What It Is
A hybrid-only family schlepper for those who think the Toyota Prius is bunk.
Practical, stylish, efficient, and doesn't lose composure when faced with actual corners.
Claustrophobic interior, noisy engine, high load floor.
On paper, it beats the Prius V. On the road? Yeah, it does that too.
Ford has a fixation on the Toyota Prius V, that homely hybrid schlepper of families who demand more cargo room for antiquing or obscenely large Fender stacks. "That popular hybrid that everyone's talking about," Ford snidely remarked in its presentation for the 2013 C-MAX Hybrid in West Hollywood, which got a chuckle out of us media types.
But here's how things work in the product development team, issuing press releases that mention the Toyota Prius V with aplomb: Ford claims more mileage than the Prius V with their C-MAX. The C-MAX is $1,500 cheaper than the Prius V, before federal incentives. It has more range than the Prius V, more horsepower, and can drive in electric mode at a higher top speed as well.
The C-MAX, in itself, is a curious sight on our shores. Based on the European version, it comes to America as a relatively niche product; as a hybrid in lieu of gasoline and diesel versions that Ford sells in Europe, both variants that could eke out more sportiness and cargo room without battery packs. But "we wanted to offer something that was more unique, in terms of what we've got for a family vehicle," says Ford, and a car that "is really speaking to an electrified type product as opposed to just a general product that offers a hybrid."
So there you have it -- the making of an epic brawl between the Ford C-MAX, a European transplant, and the Prius V. Seeing as there are currently no other hybrids in this weird pseudo-wagon segment, it's an apt comparison. And one that, as we found out, is more complex than we thought.
WalkaroundIf you were judging the merits of the two based on looks alone, the C-MAX would win, hands down. It's tall, but not ungainly. It has the same wheelbase as a Focus, but its proportions are just right. In fact, it's a prime example of Ford's sharp new corporate look -- first exemplified by the Fusion, now carried through with its electric cars. (Remember, the Fusion gets a Hybrid as well as an electric plug-in, both to debut soon enough.) There are just two trim levels, SE and SEL, with option packages like power tailgates and SYNC available for both. SEL models can be distinguished by standard circular fog lights, and the same wheels as on the Focus Electric. If you compare it to the Prius V, it's the foie gras to the Toyota's Double Cheeseburger -- it looks more expensive than it is.
Sitting DownThe C-MAX cribs its new-age interior from the Focus, a vehicular environment we've found both appealing in terms of its bold aesthetics, and appalling because of its loose, harsh bits of plastic. Cynical consumers like us will be pleased to learn that the C-MAX gets a significant upgrade. For starters, there are two differently colored pieces of shiny plastic surrounding the shifter, replacing the dour materials in the last Focus we drove, an SFE. Another is the optional Sony sound system, which was integrated into Ford's hands-free SYNC with MyFord Touch smoother than in other examples.
In front is a large windshield that's inspiring in its rectangularity, affording a view as expansive as the ocean alongside which we drove. Its front parcel shelf could host a game of shuffleboard. Thin, delicately shaped pillars eke out any extra visibility, and the view out back is equally expansive.
Rear seat passengers are afforded scenic views, but there's less legroom and more of a claustrophobic feel than the backseats in the airy Prius V. Unlike the rear benches in the Prius V, the C-MAX's don't recline. They do fold flat, however, with the flick of a side-mounted latch, giving it an edge over the Toyota's ungainly, tchotchke-snatching canyons. NBA benchwarmers, here's your ride: the C-MAX can accommodate 6-footers. LATCH points are easily tucked away between the cushions -- hard to grab, but one of those things that fathers with dexterous fingers will get accustomed to. And compared to the Prius V, the seats are more heavily sculpted, and the seatbelt buckles won't dig into your glutes. Your passengers will thank you.
The C-MAX has 24.5 cubic feet of cargo space in the back, a tick below the Prius V's roominess, with a noticeable felt-lined hump where the battery pack goes. There's room for Capri Sun boxes and the requisite tire pump in lieu of a spare underneath. The hands-free liftgate is a boon in this case, as the load height is taller than that in the Prius. But that is part of a $1,500 option package, and -- as we found out the hard way -- you need to have the key fob out of the vehicle to make it work. Otherwise, the power liftgate -- an option across all models -- comes with a one-touch button to close, and it can be easily programmed to adjust the height at which it opens, to avoid bashing into garage ceilings.
DrivingFirst off, the mileage. The C-MAX is curiously rated at 47 miles per gallon across city, highway, and combined cycles, which saves automotive scribes the effort of extra typing. Ford promised fabulous prizes for the pair who achieved the highest mileage. We gave up at hypermiling after a woman in our test group scored 60 mpg, choosing to trundle across early morning Sunset Blvd. traffic without air conditioning in the 90-degree heat. We weren't that masochistic. "What'd you guys get," asked a Ford PR rep, "47 or so?" Yeah, sure. We actually got 44.5 miles per gallon, easily commendable for a car half its size and segment.
I don't know what she won. A gas station gift certificate, hopefully. Or some sweat-wicking Under Armour.
If you find this story to be inspirational, Ford has sought fit to grant you with plenty of tools, graphics, charts and circular bars for your perusal. There is a dizzying array of singing, dancing infographs that display average and instantaneous mileage, circular charts that map the energy usage of the battery, throttle position, the exact moment where the gas motor clicks on, and so on. Ford says that depending on load, the C-MAX can run on its electric motor up to 62 miles per hour. Ford also exaggerates the seamlessness of the gasoline engine when it switches over from electricity, but it is still noticeable, and the engine sounds coarse when floored for passing power. What is seamless, however, is the start-stop function, from which luxury brands new to this whole "efficiency" thing -- we're looking at you, BMW -- could learn.
The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is the first one designed and built by Ford, because it was cheaper than buying from a supplier -- and Ford's engineers wanted to learn more about the technology themselves. They've passed with high marks. It's a decent, smooth unit, albeit understandably geared towards economy, with the same existentially questioning delay in power that all such transmissions are programmed.
Steering the C-MAX was a light, delicate affair, with a decent amount of feedback. The suspension, independent all around, provided a good balance between comfort and exorcizing body roll.
Those in this market won't care for a Nuerburging-honed driving experience, much less know what a "Nuerburging" is -- hint, it's not a skin condition -- but the C-MAX drives better than the Prius V; it sounds less coarse, feels more refined, and isn't as floaty, nausea-inducing, or willing to make its drivers loathe their stature in life.
Summary"It's hard to argue with an example like the Prius," said Ford's engineer, "which is just one place in the marketplace that's dedicated around a hybrid execution." Well, Ford managed to take a conventional family vehicle from Europe and turn it into something special for us North Americans -- a hybrid drivetrain that lives up to its fuel economy hype, one that keeps its European heritage with a dose of practicality. It remains up to Ford to tackle the biggest challenge of its nemesis: getting the brand recognized as a legitimate competitor to the one original hybrid out there, despite having an arguably better product.
We didn't believe the figures either, or Ford's overeager press releases announcing both its 570-mile range or its better mileage. But it turns out, most of that's true -- saddled against an attractive body, one that drives better than the Toyota Prius V. The funny thing about nemeses? When you manage to defeat one, you get plenty of acclaim. We see no problem with that.