Of the three Detroit manufacturers, only Ford has been a major player in the hybrid car game for several years now. The Ford Fusion Hybrid and Escape Hybrid were the two main-stay offerings from Ford until the company completely revamped its lineup in 2012 for the 2013 model year with all-new hybrid offerings.
Ford dropped the Escape Hybrid when it introduced a completely redesigned model for the 2013 model year. More fuel efficient gas engines in the new Escape are able to achieve nearly the same level of economy as the outgoing hybrid model.
To replace the Escape Hybrid, Ford introduced the 2013 C-Max which is available only as a hybrid or plug-in hybrid known as the C-Max Energi. The C-Max, based on the outstanding Focus platform, has been sold in Europe in various forms for years – just not as a hybrid.
Ford reconfigured the C-Max for US sales by getting rid of its rear sliding doors in favor of conventional 4-doors. Ford marketing believed that sliding doors would automatically brand the C-Max with the Scarlet M (for minivan) and, in the States, the M-word is the kiss of death.
The C-Max is as close as we are going to get to a Focus wagon and it’s the only direct competitor to the Toyota Prius V. It’s tall, like the Mazda5 compact minivan and you sit a bit higher and more upright than a normal car. The rear liftgate is large and the floor height is marginally higher than a comparable passenger car for easy loading. Lots of glass surrounds you so visibility is excellent and the large side mirrors are tipped with concave mirrors that provide an analog solution to blind spots.
My 6′ 1” frame fit into the driver’s seat, but there wasn’t much extra room. The standard manual tilt/telescoping helped make things comfortable. Rear seats are best for children or small adults as the cushions are short, with no thigh support and there’s a paucity of larger adult legroom. It should be fairly easy to strap in child seats as the tall doors and the C-Max’s diminutive size put belts and buckles in easy reach for weary parents.
The flat-folding rear seats split 60/40 to open up 52.6 square feet of cargo space. Perfect for a Costco run or a couple large dogs. It would be nice if the rear windows rolled all the way down, but I’m not sure the rear occupants would care.
MyFord Touch is Ford’s much maligned infotainment system that is the number one cause of customers’ dissatisfaction with Ford vehicles in recent in JD Power & Associates surveys. Consumer Reports slammed Ford both before and after a major software update to the system. I’m a fairly tech-savvy guy, so I have mixed feelings about it.
The 8 inch color display on the C-Max is set high – too high, in my opinion – in the center stack. It’s deeply inset (as opposed to flush) in the dash and there is a table ledge of hard button controls in front of the screen.
I think that you’d get used to it with some time; but the on-screen fonts are too small and delicate and each of the four major function – telephone, information (including navigation), radio and climate are brought up only by touching a slim bar that is either in the top or bottom of each assigned quadrant.
Because of the placement of the screen, when your hand reaches for one of those functions, your hand partially blocks your view of the screen, so you’re mostly poking around blind. It’s also hard to see the hard-button controls that are on the ledge in front of the screen. There are some redundant “hard” controls for things like volume or climate control; but selecting a preset radio station can be difficult with bumpy streets and the slim on-screen touch controls. At least the touch response is fast.
Power for the C-Max comes from a 2.0L Atkinson-cycle I-4 hybrid engine channeled through an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The gas engine is good for 141 hp and 129 lb-ft of torque. Together with the permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor, the system is good for 188 hp with a top speed (not that you’ll ever get there in this car) of 115 mpg. Ford says the C-Max can go up to 62 mph in electric-only mode, but it’s nearly impossible to do without being on a closed track with nearly zero gravity on your left foot. The statistic is useless in normal driving.
The C-Max’s electric motor is powered by a compact 1.4 kWh lithium-ion battery and, like the Prius, regenerative brakes feed the battery when you brake and the gas engine runs a generator to keep the battery charged. The battery doesn’t suck up any cargo space. Nifty graphics in the instrument panel show you how “green” you’re driving and which direction the electrons are flowing.
Speaking of the Prius, I think Ford engineers have jumped over Toyota’s flagship hybrid when it comes to smoothness of operation. Most of the time, it’s hard to notice when the gas engine goes on and off. You don’t feel the shakes and vibrations associated with the Prius. Even Ford’s CVT lacks a distinctive whine unless it’s pushed hard. The regenerative brakes don’t have that touchy-grabby hybrid feel either. In short, the driving experience is utterly normal except for the odd silence when the car is started and when it’s drifting in EV mode.
I like the compact size, ease of operation and visibility of the C-Max for daily city driving. The electric power steering had decent feedback – shocking, really, when compared to the electric rubber band attached to the Prius. While the C-Max will never be a NASCAR pace car, it scoots up to city speeds easily and without fuss, never feeling underpowered. I think it would need a bit more time to come to highway speed. Its turning radius was good and parking was easy. The C-Max was also relatively quiet for a small car.
Ergonomics are very good and the plastics and switchgear is on par with the excellent Focus. I’m not sure how much I’d like it on highway trips where road noise and the short wheelbase might make for a noisy and choppy ride.
The C-Max’s stated EPA fuel economy is impressive – 47 mpg city, highway and combined , besting the Prius V’s 42 mpg combined. However, several media sources, including Consumer Reports, has called out Ford, challenging those figures for the 2013 C-Max.
The C-Max I drove showed an average 28 mpg – but you expect lower figures in a tester. CR states that the C-Max achieved overall fuel economy of 37 mpg during its tests. By comparison, the Prius V achieved 41 mpg in CR’s test cycle – just 1 mpg shy of its EPA rating. So while the C-Max bests the Prius V in the EPA number game, in the real world, the Prius V bests the C-Max by 4 mpg. If you buy a C-Max, I recommend lowered expectations when it comes to fuel economy.
The 2013 C-Max Hybrid SE starts at $25,995 and a fully-loaded SEL can easily grow to $33,500 with niceties like leather-trimmed seats, navigation, an upgraded infotainment system and MyFord Touch, hands-free park assist, hands-free liftgate, rearview camera, parking sensors and a panoramic fixed glass roof. The Prius V can get pricey too, starting at $27,445 and rising all the way to $37,535.
While the C-Max Hybrid wouldn’t fit my driving needs, I believe it is a sweet little tall wagon that drives well (like its cousin, the Ford Focus) and offers lots of grown up features for a reasonable price. I wouldn’t call it stylish, but it is a fresh face in the hybrid market – particularly in Prius-happy L.A. The C-Max will appeal both to Eco-conscious buyers as well as people just looking for good fuel economy in a tidy, versatile package.