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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ford C-Max

The Ford C-Max is a new kind of car for Ford, one sold solely with either a hybrid or plug-in hybrid powertrain--there's no gasoline-only option. It's Ford's first full-on competitor to the quintessential Toyota Prius hybrid, which still dominates the hybrid marketplace and has now expanded into a four-model range. The more common model, the C-Max Hybrid, is a conventional hybrid-electric vehicle and its interior volume puts it between the Toyota Prius liftback and Prius V wagon models in size. The Ford C-Max Energi, which is not currently sold in all states, is a plug-in hybrid that faces off against the Prius Plug-In Hybrid.

Nominally, the C-Max is a tallish five-door compact hatchback. It uses the same underpinnings as the high-volume Ford Focus, and is built in the same plant in Michigan. While it offers by far the most direct and credible challenge to the Prius, its much-touted fuel efficiency ratings of 47 mpg on the EPA combined cycle have not been replicated by the scores of outlets that have tested the C-Max. Both reporters and owners report real-world mileage of 36 to 39 mpg. That's a creditable number for a heavy and well-equipped five-door compact car, but if the Prius range delivers real-world gas mileage closer to its EPA ratings, the C-Max faces potentially unhappy buyers.

It has taken Ford 13 years to launch a "dedicated hybrid" like the C-Max, aimed squarely at the very successful Prius (though in Europe the C-Max is offered with gasoline and diesel engines and in a longer wheelbase version to boot). Europeans consider the C-Max a small family minivan, but that segment has never really gotten traction in the U.S.

Both C-Max models share a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine tuned specifically to work with Ford's hybrid system, which contains a pair of electric motor-generators that power the vehicle and recharge the battery in constantly changing ratios. Total power output between the engine and drive motor is 188 horsepower, or 54 hp more than the Prius powertrain. In practice, that means that the C-Max engine doesn't struggle quite as much and sounds less desperate under the heaviest loads, like short uphill freeway on-ramps.

The hybrid C-Max will sell in greater volumes, but the plug-in hybrid Energi is rated at 21 miles of electric range. In practical terms, this means most drivers can get 15 or more miles of electric-only travel before the C-Max Energi exhausts its battery pack and reverts to being a regular hybrid (with slightly lower gas mileage due to its heavier weight and lower gearing). The plug-in Prius, on the other hand, is rated at just 6 continuous electric miles under the EPA test cycle, for a total of 11 electric miles altogether.

Both C-Max models sit high but share common Ford design touches, including a large front grille opening meant to tie the C-Max to the appearance of the Ford Focus Electric, the company's only all-electric vehicle. For a tall hatchback, the stylists have done their best to give it flowing lines, including highlighted wheel arches and a slight haunch over the rear wheel. The effect is nowhere near as racy as the Focus five-door hatchback, but this car serves a different audience: buyers who want the highest gas mileage and a car that says it's a hybrid.

Inside, the C-Max shares styling cues with the Focus hatchback and sedan--not surprising, since the cars are built interchangeably on the same assembly line. Its modern styling, soft-touch surfaces, and chrome accents give it a more upscale look than the Space Age hard-plastic interior of the Prius. And the full-color gauge and information display behind the steering wheel can be configured to show the car's operating data in a variety of ways, depending what the driver would like to see.

While crash-test results aren't yet available for either version of the C-Max, Ford is confident that it has designed the compact hatchback to achieve high ratings. The car includes front and side airbags for both front-seat occupants, side air-curtain bags for the first and second rows, and a driver's knee airbag. It has the usual array of electronic safety systems, including stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes.

Ford's first dedicated hybrid model is selling well; buyers have noticed that it is quieter, more comfortable, and considerably more stylish inside that the Toyota Prius.The question of real-world gas mileage will continue to develop, we suspect, though many buyers may find the tradeoff between real-world mileage in the high 30s versus the mid 40s to be worth making for the C-Max's mix of comfort, performance, and features versus the Prius.

While the dominance of the Prius range is likely safe, the C-Max is a serious new entry from a company with a decade of experience in hybrids. We suspect the standard Prius liftback will continue its reign as the most fuel-efficient (non-plug-in) car sold in the U.S. But the added cargo capacity and people space offered by the C-Max, not to mention its more relaxed operation under heavy loads, may well prove to be a more attractive package for some buyers than the Prius V wagon.

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