Ford is preparing to engage in a take-no-prisoners battle for top honors in the emerging plug-in hybrid realm with the launch of its 2013 C-Max Energi. This even-more-efficient PHEV half of the Blue Oval's first dedicated hybrid-only model line has its sights set on besting the plug-in version of Toyota's market-dominating Prius. Our recent first encounter with the C-Max Energi left us believing that the mission Ford has in mind is far from impossible.

Much like the C-MAX Hybrid sibling, the Energi variant can run on gasoline and/or electricity thanks to a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter/4-cylinder Atkinson Cycle engine that makes 141 horsepower matched with a 118-horse electric motor. Power from either or both sources - which collectively totals 188 ponies in sustain mode and 195 in charge-deplete - gets sent to the front wheels via the same bespoke powersplit continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) used in the Hybrid.

However, the Energi's advanced lithium-ion battery pack has a 7.6kWh capacity compared to the Hybrid's 1.4 kWh total. That variation on the theme coupled with several other dedicated tweaks help the C-Max Energi earn class-leading 108 MPGe city/92 MPGe highway marks from the EPA as well as a 100 MPGe combined figure that tops the Prius PHEV's tally by 5 MPGe in the all-in category. When a recharge is required, the Energi's battery replenishment cycle takes 2.5 hours on a dedicated 240V setup or 7 hours on a standard 110V outlet.

While we'll reserve judgment on the C-Max Energi's real-world econo prowess pending a more extended engagement, our brief window of wheel time was more than sufficient to evaluate the dynamic character of this ultra-efficient 5-door hatch as well as its passenger-pleasing potential. Not surprisingly, Ford made that job easier by having a Toyota Prius plug-in on hand to use as a bogey.

Despite a 3,859-pound curb weight that puts it 250+ pounds beyond the C-Max Hybrid, the Energi retains the same kind of sporty, well-controlled feel as its kin and remains confidently planted whether you're cruising down a freeway or taking on the twisties. That's hardly surprising, since the pair share Ford's C-platform architecture that also underpins the Focus and Escape and it rides on 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 225/50 tires. While the Energi's electric-assist power steering is a bit longer on effort than pure feedback, a highly efficient - up to 95 percent energy recovery - regenerative braking system delivers solid stopping power and a commendably natural pedal feel. With class-leading motive muscle, the C-Max Energi can deftly cope with stoplight-to-stoplight sprints and freeway merges, even in pure EV mode. Further bolstered by AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control, Curve Control and Torque Vectoring Control, the C-MAX Energi is simply more of a "driver's car" than the Prius plug-in on virtually all levels.

Mixing many of the current Ford design cues with its own bespoke elements including a SmartGauge cluster with EcoGuide, Brake Coach and range-extending EV+ feature, the C-Max Energi's well-finished 5-passenger cabin is a well-isolated and feature-rich realm. Standard premium touches range from leather upholstery, heated front seats and voice-activated navigation with SiriusXM Traffic/Travel links to energy-saving dual-zone electric climate control, active noise cancellation and a late-arriving MyFord Mobile smartphone app that facilitates remote controllable functionality of various systems. Options like a hands-free power liftgate, premium audio system and a Parking Technology package add even more upscale appeal to the mix. About the only speed bump in the road here comes in the form of the Energi's battery pack. Positioned above the rear axle, it reduces the rear cargo bay capacity to 19.2 cu ft -- about 5 cubes less than the C-Max Hybrid's - and diminishes the utility of the flat-folding 60/40 rear seat.

Stickering at $33,745, but eligible for a $3,750 federal tax credit in addition to any state or local spiffs, the mono-model grade 2013 Ford C-Max Energi opens a bit higher than the base Toyota Prius Plug-in but thousands under the upline Prius Plug-in Advanced variant that more closely matches its feature set. While dethroning the reigning king of this particular green hill will not be an easy task, the new C-Max Energi strikes us as being pretty well prepared to take on that challenge.

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