Before we begin, we must establish that we're going to seriously discuss something called the "Energi." An off-brand sports drink would be ashamed to bear such a name. If a company is going to name their car the "Energi," why not go all the way and call it the "Tiffani," or the "Fettucini"? But the Energi brand now exists, and will therefore be taken on its own terms.
The Energi is the plug-in edition of Ford's new 2013 C-Max Hybrid, introduced earlier this year as a direct competitor to the Toyota Prius V wagon. The idea that Ford would even try such a gambit shocked some people, since the Prius owns its segment as totally as any car ever has. But Ford correctly guessed that the Prius brand, plagued by recalls and years of endless mockery, has lost some of its sheen. The C-Max got some excellent reviews and has now begun its release into the wild. Although long-term drive reports indicate that Ford's estimate of an average 47 mpg for the C-Max may be, to put it charitably, a little high, it's still sold more than 3,000 units since it debuted.
With the Energi, Ford attacks more low-lying fruit: The Prius plug-in. Really, it's not a fair competition, because the Energi is almost exactly like the regular C-Max, while the Prius plug-in is almost exactly like the Prius, except that you plug them both into 220-volt outlets. Drivetrain aside, they're really two different classes of cars, which means that the C-Max wins in almost every category. It's more comfortable, more luxurious, more stylishly designed, and has better legroom, headroom, and cooler dashboard technology. The only category where the Prius plug-in trumps is trunk space, where it has the same amount as an ordinary Prius hybrid hatchback, whereas the C-Max's trunk is largely taken up by an "onboard charger module" that converts AC utility power to DC battery storage energy and looks like a portable nuclear device from a Mission: Impossible movie. This leaves the Energi with essentially a dorm-room shelf to store a couple of bags of groceries, or perhaps the world's smallest bicycle.
More importantly for this segment, though, the Energi gets better gas mileage. While the Prius plug-in can only get a maximum of 11 miles on an electric charge, and sometimes as little as six, the Energi claims 21 miles of electric-only driving, giving it an EPA estimate of 108 gas-equivalent mpg in the city. Combine that with a typical hybrid drive train, which can regenerate electric power at a full stop or when you're cruising downhill without stepping on the gas, and the Energi can go 620 miles on a single fill. That would get you from San Diego to San Francisco with energi to spare.
Based on impressions from a day spent driving the Energi in the city of San Francisco and Marin County, it's safe to say that such a trek would be less exciting than in, say, a Boss 302 Mustang, though it would also be considerably less expensive in fuel. The first part of our drive, from the Embarcadero through downtown, skirting North Beach and over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin, was a revelation. Our example had 17 miles of electric charge left, more than enough to get us out of town. The Energi moved smoothly, with dignified grace. It was as quiet, inside and out, as a nursery after sundown. Driving it felt like gliding on tracks. A nifty animated circular dash gauge, which glowed blue whenever I was regenerating maximum electric power, made a similar tracking system on the Prius seem quaint and techno-dated, like Space Invaders.
After the charge ran out, the Energi gave a little snort, like an old man waking up from a nap on the couch. After that, it was considerably less fun to drive. I watched as my 999.9 average mpg plunged, first into the low three digits, then into the high two digits, ending with a rating of 58-point-something after I finished my 40-plus mile run -- impressive but not shocking.
The drive experience grew more challenging as we left the 101 and headed into the relative wilds of Marin. When it comes to taking hills, the Energi is as reluctant and sluggish as any mid-priced hybrid, and its electric power steering did it no favors around a series of semi-challenging turns that a more driver-friendly car could have handled without much trouble. It felt floaty and amorphous, qualities that were further accentuated when, after a coffee break, we took it on the Pacific Coast Highway, toward Point Reyes. I was glad I hadn't eaten much that day; a big breakfast could have led to big trouble. My co-driver and I were both utterly nauseated. The Energi is a great car for the city, not for a mountain pass.
As alternative-energy vehicles continue to speciate at a mammals-after-the-comet rate, it's hard to know exactly where to place the Energi. It's no Chevy Volt, but with a starting price of $33,745 before a $3,750 federal tax credit that undercuts the Volt's sticker by a couple thousand dollars, it doesn't need to be. Plug-in hybrids might also prove to be just an evolutionary step, or even a misstep, in drive train technology, so it's probably a little early to declare the C-Max Energi as a herald of anything great and new. But it's clear that Ford is coming at the Prius hard, and there's no doubt that with the C-Max and the Energi, it's laid down a hard bet and will be forcing Toyota to respond, and soon. So, given those limited terms, is this a car worth trying if you're an alternative-fuel enthusiast?