* EPA deems C-Max plug-in more efficient than Prius
* Ford eyes "optimizers" to drive C-Max sales
* Winglets boost C-Max fuel efficiency
By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co , vying tochallenge Toyota Motor Corp's dominance in the hybridmarket, said on Thursday that its 2013 C-Max Energi plug-inhybrid gets 100 miles per gallon, beating the 2012 Prius byabout 5 percent.
The mileage rating given by the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency means the C-Max plug-in's fuel efficiency bothin the city and on the highway is five miles better than theToyota Prius plug-in and two miles ahead of General Motors Co's2013 Chevrolet Volt .
Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, has been vocal inits desire to take on Toyota, which has had a stronghold overthe hybrid market for more than a decade with the Prius.
Last year, the Prius made up 54 percent of U.S. sales ofalternative powertrain vehicles, according to market researchfirm Strategic Vision. Ten other brands divided the rest.
Still far more people consider green cars than buy them,experts say. Ford aims to attract U.S. buyers by offering morepower, space and efficiency than the Prius at a lower cost withits hybrid-only C-Max nameplate.
Internally, Ford calls potential C-Max buyers "optimizers,"said Michael O'Brien, Ford's electrification marketing manager.
"They're looking for their dollar to go as far as possibleand as smart a way as possible," O'Brien said in an interview."The notion of having MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) that'sbest in class is a terrific advantage."
Ford did not provide an estimate for the size of this group,but O'Brien said Ford's emphasis on improving fuel economy andlower costs in recent years has piqued their interest.
"Five years ago, the optimizers may not have even had us ontheir radar screen," O'Brien said.
Toyota's missteps over the last few years with a series ofrecalls also provide a boost for Ford, said Alexander Edwards,president of Strategic Vision. "Toyota buyers are not destinedto be Toyota buyers anymore," he said.
Ford recently began selling the C-Max hybrid and the Energigoes on sale later this year. A plug-in version of the Fusionmidsize sedan will go on sale in 2013.
To beat the Prius on fuel economy, Ford engineers used alithium-ion battery instead of a heavier, but less expensive,nickel-metal hydride battery. Ford offset the higher cost partlyby assembling those batteries and transmissions in house.
Designers also sought to eke out gains through small changesto the C-Max's European design. For example, Ford added"winglets" to the rear corners of the C-Max to improveaerodynamics, John Davis, the chief C-Max engineer, said.
The plug-in versions of the C-Max and Fusion sharepowertrain technology. Ford also uses the same primary engine, asimilar transmission and method for mounting the battery pack inboth the C-Max plug-in and hybrids.
Keeping engineering costs low was crucial for the C-Max,which also seeks to beat the Prius on price. The C-Max plug-inhybrid, which sells for nearly $30,000 after a federal taxcredit, compared to Toyota's Prius plug-in, which costs $32,000.
Strategic Vision estimates that nearly 20 percent of vehicleowners are considering a hybrid and 12 percent are researchingplug-in hybrids. But advanced powertrain vehicles have accountedfor just 2 percent of U.S. auto sales during the first ninemonths of this year, Edmunds.com said.
Higher prices, a lack of charging infrastructure and fewerfeatures have stymied demand for green cars, experts say. Theaverage annual income of people who buy the Prius is around$98,000, according to Strategic Vision. But incomes for thosewho consider, but do not buy, the Prius is about $85,000.
"The clear difference comes down to price," Edwards said.
(Reporting By Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Matt Driskill)
Keywords: FORD CMAX/