It's impossible to avoid talking about "green" and "clean" cars without touching on climate change. And that always unleashes the loonies on both sides of the argument.
That's fine. I enjoy watching loonies in action – for entertainment purposes only. When it comes to actual decision-making and policy, give me New York Governor Andrew Cuomo:
"People will debate whether there is climate change … that's a whole political debate that I don't want to get into. I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations, which is not political," he said at a press conference in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastation.
I watched that give-and-take with the press and it was golden. Cuomo had no interest in debating the actual causes of climate change; it's far too loaded with emotion. But only a deluded fool would say some significant level of climate change isn't happening in the world. Who cares about the cause or causes? I don't and Cuomo doesn't, either.
"Extreme weather is a reality," he said.
"It is a reality that we are vulnerable, and if we are going to do our job as elected officials, we are going to need to make the modifications necessary so we don't incur this type of damage."
This, of course, brings us to battery-powered cars, plug-in hybrids, gasoline-electric hybrids and government-mandated fleet-wide rules for far greater fuel efficiency in new cars and light trucks. The reality of climate change means governments around the world – yes, in China, too – are forcing car companies to become wonderfully creative in making "modification necessary" to meet toughening standards.
Take Ford's 2013 C-Max SEL Energi plug-in hybrid. I'll grant you that $36,699 is steep for a compact minivan with hinged doors, yet consider what Ford has accomplished.
The Prius plug-in has a top speed of 100 km/h with battery power alone. This version of the C-Max – you can also get the regular hybrid version starting at $27,199 – has a top speed of 135 km/h in pure EV mode. (However, the Prius plug-in has a combined top speed of 180 km/h, while the C Energi maxes out its combined speed at 164 km/h.)
Moreover, the C Energi lets the driver punch up electric power on-demand using an E-mode button. The C Energi has a range of 885 km (870 km for the Prius plug-in) and has an electric-only range of 32 km (10 km for the Prius plug-in). Charge times: seven hours with a 110/120-volt outlet, three hours with a 220/240-volt plug.
The C-Max Energi is no slug, either: 195 horsepower (188 horsepower for the Toyota Prius plug-in) fully charged. Moreover, this little wagon carves corners nicely for a "green" people hauler. Other than the price – and an embarrassing lack of cargo space – the C-Max Energi is delightful in every way. Did I mention the official fuel economy numbers?: 1.9 litres/100 km combined highway and city for gas and electric or 4.5 litres/100 km combined for gas only.
Now consider the engineering here – from the inverter system controller to the onboard charger module, from the hybrid transmission to the regenerative braking to the 7.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack with its complex cooling system. We're talking about a triumph of engineering, with a bumper-to-bumper warranty of three years or 60,000 km. The powertrain is covered for five years/100,000 km and all the hybrid electrical components are warrantied for eight years/160,000 km.
The essence of it all is 2.0-litre inline-four-cylinder rated at 141 horsepower, which is bumped to 195 hp when the front-drive electric motor is factored into the equation. Ford uses a fancy continuously variable transmission (CVT) to get power to the front wheels, just like Toyota. The point is, Ford has engineered an ultra-thrifty wagon that moves, hefty as it is with batteries on board: 1,750 kg, or the same as a front-drive Toyota Highlander SUV.
The upside of mass is that it makes the C-Max feel substantial, planted and tight. At higher speeds, the ride is smooth, yet Ford has tuned road manners to feel quick and spirited, in sharp contrast to what Toyota has done with the floaty Prius plug-in. The C-Max Energi is almost entertaining, and at the very least balanced.
Credit Ford for nailing the electric-assist steering. If there's a flaw in the road manners, it's the choppy braking. Ford has yet to find a nice balance of its regenerative braking here.
The everyday functional part of the C-Max Energi is very good. The seating position is slightly higher up, like in a typical minivan. The cabin materials look and feel modern, of the sort you'd expect in a $30,000-something car. The MyFord Touch interface does all sorts of tricks, though you'll need to take 20 minutes to learn it. I also like the power liftgate, but you need to buy a whole package of options ($1,700) – including a better stereo – to get it.
Put that liftgate to use and you see that the cargo floor isn't level with the top of the rear bumper and this appears to be real storage issue with the battery-laded Energi. At least the rear seats fold flat.
In the end, let's not debate the causes of climate change; it's here and it's real. One upside: it's unleashed enormous creativity at car companies. The C-Max Energi is proof.
2013 Ford C-Max Energi SLE
Type: Compact four-door wagon
Base price: $36,999 (freight $1,550)
Gas engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 141 hp/129 lb-ft
Electric drive: 118-hp electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack
Transmission: Two-speed CVT
Base drive: Front-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 1.9. city/highway combined using regular gas; 4.5 city/highway combined gas only
Alternatives:Toyota Prius plug-in, Chevrolet Volt