2017 Ford C-MaxEnlarge Photo
Hybrid hatchbacks are some of the most fuel-efficient cars on the road today—but when it comes down to buying one, should you opt for green credentials or fun-to-drive qualities?
In other words, which should you buy: the new Toyota Prius, or the latest Ford C-Max?
The new Prius wins this matchup decisively, with a score of 6.5 beating the 5.3 we awarded to the C-Max. The Prius wins for comfort and quality, safety, and features, while the C-Max gets the nod for design. Both cars score equally for performance and energy efficiency. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
For several years, the Ford C-Max hybrid seemed to be at least an even match, and for some buyers, a better car than the legendary Toyota Prius. That changed for 2016, with a brand-new Prius — replacing the one sold since 2010—that fixes many of its predecessor's flaws while boosting fuel economy even higher than before.
The Prius and the C-Max are both five-door hatchbacks offered only as dedicated hybrid vehicles—no gasoline-only models—and the C-Max also has a low-volume plug-in hybrid version offering almost 20 miles of all-electric range from a larger battery before reverting to being a conventional hybrid. The Prius Prime plug-in version of the new model went on sale late in 2016, with 25 miles of electric range, more than the C-Max Energi's 19 miles.
Ford's C-Max takes a different approach to using a hybrid powertrain for ultra-high fuel efficiency than Toyota's Prius. It's a more conventional and upright design than the lower, more expressive Prius. To many eyes, the C-Max will appear to be a small, tall wagon with a drooping roofline and some bulbous wheel-arch flares.
The new Prius, on the other hand, pulls off the unusual trick of making its predecessor look sedate and conventional. The fourth-generation of the ur-hybrid is no longer tall and slab-sided. It really is "longer, lower, wider," with a very low nose leading to a wedge-shaped body that has complicated rear-end styling with squiggle-shaped taillights and the characteristic two-window tailgate. We'll just say that its styling will be a matter of taste, and is likely to be quite polarizing.
The C-Max has a comfortable cabin, especially in its front seats, but the new Prius has made great strides in that area. Its seats are comfortable, supportive, and far better than the last generation's. Four adults fit comfortably in both, although both cars now have rear seats that sit a bit on the low side, leaving adults in a knees-up position. With the seats down, the C-Max Hybrid offers 52 cubic feet of load space; with the rear seat up, cargo volume is 25 cubic feet. Those numbers are higher than those of the Prius Liftback (which has only 21.6 cubic feet with the rear seat up).
Both cars now come out about equal on creature comforts and interior feel. The Ford has a more conventional dash and interior, with lots of sound deadening and few hard plastic surfaces. But the new Prius has much better materials, with more soft-touch surfaces and a wide sweeping design that blends a pleasant feel—if not exactly premium—with a mix of intuitive and Space Age-y controls. Both cars now have full-color digital instruments, though those of the Prius remain in a low, wide in the center of the dash toward the base of the windshield, while the Ford's are in the usual binnacle behind the steering wheel. Both cars also have a rectangular display at the top of a conventional console.