The Chevrolet Volt and the Ford C-Max Energi are both compact plug-in hybrid hatchbacks. Each is powered by a combination of electricity from the grid, used to charge an onboard battery pack, and a four-cylinder engine.
But the two are very different vehicles in shape, accommodations, and driving behavior--though each one will likely have its fans, we've given our nod to one of them by a fairly wide margin.
The Chevy Volt is an all-new second generation of the range-extended electric car. It's better-looking, provides more electric range, accelerates faster, and is quieter and more refined inside. It won all sorts of awards for 2016, including the Green Car Reports 2016 Best Car To Buy title. The current Ford C-Max Energi remains almost identical to the version launched in 2013 alongside the conventional hybrid version of the C-Max.
The Volt is a low, sleek hatchback that's racier and less slab-sided than its predecessor. We see elements of the last Honda Civic in parts of its design, and more than a little similarity to the latest Cruze compact sedan. The C-Max, on the other hand, is an upright five-door vehicle that's either a tall hatchback or a small minivan--you be the judge. Against the latest Volt, its lines are chunkier, but they conceal more interior room.
Inside, the Volt will hold four adults in form-fitting bucket seats separated by a wide tunnel that holds the battery pack. There's a fifth "seating position," basically a padded space between the two outboard seats. While it may work for a lithe teenage athlete, larger or older adults won't be comfortable--and it's only really for emergencies. The C-Max, on the other hand, holds four comfortably and five acceptably. Its battery pack is sited under the load-bay floor, which is higher than you'd expect in a vehicle this size--and offers correspondingly less cargo room.
Bodies aside, it's electric range that most differentiates these two plug-in hybrids. The Volt now has 53 miles of EPA-rated range, up from last year's 38 miles, while the C-Max Energi is rated at just 19 miles of range. Both use transverse four-cylinder engines with two-motor hybrid systems powering the front wheels. Sophisticated software controls the engine and electric power, battery charging, and regenerative braking, with the goal of minimizing combined energy use. Once the battery is depleted, the Volt is rated at 42 miles per gallon combined, the C-Max Energi at 38 mpg combined.
But a key difference is that the Volt always runs purely on electricity until its battery is depleted. Unless the weather is below freezing, its engine never turns on if there's charge in the battery. Chevy's data shows that nine out of every 10 trips in the new Volt won't involve the engine at all. The C-Max Energi is a more traditional plug-in hybrid: When the driver floors the pedal, the engine has to switch on. Unlike the Volt, the battery and electric motors alone can't power the C-Max under all conditions.
The Volt's engine is a 101-horsepower 1.5-liter four that runs on regular (87-octane) gasoline. Total output to the wheels from the Volt's two motors is 111 kilowatts (149 hp) and a remarkable 294 lb-ft of torque. The C-Max Energi uses a larger 2.0-liter four; between the engine and the hybrid system's two electric motors, total output is 195 combined horsepower. The Volt's battery has an energy capacity of 18.4 kilowatt-hours, while the C-Max Energi has a 7.6-kWh battery.
Each vehicle is smooth under electric power and has its engine noise relatively well isolated. Though you'll be aware of the engine when it switches on, neither car gives anything like the desperate, anguished engine howl that characterized the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid (now temporarily out of production).
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has issued safety ratings for the new Volt. All Volts come with 10 airbags and a rearview camera as standard, along with a wide range of optional safety features. Those include blind-spot alert, lane-keeping assist with lane-departure warning, forward collision alert, automatic braking, rear cross-traffic alert, and advanced parking assist. The IIHS has named the C-Max Energi a Top Safety Pick, though it lacks the advanced electronic safety systems that would take it to the highest "TSP+" level. It gets a four-star overall rating from the NHTSA, and comes standard with seven airbags, including a driver's knee bag, and a backup camera.
The Volt carries a base price just below $34,000, with the C-Max Energi starting at about $2,000 less. Adding optional equipment to the higher trim levels of each car can take the total to $40,000 or higher. The Volt qualifies for a Federal income-tax credit of $7,500, while the C-Max Energi's credit is just over $4,000. Each is eligible for a $1,500 purchase rebate from the state of California.
In the end, the Volt beats the C-Max Energi on the basis of much longer electric range, its quiet and sophisticated all-electric running under all circumstances while there's charge left in the battery, and its advanced safety features. But the C-Max Energi offers more interior space, so if you value capacity over electric range, it's the plug-in hybrid for you. We think most people will find the Volt's 53 miles considerably more appealing than the 19 miles from the C-Max, and will revel in the Chevy's all-electric running.
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