Did Ford (NYSE: F ) just take another small step into the future?
It's looking that way. While Ford's most visible efforts on the green front involve building more efficient gas engines, the Blue Oval has been quietly upping its game on the hybrid and electric-car front, as well.
A hybrid version of the all-new Fusion sedan is being rolled out; Ford sold about a thousand of them in October. The Fusion Energi, a plug-in version of the hybrid, is due soon.
And Ford just launched another hybrid, with technology that might be taking a cue from electric-car heavyweight Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) .
Ford's latest hybrid is aimed at the Prius
Ford is sounding quite pleased with its latest U.S. model, the C-Max Hybrid. The C-Max, a tallish wagon-like car originally developed for the European market, is built on the same underpinnings as the company's acclaimed (and hot-selling) Focus compact – and can be built on the same assembly lines. Bringing it to the U.S. was a simple, low-cost move for Ford.
There are differences between the American C-Max and its European cousins. The C-Max is available with a variety of powertrains in Europe, but those being built and sold here in the U.S. are all hybrids. Ford is positioning the car here as a rival to the largest Toyota (NYSE: TM ) Prius variant, the Prius V.
That comparison is already working out well for the Blue Oval: The C-Max Hybrid outsold the Prius V in the U.S. in October. With a roomier interior, a more spacious feel, and better EPA gas-mileage ratings than the Prius V – along with a similarly quirky look – the C-Max Hybrid compares well with the Toyota stalwart.
Ford still has a long way to go before it challenges Toyota's Prius franchise, of course. The Prius lineup, which now consists of three different models, sold almost 17,000 cars combined in the U.S. in October, far ahead of the just over 3,000 sales Ford totaled for the C-Max.
But still, it's a bright start for Ford's latest entry in the green-car wars. And now, Ford is moving to up its game by a notch -- with technology that might have been inspired by the reigning king of electric carmakers, Silicon Valley's Tesla Motors.
Taking a cue from Tesla?
The latest iteration of the C-Max is a "plug-in" hybrid, meaning that its battery can be charged from an outside source. That gives the car a short range on purely electric power, much like General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) Chevy Volt -- 21 miles in the case of the C-Max.
Ford calls it the C-Max Energi, and has quietly begun rolling it out to select dealers around the country. One of the most interesting things about the car is its battery pack, which, while small, is unusually efficient for its size -- more so than the battery packs found in the Volt and the plug-in Prius.
Ford's engineers credit much of that efficiency to the unit's battery cells, which are produced by Panasonic (NYSE: PC ) in Japan. Ford electric-car chief Kevin Layden told the Wall Street Journal that he believes Panasonic's battery is "the best battery in the entire world," which is why Ford chooses to import the company's lithium-ion cells from Japan for its hybrids, rather than buying batteries made locally.
There are good reasons to share that belief. Chief among them: The battery packs in Tesla's hot-selling Model S sedan -- which, in top trim, give the big car a range of up to 300 miles -- are powered by Panasonic cells.
The secret is in the software sauce
Of course, Tesla's battery packs come with Tesla's secret sauce -- proprietary battery-management software that gets the most out of the Panasonic cells. Tesla often cites this as a key competitive advantage, one that leverages the company's proximity to Silicon Valley and the pool of talented software engineers in the region.
But for the much more modest battery packs used in the C-Max Energi, Ford has cooked up its own secret sauce, one that appears to be work pretty well -- and bodes well for Ford's future electrification efforts.
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