First Drive: Ford C-Max Energi

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The instrumentation is similar to the other latest all-new Ford models such as the Focus, Escape and Fusion. The broader appearance is a bit busy, but functionally it is very good. Ford's economy and mid-range corporate dash is among the best in the business, avoiding incomprehensive complexity in favor of old-fashioned simplicity.

The only drawback in the dash area I could find was the plastic steering wheel. It's the one thing you touch by far the most with your hands, and therefore the steering wheel should be thick and made out of leather. The Volt gets this right, as well as the Tesla (TSLA) Model S. BMW also also allows you to order a comfortable leather steering wheel. The thin plastic ones are slippery and uncomfortable -- a deal killer for some people.

So far, so good: The C-Max Energi fits five huge people, and the dash is mostly pleasant to use. Now for the bad part: The luggage space.

The extra batteries to enable you to drive an average of 21 miles in all-electric mode raise the luggage compartment's "floor" so that it looks positively weird -- in a bad sense. Unlike any other car in the market that I can recall, the "floor" is now so high up that it's like reaching for a shelf in an upper kitchen cabinet.

What is left of the luggage space is discouraging to those who plan on transporting more than a couple of briefcases. Trips to Costco? Forget it, unless you plan on folding the rear seat or utilizing that space for groceries otherwise. Aside from the Fisker, I have not seen any car, except for extreme exotic cars, with less trunk space. Certainly this is the station wagon with the least amount of luggage spare in the market today.

The Ford C-Max Energi starts around $30,000 after a $3,750 Federal tax credit. In addition, many states offer additional incentives. For example, California offers a $1,500 rebate. In comparison, the Chevrolet Volt starts at only $32,500 after a $7,500 Federal tax credit. The base price of the Toyota Prius is similar to the Ford C-Max Energi.

So which one to buy? The Ford beats the Toyota on every metric except the tiny luggage space. This is a deal killer for some, but not for others.

For just a couple thousand dollars more, the Chevy Volt gives you superior electric range (38 miles vs. 21) and much more powerful acceleration and sport dynamics. However, the Volt sits low, and with smaller doors making it relatively difficult to get in and out. The Volt's back seat fits only two people easily if they're shorter than 5'11.

In conclusion, there is no clear-cut winner for every person's needs in this comparison. The Prius wins if you need to transport five people and the most amount of luggage. The Ford wins if you need to transport five large people and can't stand the Toyota's lesser performance. The Volt wins if you want a 2+2 sports car with superior electric car performance.