Published October 11, 2012
After more than decade of dominance by Toyota, Ford has become the first U.S. automaker to try to take on the Prius in the high-mileage hybrid game. Its 2013 C-Max Hybrid is now hitting showrooms with an EPA rating of 47 mpg city, 47 mpg highway and, shockingly, 47 mpg combined.
The Focus-based crossover comes courtesy of the Ford’s European lineup, where it has been offered for several years with conventional gas and diesel powertrains. But don’t go shopping for any of them here. The C-Max will only be available in the U.S. as a hybrid in an effort to try and create a new green brand name for Ford.
(To those who think the Chevy Volt is a Prius competitor, remember, its was developed to leapfrog it, not go head-to-head.)
Why you want one:
It’s not a Prius.
That’ll be enough for people who hold an aversion to that car’s image, but the C-Max is literally not a Prius. Ford smartly priced and sized the $25,995 car between the standard 50 mpg $24,795 Prius and its larger 42 mpg $27,345 offshoot, the Prius V wagon, avoiding a direct match-up with either while potentially upstaging both.
Rather than focus solely on fuel economy, Ford targeted what it considers its competition’s main weakness: refinement. In an effort to keep their weight down for fuel efficiency, hybrids often go light on the sound deadening material. That’s not the case with the C-Max.
In a short test drive around Manhattan, the C-Max proved to be as quiet as anything comparable, including many “normal” cars, thanks in part to an electronic noise-reduction system that pumps the cabin full of anti-noise that cancels out unwanted sounds. The heft of the doors indicates that there’s plenty of traditional stuffing in there, as well. Even with my foot to the floor, and the continuously variable automatic transmission sending the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine into its high-revving drone zone, the roar was muted, at worst.
Nevertheless, the C-Max is substantially heavier than either Pruis, but makes up for it the old fashioned way – power! Its gas/electric powertrain combines for 188 hp -- about the same as typical midsize sedan -- compared to 134 hp for the Toyotas. That doesn’t make it fast, but certainly fast enough.
Aside from two small information screens flanking the speedometer that can be configured to display information about the hybrid drive system’s operation, there’s not much inside the C-Max to tip occupants off to its extra-green credentials. The style is straight from the Focus design brief, and will be familiar to owners of the 2013 Escape as well.
Luckily, that look is both modern and upscale, with soft-touch and high-quality materials on all of the surfaces that matter. More storage space on the center console would be appreciated, but there are two small hidden compartments in the floor of the rear cabin in case you’d like to channel your inner Han Solo.
None of this is to say the C-Max is short on high-tech gee-gaws. Ford’s increasingly ubiquitous self-parking system is available, as is a power rear liftgate that can be opened by swiping a foot under the bumper.
Try not to scuff the top of your shoe if you do.
Why you may not want one:
Say what you will about the Prius, but it is distinctive. The C-Max hearkens back to the “function first” days of amorphous, anonymous crossovers. It’s handsome enough, but it blends.
It could also use a little more rear legroom. The bench is plenty wide, but knees get less attention. The same trait hasn’t hurt Focus or Escape sales, but I’m tall and place a high value on this sort of thing.
Similarly, there’s a small, but unsightly bulge in the floor of the cargo compartment. It’s there to clear the lithium-ion battery beneath it. The C-Max may be hybrid-only in the U.S., but it’s still a conversion. Needless to say, there’s no space for a spare tire, but the rear seats do fold down to make a flat load floor.
One thing you need to know:
While you won’t be able to get the C-Max with a conventional drivetrain, there’s an even more unconventional model on the way. The C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid goes on sale later this year with an all-electric range of up to 20 miles and a combined fuel economy rating equivalent to 100 mpg at a price of $33,745, or $29,995 after a federal tax credit of $3,750.
(Looks like that Chevy Volt has to watch its back, too.)