The Car Connection Ford C-Max Overview
The Ford C-Max is a pair of fuel-efficient compact hatchbacks that comprises a C-Max Hybrid gasoline-electric model, and a plug-in hybrid C-Max Energi model. It's related under the skin to the Ford Focus compact hatchback and sedan, and the Ford Escape crossover utility vehicle, and is built in the same Michigan plant as the Focus.
New for the 2013 model year, the C-Max was intended to be a rival for the Toyota Prius, and its plug-in version competes with the likes of the Chevy Volt and plug-in versions of hybrid sedans from several makers. But after EPA investigations, the C-Max Hybrid's high gas-mileage ratings were reduced not once but twice, removing it from any real competition with the Toyota Prius, even before the advent of that car's new fourth-generation model in 2016.
With the C-Max, Ford has been content to let the car go barely updated in five years. Sales have waned as continue cheap gasoline and buyer preferences for crossover utilities work against it.
MORE: Read our 2017 Ford C-Max review
Both C-Max models sit high and 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 each 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, Ford's C-Max shares styling cues with the Focus hatchback and sedan. The 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 on what the driver would like to see.
The C-Max models share a 2.0-liter inline-4 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 sells in greater volumes, but the plug-in hybrid Energi model receives better fuel-economy ratings. The plug-in model is rated at 20 miles of electric range (down from 21 mpg) and 38 mpg combined (down from 43 mpg). 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 higher weight and lower gearing).
The C-Max receives decent ratings from both the NHTSA and the IIHS, with the former giving both models four stars overall. The IIHS has only tested the C-Max Hybrid, and gives it top marks in all categories except the new small frontal overlap test, where it scores an "Acceptable" rating. The models include front and side airbags for both front-seat occupants, side-curtain airbags for the first and second rows, and a driver's knee airbag. They have the usual array of electronic safety systems, including stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes. For 2017, a rear-view camera is standard on all models.
Sales of the C-Max were affected by complaints from early owners and journalists who were unable to achieve the lofty EPA fuel-economy numbers Ford originally claimed. As a result, the C-Max has had its ratings reduced two times, the first in August 2013 and then again in June 2014. Similar adjustments were made to other Ford and Lincoln hybrid claims. While the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid was originally rated at 47 mpg city, 47 highway, 47 combined, Ford lowered that rating to 43 mpg combined in 2013, following a pledge from the EPA that it would investigate the situation. Ford agreed to pay the buyers of 2013 C-Max models a set amount for the extra gasoline they presumably had to purchase.
Then in June 2014, Ford lowered the C-Max ratings a second time, to 42/37/40 mpg after discovering errors in lab-test measurements and calculations for aerodynamic drag. Ford reached an agreement with the EPA to lower the ratings and send an additional check for the increased gasoline costs to all owners of 2013 and 2014 C-Max Hybrids. Altogether, six separate Ford and Lincoln hybrid models had their efficiency ratings reduced at the same time.
The new ratings are much closer to the real-world mileage of 36 to 39 mpg achieved by both reviewers and owners. That remains a credible number for a heavy and well-equipped five-door compact car, but the purpose-built Toyota Prius range still trounces it, delivering real-world gas mileage of more than 50 mpg combined (excluding the Prius V wagon, which is rated at 42 mpg).
Updates over the C-Max's lifespan have been few, but Ford added its Sync 3 infotainment system to the hybrid hatchback in 2016 to replace the much-unloved MyFord Touch interface. The front styling got a few incremental, almost indiscernible, tweaks for 2017, and that same year a new Titanium high-end trim level replaced the former SEL. The base SE trim continues.