BERKELEY, CALIF. -- For many Americans, the basic compact car stands as a matter of sacrifice -- to financial constraints, to fuel economy demands, to the exigencies of urban crowding. But what if the design of small cars could be reformulated to transcend their size?
For an answer, Ford Motor looked to Europe, where small cars, like small apartments and un-Gulplike beverage servings, are accepted realities of life. The company found a solution in its C-Max, a five-seat people mover it has sold in Europe since 2002 but began offering in the United States only last fall.
Ford made a bet that American drivers would get used to, and even come to like, the high-roof design of the C-Max. Its tall proportions create a spacious interior in a small format -- a layout common on the other side of the Atlantic but one that has struggled for acceptance in this market.
Then, one might say, Ford went "all California" and remade the American-market C-Max into the company's first exclusively hybrid model. There is no gasoline-only C-Max offered in the United States, only hybrids: a standard gas-electric C-Max Hybrid and a plug-in version, called the C-Max Energi, that can recharge from the power grid.
Though it shares its basic dimensions with a Ford sibling, the Focus, the C-Max is more spacious and comfortable; tall passengers gape in amazement at its generous headroom.
That was the experience of Jim Hough, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound Navy veteran who leased a C-Max Hybrid in October. Mr. Hough, from San Jose, Calif., considered his 2007 Ford Taurus "too confining" but appreciates the accommodations of his new car. "I can open the door of the C-Max and simply get in it like I'm in my living room chair," he said.
The C-Max is bigger and bulkier than a compact -- the Energi plug-in, with its larger battery, weighs a substantial 3,900 pounds -- but is smaller than a crossover. The doors feel exceptionally heavy and solid for a car this size, closing with a thud. Visibility is excellent, and the horn is a loud baritone.
Though the car's space-maximizing proportions may be more functional than typical compacts, they don't stir strong emotions. Still, the C-Max is pleasing enough to the eye, even if it is seems slightly large for its frame, like an attractive person who is described as big-boned. The dashboard layout, as on many other Ford vehicles, is a mishmash of levels, bevels and angles.
The C-Max's road manners bear little resemblance to the way typical gas-electric models respond. The Hybrid's 188 total horsepower (the combined output of the 2-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and a 118-horsepower electric motor) reveals itself in a guttural roar during highway passing, the only time I could detect the presence of a combustion engine. Ford engineers have perfected the art of hybrid smoothness.
The downside of the C-Max not driving like a hybrid is that its fuel economy can also be unlike a hybrid. In the week I spent with the C-Max Hybrid, followed by a week with the C-Max Energi plug-in, the gas mileage varied wildly.
In my first 175 miles with the C-Max Hybrid, I managed only 35.9 miles per gallon. That's shamefully below the E.P.A. rating of 47 m.p.g. for both highway and city driving, something noted by reviewers and owners (and has resulted in a class-action suit against Ford in California).
But then, on two occasions I used only a single gallon of gasoline to complete a 50-mile highway trip, handily beating the E.P.A.'s estimate. Mr. Hough said his mileage averaged in the low 40s.
Consumers who want a more certain leap in mileage should consider the C-Max Energi, which went on sale in October. For the Energi -- Ford's tag for plug-in models, also applied to a coming version of the Fusion sedan -- the 1.4 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack used in the Hybrid is swapped for one with a 7.6 kilowatt-hour capacity that is recharged from the grid.
The larger pack can be replenished in less than two-and-a-half hours through a 240-volt outlet, enough for about 20 miles of all-electric range. Total output for the Energi plug-in rises to 195 horsepower because of the larger battery pack's greater ability to deliver electricity to the motor. Otherwise, the gas engine and continuously variable transmission are identical to those used in the C-Max Hybrid. The E.P.A. combined mileage rating for the C-Max Energi is 100 m.p.g.e., or miles per gallon equivalent.
It was fascinating to see how long after a full charge I could maintain the maximum 999 m.p.g. reading on the dashboard. That startling number -- a misleading way of showing that no gas was being consumed -- usually lasted about 17 miles. Then, with the gas engine starting, the number would drop to 400, 300, 200 and lower.
Ford provides three modes to the C-Max Energi driver, aptly named EV Now, EV Later and EV Auto. The choices are refreshingly straightforward (unlike the car's maddening Sync interface for infotainment systems), and, I think, would logically become a standard way of offering multiple modes in plug-in hybrids.
Think of the Energi's 7.6-kilowatt-hour battery pack and its 14-gallon gas tank as two separate, interchangeable sources of energy. In the EV Now mode, the car uses only electricity as long as the battery pack has remaining charge and you drive at highway speeds. By choosing EV Later, the driver elects to only use gasoline, reserving the electricity for a different time; with EV Auto, efficiency-minded sprites in the car's software make the decisions.
One of my days with the C-Max Energi required 24 miles of travel, of which 21.6 miles were battery-powered, using 6 kilowatt-hours of electricity.
For a 59-mile journey from Berkeley to the San Francisco airport and back -- three times what the battery pack can deliver for electric-only propulsion -- I returned home with a reading of 67.7 m.p.g. That number takes into account the initial miles on battery power and the gas used once the Energi's battery was depleted.
At that point, the C-Max Energi provided the same fuel economy as the C-Max Hybrid -- about 40 m.p.g. around the city and close to 50 m.p.g. on the highway -- despite being some 260 pounds heavier.
But keep in mind that if most driving is within the Energi's 20-mile real-world E.V. range, as it was for me, the C-Max would effectively serve as an electric vehicle.
With the Energi's plug-in benefits come compromises, however. First, the copious cargo room that is among the C-Max's best features is seriously reduced to make room for a larger, awkwardly placed battery pack that is about the size of a large suitcase. With the rear seats folded flat, the cargo capacity drops to 42.8 cubic feet in the C-Max Energi, from 52.6 cubic feet of cargo for the C-Max Hybrid.
Moreover, in its battery-only mode the C-Max Energi is short about 70 horsepower that would normally come from the gas engine. It is still smooth, fairly quick and incredibly quiet, but not as much fun to drive as a Nissan Leaf and certainly not in the same league as a Tesla Model S.
Despite its higher base price, the buyer's cost to acquire a C-Max Energi may prove to be lower than it would be for a C-Max Hybrid when federal and state incentives are considered. The basic C-Max Hybrid SE starts at $25,995. A loaded hybrid SEL with features like premium audio and heated seats, tops $30,000.
By comparison, my Energi SEL test car carried a window sticker of $36,635. The C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid has a base price of $33,745. Subtract a federal tax credit of $3,750 and the price drops to $29,995. California buyers qualify for a $1,500 cash rebate, reducing the price of the Energi in that state to $500 below the Hybrid SEL.
Why would anybody, except those who can't stretch beyond the barest C-Max Hybrid trim, or are unable to live with 10 fewer cubic feet of cargo space, not opt for the plug-in Energi? For those who can splurge, I'd recommend the option package with Active Park Assist , just to experience this "look ma, no hands" feature.
Regardless of whether the fuel economy is simply good or truly outstanding, car buyers will be hard pressed to find as much efficiency, utility and innovative technology in a package as small and affordable as the C-Max models.
INSIDE TRACK: Driving small, living large.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.