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The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid represents the first straight-up competitor to the legendary Toyota Prius hybrid, and it's home-grown and assembled in Michigan. This is Ford's first dedicated hybrid, meaning there's no gasoline-only version of the C-Max sold in the U.S. In exterior size and internal capacity, the tall, compact five-door hatchback neatly splits the difference between the standard Prius Liftback and the new-for-2012 Prius V wagon.
The C-Max Hybrid model will be followed in a few months by the C-Max Energi, the first-ever plug-in hybrid Ford has offered. It will face off against the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, though it promises a longer all-electric range. But we haven't yet driven that car, and this review deals solely with the hybrid model--which will be the volume seller in the C-Max range.
The exterior styling of the C-Max starts with the large trapezoidal grille of the Ford Focus Electric, and then adds the accent lines and window angles of Ford's "kinetic design" to what is really a small minivan, or perhaps a tall and upright five-door hatchback. Inside, however, the C-Max has a rich and stylish dashboard and a number of high-end options that make the comfortable interior a luxurious place to spend time.
When it went on sale in the fall of 2012, Ford's hybrid C-Max was rated at 47 mpg on the EPA combined test cycle, just marginally worse than the 50-mpg Prius Liftback but better than the Prius V's 42 mpg combined. In June 2013, the company cut that to 43 mpg after an EPA investigation sparked by owner complaints that real-world fuel efficiency wasn't even close to that number. And then in April 2014, the company cut the combined fuel-economy ratings again, to 40 mpg, after it found errors in lab-test measurements and calculations for aerodynamic drag. The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is currently rated at 40 mpg combined (42 mpg city, 37 mpg highway)--a far more realistic estimate of what drivers will likely achieve in mixed usage.
On the road, its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor deliver 54 hp more than the Toyota Prius powertrain. In practice, that means that the C-Max is far less stressed and desperate-sounding under hard acceleration; its engine is more turbine-like than the desperate howl of the Prius. Its handling, regretably, is far from the agile and lithe feel of the Focus compact it's based on--the heavy C-Max tends toward the ponderous on the road.
Our test C-Max was well built and offered more interior space than the Prius Liftback, plus a bevy of practical features that will make it a useful vehicle for carrying around families of four of five and their gear. Ford expects the hybrid C-Max to achieve top safety ratings, though it has not yet been crash-tested by either the NHTSA or the IIHS.
At $25,995 including delivery, Ford has kept the base price of the C-Max Hybrid below that of the Prius V wagon (starting at $27,345 with delivery), though the hybrid C-Max costs about $1,200 more than the base Prius Liftback model. While the standard Prius will continue to reign as the most fuel-efficient (non-plug-in) car sold in the U.S., the added cargo capacity, people space, and fuel economy of the C-Max--and its more relaxed operation under heavy loads--may prove formidable competition for the Prius V wagon.
One drawback to the C-Max is the lack of all-wheel drive. The C-Max Hybrid effectively replaces the discontinued Ford Escape Hybrid crossover utility vehicle, but fully half of all Escape Hybrids were sold with a mechanical all-wheel drive system--pretty much mandatory in the Northeast and snowy or mountainous states. The C-Max is front-wheel-drive only, and Ford has no plans to offer an all-wheel-drive model. That's a major missing item, in our view.
While the Prius pioneered the high-efficiency segment Toyota has dominated for 12 years, at last there's a credible competitor that in some ways is a better car than the fabled Prius. The biggest challenge Ford faces, in fact, may be simply convincing those crucial California Prius buyers to consider the C-Max in the first place.