Review and photos by Brendan McAleer

If the automobile is an appliance, then choosing the right one is all about application – you’d have a sad time of it trying to make toast in the microwave. Thus, perhaps a long-legged turbodiesel best suits the daily highway warrior. Those frequently crammed in short-range gridlock might be able to make something like an all-electric Nissan Leaf work – especially if they’ve got free juice on offer at their place of work.

2013 Toyota Prius PHEV2013 Ford C-Max Energi
2013 Ford C-Max Energi vs 2013 Toyota Prius PHEV. Click image to enlarge

Mid-range users could well prefer the flexibility of a hybrid option, with great stop-and-go mileage combined with longer range when you need it. Now the decision gets a bit harder as the manufacturers move the goal posts with the simple addition of plug-in capabilities.

Where’s the Volt? Well, for the purposes of this head-to-head, I instead picked two five-seater family cars that have had an electric umbilicus installed, leaving the longer-range, small-trunked Chevy to duke it out with the Leaf and iMiEV. In the real world, you’re probably best to at least check out the Chevy extended-range electric vehicle poster boy.

Here though, we have the guppy-faced Ford C-Max Energi and the ergonomic mouse of the Prius PHV. They both have cords and battery packs. They both have ordinary gasoline engines and regenerative brakes. In essence, they’re both a sort of hybrid-hybrid: neither a full electric vehicle nor a hybrid, but a split between the two.

In a way, both these machines are the electric car for dummies; you can forget to plug them in, you don’t have to plan ahead, you need never experience that mid-trip sinking feeling when projected range turns out to be dwindling faster than expected because of a series of hills. On paper, they’re both quite similar. In reality, one is good and the other – so to speak – is a warm, soggy slice of whole wheat bread.

Electric range

The primary reason to consider a plug-in over the readily available and much cheaper ordinary hybrid versions of the same cars is electric-only range. Of course it is – why else would you consider spending a premium of around $6,000 for the Prius PHV over a similarly equipped Touring model? It’s the same situation with the Ford, and both lines also have even cheaper base models where the gap grows closer to $10K. (Worth noting: both Ford and Toyota receive a $2500 point of sale rebate in BC, but not all provinces have cash on the table for EV adopters.)

2013 Toyota Prius PHEV2013 Ford C-Max Energi
2013 Toyota Prius PHEV & 2013 Ford C-Max Energi. Click image to enlarge

Judging by battery size, the Ford looks like the better buy straight off, with a 7.5 kWh lithium-ion pack as compared to the Prius’ 4.4 kWh rating. Hah! Way more kwuhs! That’s totally good, right?

Basically, the Ford has the bigger electric fuel tank, but as you know, range isn’t all about how much fuel is onboard, but also how fast you’re burning through it. Toyota advertises “up to 25 km of in city driving” and a claimed recharge time of three hours using an ordinary 120V outlet. The Ford takes a full seven hours to fully charge, and has a claimed electric range of 43 km. More range is better, so the Ford wins, right?

Nope. In real-world testing, both cars fall short in different ways. The Ford consistently burned through the juice in 30 km or so, and eventually its projected range read 31 km on a full charge. While auto writers are inevitably lead-footed, this was the result of a pretty average short-range cross-town commute where there was around 13 km of highway driving involved, including climbing back up the steep North Shore hills on the way back. While range was less than advertised, the C-Max frequently made the trip there and back with diversions for groceries and whatnot without burning one drop of fuel.

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