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A red Ford C-Max Energi next to a silver Chevy Volt

I don’t like to drive in urban areas. I find it tedious, frustrating and stressful. So I generally bike or walk 6-10 miles a day.

I also don’t love cars: they’re just necessary tools. Our family’s two vehicles are 11 and 8 years-old respectively. We maintain them regularly, and believe it’s more environmentally-sound to keep driving them until no longer feasible rather than to acquire newly-manufactured cars every few years.

When the time comes to replace our “foreign” cars (the Xterra was actually made in Tennessee), I hope to do so with the most up-to-date, most efficient technology provided ideally by American manufacturers. This is partly out of irrational economic nationalism and mostly because I like what they’re producing lately.

So I’m grateful that both Chevrolet and Ford recently gave me no-strings-attached opportunities to drive their newest plug-in hybrids (these were coincidental offers out of the blue for this very minor, regional celebrity). And as a tech guy, I was especially keen to see how the latest innovations were integrated into these increasingly “smart,” connected cars, something I had first heard about at CES 2012.

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I was utterly astounded by the miles per gallon for each of these vehicles. I shared some of my observations on my social media channels while I drove the cars, and I know that a few of my network connections were waiting for some sort of verdict. As I’m not a professional car reviewer (see these reviews for more comprehensive comparisons), I’ll simply lay out short-form observations for the Volt and the C-Max Energi and conclude with a few overall recommendations.

Before I start, I want to point out that I plugged in each vehicle at my house every night (luckily, I have an outdoor electrical socket), which provides a slow 120v charge without the need for any special adapter. I doubled the speed of the charge by plugging into a a Chargepoint station on campus at the University of Washington. Those who do purchase a plug-in car, often retrofit their homes with a 240v outlet for faster charging.

CHEVROLET VOLT

– Very snazzy looking; a few bystanders stopped to talk to me about the car. Couldn’t always see the road when driving down a hill.

– Great hatch for storage, tight in the backseat — two people at most.

A very useful Chevy Volt hatch

A very useful Chevy Volt hatch

– Terrific dashboard display: gave me an excellent understanding of the impact of my driving on energy consumption. It actually inspired me to drive differently. I was expecting more smartphone integration, but that wasn’t greatly consequential.

– I liked the visual cues the car provided while charging (both in-dash and on-car). Electric socket requires key press to open — which is good. Loved the more polite, secondary horn that warns pedestrians that this stealthy-sounding car is approaching.

– Amazing range for suburban driving: 38 miles in “EV” (Electric Vehicle) mode; I drove 209 miles in a week, and consumed 1 gallon of gas (out of a 5-gallon tank). I charged up every night (took 12-14 hours), and when on campus (the University of Washington has free charging stations for permit-holders). Chevy claims 380 miles range on a full charge and a full tank.

Final tally on the Volt: 1 gallon consumed!

Final tally on the Volt: 1 gallon consumed!

– Nice handling, though very low to the ground (and I heard a few scrapes when slowly driving over dips).

BOTTOM LINE: this is a true EV, and if you’re largely commuting by highway, it’s an amazing car that will make you forget gas stations. I would buy it if I knew I was going to drive it largely by myself, or with another adult — it’s not really a family car. This is for the urban-suburban type who needs to get to work.

FORD C-MAX ENERGI

– A mini, mini-van in disguise. High utility and highly useful. Good visibility from the driver’s seat.

– Great back seat (for 3), lots of room. Trunk not so great, as battery takes up a good amount of space.

– Traditional dash display with some useful information about driving patterns and energy consumption (“Engage,” “Inform,” “Enlighten”). The MyFordMobile smartphone app is pretty impressive: provides information about charging status, car location, charging station locations. You can even start the car remotely via the app.

Start your Ford with your app!

Start your Ford with your app!

– Nice gadgetry: back-up camera, proximity radar, even a self-parking button that I didn’t dare to use. I like to control my cars, not the other way around!

– Decent range in EV mode — 21 miles, with a 8-12 hour recharge time. But it burned through its electric reserve much faster on the highway. I drove 195 miles over four days, and consumed 3.85 gallons out of a 14-gallon gas tank. Ford claims that a full battery and a full tank gas will give you an astounding 620-mile range.

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Final tally on the C-Max Energi after 4 days

– European-style handling with comfortable head-room.

BOTTOM LINE: this is more of a hybrid car with some plug-in functionality. I wasn’t crazy about the short EV range after driving the Volt, but I really appreciated the increased utility of the car (both in terms of passenger space and connectivity), as well as the ability to go on long trips without having to worry about charging or fueling often. It’s a practical vehicle for families in-city or on road trips.

Big picture, if I were in the market for a vehicle today, and fuel efficiency was paramount, these cars would be at the top of my list — if I disregarded mathematics and economics. Accounting for tax credits, the C-Max Energi is a couple of thousand dollars cheaper than the Volt (which, depending on options, still puts you in the $US 30-34,000 range for either); I’m not about to do the calculation for where you’re going to save on fuel, it really depends on how much time you spend in a car and the kind of trips you make.

Ultimately, you’re still better off buying a regular hybrid when it comes to calculating fuel savings versus price over the short to medium term (or a very fuel efficient compact car for that matter). But purchasing an electric car is as much as making a statement about who you are (you might have also been in the market for an entry-level BMW or Audi), as it is about your position on fossil fuels consumption and greenhouse gas emission. And obviously buying a Tesla is a whole different matter — given that car’s high price, proprietary plug-in technology and high performance.

It's free to charge on campus

It’s free to charge on campus

I test drove a Tesla roadster a few years ago — it had incredible oomph, but felt impractical at the time to me. By contrast, I once rented a Toyota Prius and vowed I’d never buy one because it drove like a sofa on wheels. I wasn’t encouraged any further when I found myself getting regularly exasperated driving behind any given Prius — it’s as if the drivers had misplaced their accelerator pedals.

But now I understand that the most significant transformation these vehicles may bring about is precisely that: how we drive. The digital displays of both the Volt and C-Max Energi reward you (and ultimately your bank account over the long term) for unaggressive driving and slow, regenerative braking. This is behavioral economics at its most mundane, as real-time data inspires your driving habits. I stuck to the speed limit, braked much more than I normally do (I usually downshift), and let every car beat me at the traffic light. In short, I drove more safely, more economically and more like a 65 year-old.

Behavior change by the dashboard light

Behavior change by the dashboard light

I’m now back to walking and biking. But I haven’t given up the real-time data behavioral fix, inspired to increase my physical fitness thanks to a heart rate monitor tied to a Suunto Ambit multi-function watch. Although I love to go deep into the tech, it’s ultimately the feedback these new platforms provide that will change our lives.

p.s. the title of this post is homage to the “English Electric Parts 1 & 2” albums by Big Big Train, which celebrate a previous technological revolution, driven primarily by steam.