AS MUCH AS I hate to be topical, I have driven, in just the last few days, a fresh-from-the-factory Ford C-Max Hybrid SEL. Last month, Green Car Reports—that Bolshevik rag—reported that the C-Max Hybrid and the Fusion Hybrid it tested (they share hybrid architecture) didn't come close to delivering their Environmental Protection Agency mileage ratings of 47/47/47 miles per gallon, city/highway/combined. This supports similarly scandalous findings this month in Consumer Reports.
I read that and thought, Yup.
Hyundai, Honda and now Ford have been accused of cooking the mileage books, and in the first blush of evidence—I just ran a tank of gas through the C-Max and got 33.9 average mpg—I also judge the C-Max's rating to be grossly inflated.
Photos: Falls Short on MPG
But a couple of notes: I drive hard, especially when I'm alone. And…wait, can I just take you somewhere on the driving-hard thing? I'd like to introduce the Neil Scale of Necessary Cruelty. Driving a high-performance street car—let's say, the all-wheel drive, 545-horsepower Nissan GT-R—on public roads is frustrating to the point of being sexual. That car is so toweringly capable, so effortlessly violent, you cannot get anywhere near its limits on the street. You spend most of your time throttling back your own testosterone.
However, a little commuter gelding such as the Ford C-Max Hybrid, that you can thrash. It's actually fun, and informative, to cane a family car: tires squeal, wheels come off the ground. It's a hoot. Around town, the C-Max has loads of hybrid-system torque, blasting off quietly from stoplights, a bookworm hooligan. Give that a 5 on the Neil Scale.
The point is, I drove the C-Max Hybrid pretty hard and that lowered my mileage. Still, with the cruise control set on 76 mph on a dead-flat four-lane highway in mild conditions, the C-Max's instantaneous mileage readout was fixed at 35.8 mpg, well short of nominal.
It must be noted: The C-Max's across-the-board 47 mpg is a monster number, almost patently suspicious. We are looking at a 3,607-pound vehicle with 188 hybrid horsepower (2.0-liter, 141-hp Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder; continuously variable transmission; AC synchronous electric motor; 1.4 kWh lithium-ion battery pack with 35 kW max output). This is a five-seat, five-door hatch boasting zero-to-60 mph acceleration of around 8.2 seconds, considerably quicker than the rival Toyota Prius V, which is rated at only 44/40 mpg. The C-Max outweighs the Honda CR-Z hybrid sport coupe by a half-ton and yet, by EPA estimates, gets more than 25% better fuel economy.
And while the C-Max is aero-sleek to the eye, it actually puts a significant dent in the air (63.9 inches high and 82 inches wide at the side mirrors). Frankly, I'm impressed I got 33.9 mpg.
But merely awesome fuel economy is almost beside the point now, in light of these unfulfilled expectations. The point now is to hiss and boo Ford, which is so obviously trying to defraud the buying public. And let's not forget to blame the government. Everyone knows Corporate Average Fuel Economy = Communism.
I mildly propose a third reading: It's a testing effect.
First off, the EPA's mileage numbers are comparative, not representative. It cannot be otherwise, for if you demand that these numbers represent a vehicle's real-world fuel efficiency, you have to specify: Whose real world? Me and mine, with my 40-pound right foot? Is this real world in North Dakota, Florida or Colorado?
“The EPA figures promise 47 miles per gallon for Ford's hybrid family-hauler, but the real world tells a different story.”
The feds' five-cycle, 43.9-mile testing methodology is arcane—almost 200 pages in the Federal Register, including the CAFE calculations—but that shouldn't surprise anyone, since the process attempts to capture a complex phenomenon, a vehicle's fuel economy, in just two numbers printed on new cars' so-called Monroney label. Even the EPA's "average" mpg number is weighted in a way not beyond dispute.
It would be hard to overstate the consequence of these numbers. The numbers determine which vehicle can claim best-in-class mileage, who has to pay a gas-guzzler tax, and which technologies merit their relative cost in fuel savings. CAFE was designed to inflect a manufacturer's entire portfolio, to bend it toward higher fuel efficiency, and it does just that.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid SEL
Base price: $27,995 (with $1,000 cash back)
Price as tested: $30,855 (est.)
Powertrain: Series-parallel gas-electric hybrid with 2.0-liter, 24-valve, DOHC Atkinson-cycle engine and variable valve timing; continuously variable transmission; AC synchronous electric motor; 1.4 kWh lithium-ion battery with 35 kW max output; front-wheel drive
Net system horsepower: 188 hp
Length/weight: 173.6 inches/3,607 pounds
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
0-60 mph: 8.2 seconds
EPA fuel economy: 47/47/47 mpg, city/highway/combined
Cargo capacity: 24.5 cubic feet behind second row, 52.6 cubic feet behind first row
To complicate matters, the mileage of most vehicles is self-certified by the manufacturers. The EPA does not, and cannot, verify mileage numbers for the majority of light-duty vehicles (though I imagine there's a Ford C-Max Hybrid on the dynamometers in Michigan right now). Meanwhile, the feds' fuel-economy administrators are currently operating at a dead run trying to keep up with a host of new, highly digitized fuel-saving technologies, such as "Eco" throttle mapping and stop-start (the engine cuts out as the vehicle coasts or stops), which were practically invented to hack the EPA testing cycle.
So we have a very complex, specialized, high-stakes test, often self-administered, being laid siege to by auto makers' legion of code writers, even as the standards themselves are soaring. In August, the Obama administration completed rules setting national fuel economy standards at 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. Let's not even talk about California or the EU.
Where does all this leave the C-Max? I think it's likely that Ford's hybrid powertrain programming is, let's say, overly familiar with the EPA's testing regime. For example: Key to the Ford hybrid's system big numbers is its all-electric speed range of up to 62 mph. If you are really gentle with the accelerator, you can reach highway speeds without ever switching on the gas engine. That's a huge win during the testing cycle, though hard to replicate in the real world. I wouldn't even call it an attempt to game the system. It's the result of human nature, to the extent that automotive engineers are human.
The C-Max's mileage issue is the sort of thing that makes PR people throw themselves off bridges. This is otherwise a hugely winning vehicle, with a lot of smart cabin details and premium materials all wrought in Ford's current design vocabulary, a sort of low-key, friendly futurism. The C-Max's fold-flat rear-seat system is brilliant, and rear cabin access is about as good as anything on the market. You can actually get children's car seats in and out of the door openings with no problem. (Ford decided not to import what it calls in Europe the Grand C-Max, an MPV version of the global C platform with minivan-like sliding doors.)
Shoppers looking to bracket the C-Max will want to look at the Kia Sportage, which has front-hinged doors, and the Mazda5, which has the sliding doors.
But no matter how good it is otherwise, the C-Max keeps bringing the conversation back to fuel efficiency. Among the many mileage-monitoring displays and tutorials available in the LCD instrument panel is a driving-efficiency "coach," which gently nags you about your braking and acceleration behavior. There's a screen called Empower, another called Engage. All are devoted to illustrating the thermodynamic flux in the hybrid system, wavering like a candle in the wind. As you drive, the right side of the instrument panel display fills up with encouraging green leaves, like efficiency kudzu.
Well, I had whole bouquets of kudzu and I never saw anything close to 47 mpg. With respect, Ford, someone needs to recalibrate, and it isn't me.
Write to Dan Neil at email@example.com