Taking a test drive with some of Ford's newest hybrid models.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I recently got a chance to drive the hybrid gasoline-electric versions
of Ford Motors' (:F) two new cars, the C-Max and the Fusion.
A few short months from now, these two cars will be followed by variants that incorporate larger batteries and a wall plug. More about those versions later in this article.
The Ford Fusion hybrid competes squarely with Toyota's (:TM) Camry hybrid.
Everyone can see that the Fusion beats the Camry's fuel economy rating 47 miles per gallon to 41, but what about the rest of the car?
Most people will agree the Ford looks a lot better on the outside, and I found the Ford to have the edge on the inside as well, although perhaps to a lesser degree.
Driving the cars, I found the Ford is at least as powerful and that the gasoline-electric-gasoline transitions are even smoother than the already smooth Toyota. Both cars perform very well overall, but it's hard not to draw the conclusion that Ford has out-engineered the new Fusion in comparison to Toyota's already very excellent Camry hybrid.
I also drove the Ford C-Max hybrid, which shares the identical drivetrain with the Fusion hybrid. The C-Max is basically a short and slightly tall station wagon, which competes with the regular and "V" (station wagon) versions of the Toyota Prius.
Most people would agree the Ford C-Max looks better than any of the Prius models. It doesn't look as stunning as the Fusion, perhaps, but I found it to be better than the Prius for sure.
In terms of the interior, and the dashboard in particular, the C-Max adopts Ford's new nearly universal corporate ID, and is therefore a lot more conservative than the regular Prius and the "V" station wagon.
Which one is better? It's a matter of taste here. A technology fan such as me would normally prefer the Prius, but in this case I think I would tip in favor of the Ford C-Max, because it is so relatively uncomplicated.
In terms of interior space, the Ford C-Max sits somewhere in between the regular Prius and the "V" station wagon. The Prius V clearly has more luggage space, and it also has an adjustable rear seat for the ultimate in small-car rear-seat comfort. However, the C-Max compares favorably both in terms of size and comfort to the regular Prius.
In terms of fuel economy, the Ford C-Max hybrid, at 47 miles per gallon, sits in-between the regular Prius at 50 mpg and the Prius station wagon at 42 mpg. Performance-wise, it was clear to me the Ford offered more power and is also perhaps slightly smoother in the electric-gasoline-electric transitions. All in all, the Ford is fully competitive performance-wise.
So what about the bottom-line Ford C-Max vs. Toyota Prius verdict? With a few caveats, primarily the one about the Prius station wagon offering slightly more space, I think the Ford C-Max has bested the Toyota Prius from the throne of "regular" non-plug-in gasoline-electric hybrids, however barely. The Toyota Prius family was already superb, and Ford has now delivered "Superb Plus." The Next Step: Ford's Plug-In Cars
A few months ago, Ford started delivering the Focus Electric, which is a powerful all-electric Focus. At $40,000, it is not cheap, especially when a more capable Chevrolet Volt (from General Motors (:GM)) similarly equipped can be had for perhaps as little as $2,000 more. As a result, the sales for the Ford Focus Electric have been dismal to date, with only a few hundred cars sold nation-wide this year.
Here is what Ford is doing to dramatically ramp up its presence in the plug-in electric market: In the next few months, Ford will be bringing to market versions of the C-Max and the Fusion with larger batteries (7.5 kWh instead of 1.4 kWh) and wall plugs, so that you can charge them anywhere you have access to electricity.
Both of these cars will be called "Energi" -- the C-Max Energi will be shipping by December this year, and the Fusion Energi approximately three months later. Obviously, these versions will cost a little more -- the C-Max Energi starts at $33,745 and although the price of the Fusion Energi has not been announced yet, we can imagine it will be about the same as the C-Max.
These two models will be competing with the Toyota Prius plug-in and the Chevrolet Volt -- at least superficially. On paper, they are all plug-in gasoline-electric hybrids, but that's where the comparison largely stops. Let me explain in detail.
The Toyota Prius plug-in has a relatively small battery and weak electric motor. This has at least two implications:
1. The all-electric range is very limited. The Environmental Protection Agency certified this car for 11 miles of combined electric/gasoline range in terms of exhausting the part of the battery that was "filled" from the wall plug. Of those 11 miles, only six are on pure electricity. Obviously, at that point the gasoline engine kicks in and you can drive hundreds of miles.
2. If you accelerate more than moderately, or drive faster than, say, somewhere between 50 and 65 miles per hour, the gasoline engine will kick in.
These two Ford models handily beat the Toyota Prius plug-in on both of these accounts, as exemplified by these two facts:
1. The Ford C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi can go at least 20 miles on pure wall-plug electricity before the gasoline engine kicks in.
2. Equally important, the Ford models also have an "EV only" button that keeps the car from turning on the gasoline engine if you accelerate hard or drive fast.
There is a limitation here, though, and that is you only have 70 kW at your disposal in terms of power, so you are not going to get the full power, which will limit your acceleration and the top speed to 85 miles per hour.
The journalistic corps, including me, has not yet been given the opportunity to drive these two models yet -- this will happen in November and February -- but based on this technical information I can say that it is crystal clear that the two Ford plug-in hybrids are significantly more capable than the Toyota Prius plug-ins.
The Toyota Prius plug-in starts at $32,760, or about $1,000 less than the Ford. Both of them are eligible for a $3,750 Federal tax credit and some state incentives, such as $1,500 in California.
What about the Chevrolet Volt?
The Ford plug-in hybrid models may be more capable than the Toyota Prius plug-in, but they pale in comparison to the Chevrolet Volt. There are two reasons for this:
1. The Volt's battery is much larger, enabling the Volt to go 38 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in. That's almost twice as much as the Ford models.
2. Unlike the Ford models, you get 100% of the performance in the Volt when you are on 100% electric. This means you can go up to 100 miles per hour and accelerate 0-60 in 8.5 seconds without the gasoline engine kicking in.
The bottom line: The Ford models are not as powerful and capable of operating at full force in all-electric mode as is the Chevrolet Volt, which is the sports car of the bunch.
At the time of publication the author had no positions in the companies mentioned.
This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.