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Endurance Test: Ford C-Max Takes On Chevy Volt

Tickers in this article: F GM
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- After over 20,000 miles in General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Volt, it was time to test Ford Motor's (F) answer to the Volt, the C-Max Energi, for a 1,247-mile drive, mostly at high speeds of 65-75 miles per hour. The verdict is complicated.

Let's start with the body: The Ford is a tall but somewhat short station wagon. Think of it as a mini-mini-minivan. The only drawback is the battery intrudes materially into the trunk space, which will be a deal-killer for many potential buyers.

The Ford's back seat is one of its key selling points. It's easy to get in and out, and you can fit three very large and tall basketball players. In contrast, the Volt fits only two people no taller than 6 feet, and it's a chore to get in and out given the low seating position and smaller doors.

The Ford's other major advantage is its behavior at high speeds. It is as quiet as a BMW 750, with outstanding steering. There are zero shakes or rattles. The thick and heavy doors close like a big Mercedes S550. Setting the cruise to 75 MPH and driving over 500 miles per day was a pleasure.

The Volt is also good for those 500+ mile days, except for two things. First, there is more wind noise and other noise coming from the suspension. Second, its 1.4-liter engine doesn't produce enough energy to climb very long (15+ miles) and steep mountain passes at 75 MPH without engaging "Mountain Mode" some 15 minutes before you start heading uphill.

What about fuel economy? This goes into two parts. Let's start with electric drive. The Volt goes 38 miles on electric, except if the temperature falls below 35 degrees, at which point the gasoline engine engages from time to time. This switching operation is ultra-smooth.

The Ford can go 21 miles on electricity, but I found it to be very sensitive to some combination of cold temperatures (more like 50 degrees than 35 degrees) and various unspecified "maintenance modes" where the gasoline engine often came on despite being put into "EV only" mode.

On the whole, it was very unrefined when compared to the Volt, with the gasoline engine delivering herky-jerky power when driven at very low speeds.

Furthermore, the Ford's EV-only mode has a lot less power -- at least a third less -- than the Volt. When flooring it in a steep curvy uphill road, the Ford simply lacks power, and even engages the gasoline engine even though half the battery power remains. In contrast, the Volt has sports car power and never turns on the gasoline engine if there's battery power left.

This speaks to the Volt's main advantage: Its much larger battery, which is liquid-cooled/heated and has much more powerful electric components.

Yes, this costs more to manufacture, but the performance/smoothness advantage is also huge. Being able to drive 38 miles on electricity at full power is dramatically better than 21 miles with herky-jerky low-speed gasoline engine interruptions, and at much lower power in the Ford.