Hybrids shall save the world: they are the sole eliminator of global warming and fill the hole in the ozone layer just as quickly as the leaves on their instrument panels grow.
Or so the eco-mentalists will have you believe.
It's no secret that this is just a bunch of fluff – especially in the automotive world, where it's well known that diesels get better fuel economy, are cleaner, and aren't compromises. As a result, plug-in hybrids must be even worse, right? They're like hybrids on steroids.
Turns out, there is a secret that eco-mentalists have managed to effectively and selfishly keep from us petrol-heads.
That is, until now.
* * * * * * * * *2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Look at this thing! It's the new European Mondeo: an elegant and restrained design, seeming even better when you consider it's 'just' a midsize family sedan. The only differences are that it's called "Fusion" here and that we get the sedan, but none of the five-door models.
North America is also the first to sample the hybrid powertrain: a two-liter four-banger works with an electric motor to keep you moving.
Trouble is, it's really obvious that they don't like each other.
There's a dead spot in the first bit of brake pedal travel, within which only the regeneration system – using otherwise lost heat and friction to charge the batteries – is activated.
Braking a normal car smoothly involves pressing the pedal lightly. Trying to do that in this car only gets you re-gen, not actual braking. This makes you look like one of those people who enjoy running red lights as a pastime.
As such, you have to press harder on the brakes, passing that threshold – that's when the brakes actually activate, jerking the car to a stop as if you're taking your first driving lesson. The brakes go from almost no bite to complete bite with the wiggle of your big toe.
The gas pedal is similar: there's a dead spot initially, within which the car's only using the electric motor.
In order to get more power, you must push past this threshold and wake the engine, wherein the little four-banger grumbles roughly while not propelling you with any considerable quickness.
The experience is unpleasantly loud and slow.
It's impossible to drive this car smoothly. The Ford rep in the passenger's seat was right when he said that it's best when driven like a granny would.
So much for those good looks, at least for the Hybrid version – it's a compromise to drive.
* * * * * * * * *2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
Another Ford straight outta
Trust me, there's a business case for this. Sit inside one and you'll see what it is.
This is one of the few cars in which you actually sit – like in the Mercedes Sprinter van, you are seated very vertically as in a comfortable dining room chair, in an attentive position. There is also New Beetle-like headroom: both rows make you feel as if you're sitting in a concert hall.
Trouble is, the hybrid battery takes up half the trunk space...
Oh right, I'm supposed to talk about it being a hybrid: it has an identical powertrain to the Fusion above, but it has a bit less weight to carry around.
As such, the brakes aren't as grabby and the gas isn't as lazy, but the engine still complains when you use it and the brakes will still bite if you're not careful.
The difference is that it's possible to be smoother. Regardless, the C-Max doesn't manage to make the engine and electric motor BFF's; it just makes them barely tolerate each other's existence. Most of the time.
It's still a compromise to drive.
* * * * * * * * *2013 Ford Fusion Energi
The Energi models have the same powertrain with even more green hybrid tech installed. They must be even worse!
The Energi models are plug-in hybrids, meaning that apart from working like traditional hybrids, their batteries can also be plugged into an outlet and charged that way, too.
Since the whole point of a plug-in is to boost electric range, the battery and electric motor are stronger to match, delivering that extra range that hybrids can't.
As a result, you can get up to speed without the gas engine turning on at all: at speeds over 20-ish, the engine is already working in the Hybrids. The engine doesn't kick in until at least a good 70 km/h in the Energis.
Acceleration is worlds apart, too. The Hybrids are slow and coarsely loud; the Energis are quiet and accelerate confidently.
Having a stronger electric drive system means that you can take advantage of electric motors' instant torque and
With the Fusion Energi actually being quick, I was satisfied enough to notice other things about the car. Its suspension is fairly stiff, meaning that it handles very well. The steering is also weighted more than I expected, giving you that controlled, involving feel that's crucial for any brisk driving experience.
The leather wheel is soft and very padded: you won't find a hard spot no matter how hard you squeeze...
On the downside, the sloping roof-line makes headroom borderline scarce with a sunroof, and somewhat lacking in the back row.
* * * * * * * * *2013 Ford C-Max Energi
If the Fusion Energi is quick, the C-Max is even quicker. Remember that weight thing? A capable drivetrain coupled with less mass means that the C-Max was the quickest-accelerating car of all these: this thing pretty much goes like something turbocharged, and I'm not exaggerating.
You get speed and use no fuel while doing so.
This C-Max also had the panoramic sunroof, transforming the cavernous cabin into a still-cavernous and airy cabin, bathed in light.
Compared to the Fusion, the C-Max is tuned more for comfort. It has softer suspension and lighter steering, showing its best when soaking up bumps and potholes instead of taking the aggressive corners its quickness suggests. That said, it's a joy to drive around town, and its engine kicks in later than that of the Fusion above.
The Energi is better equipped and uses half as much fuel as its regular hybrid counterpart. Unlike the Hybrids, the Energis allow you to manually lock the engine out of the propulsion equation.
What all the cars have, though, is a continuously-variable transmission: an automatic with no gears! Imagine a bicycle's gears all melted together, with its drive-chain going up and down them, as necessary. That's what a CVT is.
The practical implication of all this is that once you've put it into "D", you no longer think about it: the thing just does its job, while you drive. That's also why these cars have no manual mode.
(All four cars tested also had wonderfully-trimmed interiors.)
So, plug-ins are mechanically more like electric cars; hybrids, like gasoline cars. Hybrids combine the worst of both gasoline and electric cars.
Plug-ins, though, are actually fun to drive, both despite and because of that extra 'green-tech'.
The secret's out.