A Baby Step in EV Ownership

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi.

We’ve heard a lot about electric cars lately, both good news and not-so-good news. The latest bad news is that two locally-based EV companies, Coda and Fisker, are on the ropes and will probably not survive very long.

More so-so news comes from sales numbers. Projections of how many people wanted to cough up premium prices to go gas-free were a little off. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf were being discounted after sales numbers slid. Early adopters got them, but then many mainstream buyers were turned off by the driving range, the price, or probably both.

There’s now a way to sort of stick your toe in the waters of EV ownership without having to take the full plunge. A plug-in hybrid vehicle can give you some of the benefits of driving an electric car, without the drawbacks.

Ford Motor Company has two such plug-in hybrids on the market right now, both with the sub-name “Energi.” (Ford’s spelling…not a typo on my part.) Both the Fusion Hybrid Energi and C-Max Hybrid Energi can travel short distances on their stored battery power, just like a pure EV.

But unlike a pure EV, they then have a conventional hybrid engine system to take you as far as you may need to go on gasoline. Heck, you could drive them to New York if you so choose. That’s what makes them appealing.

I spent some time with a C-Max Energi recently, and got a feel as to what it would be like to live with one. The regular C-Max is sold only as a hybrid, and has an advertised rating of 47 miles per gallon city or highway. That figure has been called into question by everyone from owners to Consumer Reports, but let’s just say 40 miles per gallon is certainly possible.

Where the Energi differs is in battery capacity. The usually cavernous cargo area is made slightly less so by an extra battery pack sticking up from the floor, which supplements the regular hybrid battery beneath. Thanks to the extra juice on board, Ford claims that you can drive via electric power alone for up to 22 miles.

There’s a charging port on the driver’s side front fender which accepts the now-standard J1772 electrical connector from public 240v charging stations. Or you can use the provided charging cord that plugs into any conventional outlet and use 120v power.

Charging time is fairly quick, and once charged up, the C-Max Energi will show 20 miles or so on its battery minder gauge. Stomp on the accelerator pedal, or go really fast on the freeway, and that range will drop pretty significantly.

I decided that I’d use the Energi as it was designed to be used, and not try to “hyper-mile” it. Typically, I was able to pull it off the electrical outlet at the ABC7 facility in Glendale, drive home (5.5 miles), drive to the gym and back in the morning (3.8 miles round-trip), then travel back to ABC7 for a total of just under 15 miles, with the car still functioning as an EV and showing 2 miles remaining on its battery capacity.

What’s nice about Ford’s system is that you can choose when you want to use your plug-in power via a mode selector button. “Auto” means that the car will decide when to use the battery charge. “EV Now” means just that: You’re telling the car to stay in pure electric mode until the juice runs low. And “EV Later” saves the electricity for a time when it might be most efficient, such as when you’re doing short trips on city streets.

Someone with a short commute could essentially go for days without the Energi’s gasoline engine switching on. But if you need to go farther, it’s no problem. The car will behave just like any other hybrid. Yes, the Chevrolet Volt is technically a plug-in hybrid, but you don’t have as many options as to how your electric power is doled out to the wheels.

You’ll pay more for the Energi version compared to the regular C-Max Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid. (There’s about a $4000 premium, but current tax credits can erase most of that.) You’ll also lose some luggage capacity, as the extra batteries have to go somewhere. But back to the plus side, they’re eligible for special carpool lane stickers.

But these plug-ins are definitely worth checking out. Especially if you’re not sure whether you might be an electric car person.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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