaints besides the limited utility of the cargo area: I experienced some voice activation confusion with the Sync system at highway speeds, but not at lower speeds. Also, as much as I love heated seats, I’m not a big fan of the seat heater controls. Located at the base of the center stack in front of the gear selector, they’re awkward to reach and irritating to operate while driving. Five settings seem like a great idea, but having to look down and roll the controller to a particular number is distracting, especially since there was no obvious difference between the settings other than 1 and 2 being a lower setting than 4 and 5. On top of that, there was no positive indicator that I had engaged it until my butt got warm. Maybe a simple high/low/off button with a couple LEDs would be easier. This next comment is more of an observation than a complaint. I park outdoors, and while the charge cord easily reached where it had to so I could plug-in, at night the cool light ring lit the entire side of my white house up with a blue glow easily visible from hundreds of feet away. As plug-ins become more common, there will come a time when the less honest of our fellow citizens will see that glow as advertising that a fairly expensive charge cord is vulnerable to pilferage. I suggest having the ring shut off after dark via the light sensor in the auto dimming rearview mirror or when the fob goes out of range.
For a base price of $32,950 you expect to get a well equipped vehicle and C-MAX Energi delivers in that respect. Highlights include the drivers side 10-way power seat with the aforementioned heating for both front occupants and leather for all five, plus on the steering wheel and shift knob. Also standard are heated mirrors with integrated signals and blind spot mirror, keyless entry, power everything, Sync with MFT, 6 months of Sirius, Passive anti-theft system, perimeter alarm, SOS post crash alert, MyKey, illuminated entry (sorry, no bat signal shining on the ground, just a pool of light), a rainbow’s worth of ambient lighting hues and a boatload of airbags. The 301A Premium Audio and Navigation package upgrades the infotainment to the 9 speaker Sony Sound System with HD radio and iTunes tagging, and Navigation. Opting for the 302A group adds to that the hands free power liftgate and rearview camera, while stepping up to the $2495 303A group that our tester was equipped with piles Front Sensing System collision alert and Active Parking Assist on top of all that. This car also had the Panoramic Glass Sunroof with power sunshade for $1195 and Ruby Red paint for $395. The as tested price of $37,830 includes the $795 destination charge, but not any available incentives. When I was writing this, Ford was offering $3750 on a similarly equipped Energi which would have resulted in a price of $34,080.
While the jury is still out on the economics of purchasing a hybrid over a conventional gas engine car, a lot of people would rather give their hard earned money to a car manufacturer than to a gas station attendant, for both practical and political reasons. A PHEV can post an economic dividend over the period of your ownership if you’re willing to drive it appropriately, but if you drive like most people do you won’t get the most out of it. Yes, it’ll still be more efficient than a gasoline fueled vehicle at those speeds but it might not be enough to offset the upfront cost of the purchase. Especially if fuel prices stay well below the $4 mark. C-MAX Energi does make a few compromises to play ball in this field, mainly the battery location, but so do most others. In the end no matter what you purchase, hybrid or otherwise, you need to feel you are getting a good car for the money. In my opinion, both the C-MAX Energi and C-Max Hybrid are good cars. It’s up to the people driving them to make them good hybrids.
Feel free to quote me at the deposition.