Ford has just introduced its C-MAX Energi plug-in electric hybrid car to U.S. consumers, and the news could shake up the electric car market in some unexpected ways. Although Ford makes clear that its main competition is the Toyota Prius, the C-MAX Energi is also vying with Motor Trend Car of the Year winner Chevy Volt in the race to establish leadership in the nascent U.S. electric vehicle market.In addition to its direct impact on car buyers, the C-MAX Energi could also have a significant influence on the public discourse about electric vehicles, which up to now has been dominated by the anti-Volt ire of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative leaders. Breaking the EV barrier Like the Volt, the C-MAX Energi appears to be aimed squarely at consumers who are open to exploring the latest automotive technology but who have qualms about the driving range of EV batteries. The C-MAX Energi solves that issue Volt-style, with a full tank of gas that powers Ford's new 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine. Starting with a fully charged battery, that provides the C-MAX with a range of 550 miles on one tank. Also like the Volt, the C-MAX can be plugged in and recharged to run exclusively off the battery. The C-MAX battery can last for about 20 miles or more, providing many drivers with enough juice for a daily commute and local errands, and making it possible to go for days without having to tap the gas tank (as with the Volt, the C-MAX switches to gas mode when the battery runs low). A good experience with a plug-in hybrid would encourage more drivers to step up to the next level and go all-electric. To that end, Ford is already heavily promoting its new all-electric Focus with a multi-platform campaign that includes relationships with NASCAR and SHFT.com, a project of the actor Adrian Grenier. How the C-MAX could affect Volt's "conservative problem" According to an article at thinkprogress.org, Rush Limbaugh started campaigning actively against the Volt as far back as 2009. Since then, he has been joined by other influential conservative voices. Much of the criticism has focused on federal aid provided through the Obama administration to the Volt's manufacturer, GM. Aside from Limbaugh, the sling-and-arrow throwers have included columnist George Will and the Weekly Standard, which dubbed the car the "Obama-approved, government-subsidized Chevrolet Volt." Former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich also referred to the Volt as "the Obama car" and routinely complained that it was too small to fit a gun rack, despite YouTube evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, forbes.com cites current presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigning on an "I'm not sure America was ready for the Chevy Volt" platform earlier this year. The C-MAX Energi is essentially invulnerable to this line of attack, since Ford did not accept federal aid. Interestingly, the C-MAX could also turn out to be good news for the Volt. It will take some of the sting out of the anti-Volt message, by separating the politics of one auto company's "bailout" from sustainability issues that are common to all EV manufacturers. That leaves GM's use of federal aid as a standalone issue, and it's hard to see how something like that could be much on the mind of a car buyer in search of a good deal. What will conservatives talk about now? On the other hand, the anti-Volt attack could shift into a more general attack on EVs and sustainable vehicle technology. That's not such great news for Ford, which could find itself in the crosshairs of conservative leaders who have been lobbying against alternative energy, conservation, environmental stewardship and climate action. Ford makes quite a big target in that regard. The company has been proactively involved in sustainability issues since the 1980s and it has positioned itself as a green technology innovator. In a move reminiscent of Levi's corporate social responsibility challenge, Ford has also started a conversation about personal mobility, human rights and the need for integrated systems to cope with tomorrow's global transportation issues. Ford's approach strongly parallels the call for collective action on sustainability that was recently advanced by none other than Mitt Romney's former company Bain & Company, but this relationship probably won't serve to make Mr. Romney a champion of Ford's green mission. Bain & Company is the firm that Mr. Romney left in 1984 to form Bain Capital, after which the two firms went off in two distinctly different directions. Image: Some rights reserved by mariordo59. Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.