New & Used Ford C-Max: In Depth
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The Ford C-Max, a tall compact five-door hatchback, is available as either a standard hybrid or a plug-in hybrid known as the Energi model--both of which were completely new to the Ford lineup for 2013. The C-Max competes with the Toyota Prius and Prius V, but the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid competes with the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid and to some degree with the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car.
The C-Max was an all-new vehicle for Ford, though its shares much of its mechanical structure and underpinnings with the high-volume and better-known Ford Focus compact sedan and hatchback models. It's even built in the same Michigan assembly plant.
But the C-Max, originally thought to give Ford a direct and viable challenger to the Prius hybrid, appears to have been hurt in the sales competition by not one but two reductions in its gas-mileage ratings. The cuts, one in August 2013 and a second in June 2014, followed numerous complaints from owners and reviewers that the C-Max didn't achieve anything close to its original EPA fuel-efficiency numbers.
While the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid was originally rated at 47 mpg combined (47 mpg city, 47 mpg highway), 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 had presumably had to purchase.
Then in June 2014, Ford lowered the C-Max ratings a second time, to 40 mpg combined (42 mpg city, 37 mpg highway) 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 a further check for the increased gasoline costs to all owners of 2013 and 2014 C-Max Hybrids. Altogether, six separate Ford cars 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 reporters and owners. That remains a creditable 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 closer to its EPA rating of 50 mpg combined (except for the 42-mpg rating for the Prius V wagon).
It took 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 now rated at 19 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 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.