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Ford pulls ahead of Toyota in plug-in car race

Ford C-Max Energi

Ford

Gas-electric hybrids have not taken the world by storm, but they are attracting a growing following among city-dwellers who appreciate hybrids' fuel savings in stop-and-go traffic. Toyota is certainly the hybrid leader having sold more hybrid vehicles than any other manufacturer and, as a result, earned itself a reputation as a "green car" company.

The next step for hybrids though is plug-in hybrids, which make a great deal of sense for a certain kind of driver. If you're going to be lugging around that large, expensive and extremely heavy battery along with one or more electric motors, it makes sense to be able to drive the thing emission-free on electricity only, which is about 25 per cent the price of gasoline. If you have a driveway and an extension cord (and about 40 thousand bucks) you have all you need to join the plug-in ranks.

Last week, I drove two important plug-in hybrids back to back: the Toyota Prius PHV and the Ford C-Max Energi. It would appear that as hybrids advance to plug-in hybrids, Ford has taken the lead from Toyota.

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Let's go back to the case for hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Both are great for stop-and-go city driving because you generate electricity every time you hit the brakes and you use it when you start from a stop. The plug-in feature means you begin each day (if you remember to plug it in) with a large, fully charged battery. I don't care what the manufacturers claim; in my experience, all you can count on is about 15 to 20 kilometres of electric-only driving and that's only if you take it easy. After that, the gasoline engine kicks in.

But surveys show that's enough range for half of all urban commuters. If you're one of them, congrats – you're gasoline-free (until you take a road trip).

The C-Max Energi (Energi is Ford-speak for plug-in) is a little five-passenger wagon that is the first production plug-in hybrid from Ford. It begins with a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine good for 141 horsepower in addition to which is a front-drive electric motor good for about another 50 hp. It's a heavy car, as is any hybrid with all those batteries under the back seat and in the trunk, but the C-Max zips along and handles beautifully.

The exterior styling is modern and sleek and the interior is a marvel of comfort and spaciousness. Even the MyFord Touch interface into which you give verbal (hands-free) commands to turn on the radio, AC, telephone, whatever works reasonably well. The transition from electric to gas to electric has been very seamless in Ford hybrids from the beginning and the C-Max plug-in is the smoothest yet. You wouldn't call any hybrid a real "driver's car," but the C-Max comes pretty close.

Prius PHV Toyota Toyota

Now we'll move to the Prius Plug-in. There's a "family" of Prius models now, but the Prius Plug-in is based on the original, which is such a favourite of tax drivers who love its reliability and low maintenance costs. The first one was launched in 1997 and the current version still looks much like it with its ungainly aerodynamic nose and rear liftback. It still has an interior of hard plastic and not entirely comfortable seating. It is, and it drives like, a heavy car and you feel all the transitions from gas to electric and back as well as the regenerative braking kicking in every time you take your foot off the go pedal. Steering is sluggish and braking uneven.

Both the C-Max and the Prius Plug-in are storage space-challenged as the lith-ion battery in each takes up space in the back. Toyota, having been in the hybrid game for longer, has set up the Prius Plug-in to take a full charge on three hours of 110 volt current from a house plug. The C-Max takes seven hours – however, you're expected to charge automatically over night on a timer to get cheap electricity, so perhaps the difference in charging times isn't all that significant.

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Comparably equipped, there is no significant difference in price between the two. What is significant is the difference in refinement and driving pleasure. The flashy C-Max has it all over the utilitarian Prius Plug-in. Toyota was certainly the champion in the introduction stage of hybrids. We'll see if they can hang on to this position in the era of plug-in hybrids. If so, they'll need to do some catching up to match Ford.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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