First Look: Ford C-Max Hybrid

One of the great ongoing debates in the automotive world is which of the many alternative-fuel strategies will emerge as the magic key to consumer acceptance and big sales for automakers. Will it be parallel-series hybrids like the ones already on sale for the past decade? Will be it dedicated battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) like the new Nissan Leaf? Or will it be plug-in hybrid powertrains like the new Chevy Volt? No one really knows, as evidenced by the fact that the Ford Motor Company is hedging its bets and plans to provide vehicles with a wide range of alternative-fuel powertrains. Witness the upcoming C-Max, which will be offered both with a familiar parallel-series hybrid powertrain like the one in the current Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan as well as a plug-in hybrid powertrain in the C-Max Energi. Ford will also offer its new Focus not only with conventional powertrains but also as an electric model beginning in late 2011.

The C-Max Hybrid and Energi, for their part, will go on sale sometime in the 2012 calendar year. All C-Max models for the U.S. market will be built at Ford’s newly retooled Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, which is powered in part by a solar energy generator system. The C-Max Hybrid will, like the Fusion Hybrid, use Ford’s so-called powersplit architecture, which in theory allows the Fusion to be driven in electric mode only at speeds up to 47 mph. Ford is targeting even higher all-electric speeds for the C-Max Hybrid, but we’d say, don’t hold your breath, because in our experience most hybrids don’t operate in electric-only mode at anywhere near the speeds their manufacturers claim.

One of the more interesting aspects of the C-Max Hybrid and the Ford Focus Hybrid, which will precede the C-Max to market, is that they will use advanced lithium-ion battery systems developed and assembled in-house by Ford in Michigan. “We’ve chosen to do battery development in-house,” says Mark Fields, Ford President, the Americas, “to make them more affordable.” This is a big and somewhat brave step for Ford, considering that most automakers rely on suppliers to conduct the R&D and execute production of battery packs for hybrids.

Here’s some other interesting news on the C-Max: The C-Max you might already have heard about is the SEVEN-passenger, long-wheelbase C-Max, known as the Grand C-Max in Europe. It will be offered only with conventional powertrains and it was supposed to precede the alternative-powertrain C-Max models for sale in the USA. But now it looks like the C-Max Hybrid and Energi models, offered only in the short-wheelbase, five-passenger body style, will go on sale here before the seven-passenger C-Max, because Ford is looking to move long-wheelbase C-Max production to North America and that will delay the process. Confused? So are we. But know this: sometime in 2012, you will be able to drive a C-Max Hybrid or a C-Max Energi plug-in Hybrid, and you’ll be able to bring four passengers along for the ride.