The sales numbers say that Americans don't like small minivans, but we know quite a few people who got amped up when Ford announced the C-Max would come to the U.S.
Before they could get too excited, however, Ford changed its plans and cut the seven-passenger, sliding-door version. The new, leaner product plan would include only a hybrid C-Max with traditional rear doors. Much head scratching ensued.
Yet, the five-passenger 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid looks to be a smart play. Few families are looking for third-row seating in a compact crossover or minivan (the Mazda 5 is a low-volume cult favorite), yet there's a hunger for practical, space-efficient vehicles that put up big mileage numbers. With its stellar 47 city, 47 highway, 47 combined EPA mpg ratings, the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is just such a car.
A Regular Hybrid and a Plug-In
Actually, Ford is offering two different hybrid versions of the 2013 C-Max — the C-Max Hybrid, which is your typical series-parallel hybrid like the Prius, albeit with a lithium-ion battery pack, and the C-Max Energi, a plug-in version which features the same basic drivetrain and a double-size battery pack. The 2013 C-Max Hybrid arrives at dealers next month. The Energi will show up in hybrid-friendly markets in November and all 50 states later in 2013.
Today we're driving only the C-Max Hybrid. It has a base price of $25,995 and fuel mileage ratings that make it a natural competitor to the Prius V ($27,310, EPA-rated 42 mpg combined) and diesel Jetta wagon ($26,310, 34 mpg combined).
Equipped with a port-injected, Atkinson cycle, 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder rated at 141 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 129 pound-feet of torque, the Ford is more powerful than either rival once you factor into the front-drive electric motor's contributions. Total system power is 188 hp. As on the Toyota, a planetary gearset-regulated continuously variable transmission (CVT) drives the C-Max Hybrid's front wheels.
Ford hasn't released a blended gas-electric torque rating for the 2013 C-Max Hybrid, but its gasoline engine alone is rated at 129 pound-feet compared to just 105 lb-ft for the Prius V's 1.8-liter inline-4. And that difference feels huge as we merge onto U.S. 101. Throttle response is energetic off the line, and the Ford's 2.0-liter is unstrained as it delivers us to 70 mph. The engine also makes a nice growl that encourages further use of the gas pedal — an improvement over the familiar Prius soundtrack that reminds you that you've asked for too much already.
Company officials tell us that the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is 1.5 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the standard-size Prius. That would put it in the mid-8-second range, which is the same territory as the Jetta TDI wagon.
A fuel economy loop isn't on the menu today, so we'll wait until we get a C-Max in for a full test before we declare its 47-mpg rating attainable. We have no trouble cracking 40 mpg (so says the trip computer) during our freeway run.
So It's Like a Big Ford Focus?
Although it's built on the same scale as the Prius V and Jetta wagon, the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid has a shorter wheelbase. At 104.3 inches, it's down 5 inches on the Toyota and identical to the Ford Focus, with which it shares its platform architecture. Overall, it's 8 inches shorter in length than the Prius V.
Yet, it's wider than either the Toyota or VW and very tall at 63.9 inches. This opens enough headroom for most adults and helps the Ford to a higher passenger volume (99.7 cubic feet versus 97.2 for the Toyota). The hybrid C-Max is also heavier, weighing 300 pounds more than the Prius V.
Extra ballast is rarely cause to celebrate, but there's no denying the Ford has a more substantial feel as we're going down the road. It's a quiet, respectably smooth ride, too, though alongside the Prius, which floats along in compliant bliss, you might find the C-Max choppy at times.
Then, you turn onto a back road, a place you'd never take a Prius. Although you're never going to carve up a road in a car that wears Michelin Energy Saver tires, you can certainly keep a good pace. The C-Max feels balanced, even entertaining, through the sweeping turns on our route. Its electric-assist steering nails the effort levels, too, so it's not at all artificial — it's just good steering.
Brakes a Little Touchy
If there's anything to complain about, it's the brakes. They feel plenty strong, but the blending of the conventional friction brakes and the hybrid system's regenerative braking is a little clumsy. We mainly notice it in the city, where medium pedal inputs trigger an overenthusiastic regenerative effect that makes it difficult to stop smoothly.
"Compared to the [outgoing] Fusion Hybrid, this performance is a step backward," Chuck Gray, chief engineer at Ford's Core Electrification Engineering division, admits. "We recognize this is an issue with the braking."
Gray tells us a fix is in the works, though it's not yet clear if Ford will be able to make the adjustment before C-Max Hybrids begin arriving at dealers. It's a common issue in cars with regenerative braking systems, so it's not surprising that Ford still has some work to do on the issue.
Interior Ups and Downs
We like the high seating position in the C-Max as it feels more natural than the setup in the Prius V and the steering wheel offers a larger range of adjustment than the Toyota. Materials are attractive if not lavish, and every control feels like it's of solid quality.
The complex MyFord Touch interface is packed with functionality, but with it comes a significant frustration factor. Accordingly, we'd probably skip the factory navigation system (part of the $2,000 Rapid Spec 203A package on our base SE model) and just get the basic Sync package with dual USB inputs via the $570 Rapid Spec 202A group.
The only problem at that point is the lack of a power liftgate with the latter package. Also, just by choosing the SE over the better equipped SEL, the touchless liftgate falls off the options list. You can only understand the appeal of magical liftgates after you've had a child, maybe two.
Even when equipped with a power liftgate, the C-Max still isn't ideal as the cargo bay floor isn't level with the top of the rear bumper. It's a packaging issue, we're told, as the Focus platform architecture wasn't developed with an eye toward hybrid applications. "We couldn't raise the rear bumper," Gray says, noting that the problem becomes more acute in the more battery-laden C-Max Energi.
To compensate, Ford saw to it that the rear seats would fold perfectly flat — more flat than in the Prius V. Cargo capacity is sufficient for most people, but the higher floor squeezes down the capacities compared to the Toyota and VW. The C-Max Hybrid tops out at 52.6 cubic feet versus 67.3 in the Prius V and 66.9 in the Jetta wagon.
The Driver's Hybrid
It may not be able to beat the Toyota Prius V at the packaging game, but the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is certainly the better car on the road. It's much quicker, it handles better, it steers more precisely, and it just feels more like a real car more of the time.
Although it's hard not to imagine how much more useful the C-Max would be if it had sliding doors, it's the only hybrid in this price range that we could recommend to someone who genuinely enjoys driving. And if the idea of a hybrid that's fun to drive doesn't mean much to you, the C-Max still has those big EPA mileage numbers to fall back on. Call it a true hybrid in more ways than one.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.