Why I said no to a Ford C-Max Energi and yes to a Toyota Prius

A first person look inside a green car shopping experience:  Putting off a new or used car purchase for yet another day is becoming more commonplace among me and my fellow Americans – about 11 years is the average holding time in the US, according to Polk. While I leased a Nissan Pathfinder for three years several years ago, my overall experience has been owning cars for long periods of time; they’re made much better and more reliable than in the past and it’s nice to avoid car payments.

On Dec. 27, 2012, I lost my 2004 Honda Element in a crash on the 710 Long Beach Freeway. Long before I received word about the Element’s condition from my insurance claims department, I knew it was time to get another car.

Not long ago, my interest level was taken with the Ford C-Max Energi, which I’d carefully checked out at the LA Auto Show and had done my share of writing about. It seemed to have what I want in a car – crossover utility vehicle pragmatism and functionality; incredibly high mileage through its plug-in hybrid powertrain; the opportunity to experience plug-in ownership; and being impressed with Ford products on the market in recent years.

During my post-crash car shopping experience, I didn’t bother to visit a Ford dealership. My mind was already made up. There was the C-Max Energi’s base price of $32,950, which made its dollar value questionable compared to hybrids and small, fuel-efficient cars. The C-Max Energy oies quality for up to $3,750 in federal tax credits. As a California resident, I do have access to a $1,500 state rebate and single-occupant access to carpool lanes. Still, it wasn’t enough.

I knew it was somewhat risky to buy a brand new car off the lot, even if it came from a highly reputable automaker. It does take years on the road, and thousands of miles, to see how the car is going to perform and hold up. Then there was the controversy in December over the unrealistic mileage figures being given by Ford and the EPA on the hybrid C-Max and Ford Fusion Hybrid. Ford said 47 mpg combined for both, and Consumer Reports said 37 combined for the C-Max and 39 combined for the Fusion Hybrid. For some reason, I believed Consumer Reports more than the other parties.

Then there was the issue of getting a Level 2, 240 volt charger installed in my garage. By the time I found the right one and paid to have it installed, it was going to cost me about $1,500 to $1,800. This expense was not going to be added to my monthly payments for the car – that was to be out of pocket by me, upfront.

As some of you read a couple of years ago, I did have my share of experience driving a Prius – second generation 2008 and third generation 2010 models – while working weekends for a transportation company with an eco-emphasis. I was very impressed with a few things about it – the interior space was roomy, even though it looked fairly small on the outside. It drove smoothly and with all the needed power. The mileage was better than anything I’d experienced. The visibility was very good, and the dashboard technology, especially on the third generation version, started sinking in for me. I also came to know what regenerative braking actually does, and how it adds to the fuel efficiency by generating more power stored in the battery during the braking process.

As for this shopping trip, I decided to find a local dealer in the AAA member discount program who offered four choices: a 2013 Toyota Prius; a used version in 2010 or 2011 models; a new Prius v wagon; and a Prius Plug-in Hybrid. Some of that mystery was solved doing internet homework. Kelley Blue Book had the most to offer with pricing options; others, including Edmunds, only offer you the opportunity to send a request for a local dealer to give you a price offer. No, thank you.

I ended up going to DCH Toyota of Torrance, and worked for several hours with sales consultant Bill Vas. Whatever I could think of, he could answer or get back to me soon with requested information. The best part was walking around the Prius, then sitting inside and talking about the control panel and dashboard before taking a spin for as long as I wanted to drive it. Did I want the Prius Two with backup camera and navigation system? What does Hybrid Synergy Drive really mean? If I folded down the back and front seats on the right side, how much room would my 10-foot long surfboard get?

So I fell for the Prius. Driving around, sitting inside it, scanning some of the literature, staring at it. Remembering the young woman at the bank where I got a cashier’s check made that morning telling me how much her husband brags about his Prius. Thinking about it being on the market for a long time without any real bad news coming out (there were 2010 Prius recalls over their anti-lock brake systems, but it seemed to be worked out). I liked the price point – starting out at $23,215 for the base model and $24,200 for the Prius Two. Even with a few add-ons and sales tax, the AAA membership discount helped and the finance deal made sense along with the monthly payments.

A closer for me was the color of the car – Sea Glass Pearl. It’s a shade of green and it really stood out on the lot. I think I knew I wanted it right as we walked over the parking lot and I saw it shining in the sun. I liked the part later in the day when I was sitting at the sales cubicle filling out paperwork. Another sales agent approached Bill and asked him if he’d reserved the Sea Glass Pearl for sale, and Bill said yes. The other guy looked disappointed.

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