2012 Ford C-Max (European version)
Diesels for Europe; EcoBoost for America
Since it's still more than a year away from an on-sale date here in the U.S., Ford hasn't even begun to build versions with the final specifications to be found in the 2012 C-Max. It wasn't able to provide test vehicles in U.S. specification, but had a fleet of C-Max vans with diesel engines and the six-speed, dual-clutch automatic that will shift the front-drive MPV in America. For a sampling of the engine's power, Ford had the five-seat C-Max on hand, fitted with their new 1.6-liter, 170-horsepower-plus, turbocharged four-cylinder engine--though teamed with a manual transmission not on the docket for the U.S.
Plans call for a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with about 170 horsepower to be offered on the C-Max about six months after it goes on sale Stateside, too. That engine is related to the powerplant found in the 2011 Mazda5.
With so many variables at work, we can't grade the C-Max's drivetrain performance, but we can offer you a few impressions of the individual pieces. The 1.6-liter EcoBoost four hits an almost Japanese note of power output and sound. In the five-seat C-Max, it feels as eager as the better engines in the better compact cars we get--like the turbocharged fours in the Subaru WRX and the MazdaSpeed3. Third gear's a charm here; it's a sweet spot in gearing, where turbo boost is already spooled up for charging uphill corners (the engine delivers near-peak torque down at 1500 rpm). Two adults aboard didn't seem to dampen its enthusiasm, though the extra weight of the "Grand" C-Max of about 220 pounds adds the equivalent of a third big body to the mix.
The six-speed, dual-clutch transmission sampled in the big C-Max feels more like a traditional automatic than any dual-clutch gearbox we've ever driven. That's a benefit for marketing--you don't have to explain the complex shift mechanism--but enthusiasts associate these 'boxes with performance. The C-Max has no paddles to go with its twin clutches, with only a "Sport" shift mode to accommodate the experienced drivers. The higher shift points are appreciated, but as with the similar transmission in the 2011 Ford Fiesta, we'd rather have paddles to do it ourselves.
The EcoBoost and PowerShift combination will be tuned for American roads and, more specifically, for the EPA fuel-economy cycle. Ford says it's aiming for a 30-mpg highway fuel economy number, which would neatly cut through the marketing clutter that the Big Four minivans can muster. Come 2013, the C-Max also will come in plug-in hybrid and all-electric versions--which should share hybrid technology with the next Escape, and the 2012 Ford Focus Electric now in development.
Ford's put effort into the feedback and sensations coming through the wheel from its electric power steering, and it showed plainly on the backroads of Provence. VW and Ford do these systems best: the C-Max is another surefooted example, with quick and almost natural response to turns of the wheel. Second-row riders will feel the smaller packaging over the occasional harder bumps--bigger minivans just blot these out, with their long wheelbases and their heft. In the altogether, the C-Max sits way to the small-car side of the handling spectrum, hardly resembling a typical minivan at all.