Ford Bets on Minivans Getting Small with 2012 C-Max

October 1, 2010

Can a small minivan make it big in America?

That's the question facing Ford as it preps a new seven-seat family car for sale next year. The 2012 Ford C-Max has the flexibility of a larger minivan, but unlike the remaining Big Four minivans--Sienna, Odyssey, Grand Caravan and Town & Country--the C-Max is sized like its "C"-family sibling, the 2012 Ford Focus.

"C" is Ford's designation for its global compact-car family entering production in Europe and Asia over the next year. Eventually the family will include at least 10 vehicles, Ford says, from the four Focus models (including a non-U.S. wagon and the 240-hp Focus ST), to the next-generation Ford Escape and its twin, the European Ford Kuga, to the C-Max and its smaller European cousin.

And though it arrives in U.S. showrooms well after the Focus sedan and hatchback, the hopes for the new C-Max are high, especially given the low sales of MPVs in its class, like the late Kia Rondo and the Mazda5. With the C-Max's fuel economy, style and performance, Ford thinks it can win over new buyers unmoved by big minivans, but still in need of a vehicle for all occasions.

Two C-Max vans, one in America

The C-Max comes in two flavors in Europe: a smaller five-door wears the C-Max badge in Europe, while the vehicle being shipped to the States is called Grand C-Max on the Continent. The smaller C-Max comes close in packaging to the next Escape, which means it's not likely ever to join the automaker's U.S. lineup. The caveat, Ford says, is its global development of all the C-family vehicles means the five-seat version could be offered, if a business case could be made.

And though it's pitching it as a minivan alternative, Ford won't call the C-Max a "minivan" in its marketing. They're "not really going to use any word" to describe the new utility vehicle, says Jim Farley, Ford's vice president for global sales and marketing, insisting that customers will decide what the C-Max is, and what it's labeled. The C-Max's minivan cues, its pair of sliding side doors and its fold-and-store seats, may make it a good alternative to larger vans like the Dodge Grand Caravan--but priced from about $20,000 to $25,000, Farley says the C-Max isn't a direct competitor for anything save the Mazda5.

The Mazda5, in fact, is a distant cousin of the C-Max. The last-generation C-family cars ranged from the Mazda3, to the Mazda5, to the European Ford Focus, all the way up to the Volvo C30/S40/V50. With Ford and Mazda dismantling their long-standing alliance, the new C-Max shares less with the Mazda5 than it did in its last generation, but some key dimensions--as well as the layout of one of its engines--on the new minivan were developed when the American and the Japanese car company were more closely aligned.

C-Max basics

With design cues developed from Ford's 2009 Iosis concept, the C-Max has a striking front end appearance, with a more conventional minivan sideview and rear end. The interior shares the geometric, polished forms of the 2011 Ford Fiesta--and more obviously the 2012 Ford Focus.

The C-Max will be offered with a pair of engines, initially only with a turbocharged 1.6-liter "EcoBoost" four-cylinder with more than 175 horsepower. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder with about 170 horsepower, related to the engine found in the 2011 Mazda5, should appear a few months after launch. A sophisticated dual-clutch transmission will be the only gearbox on the front-drive C-Max, and while all-wheel drive is a possible addition to the range, it's not expected since typically, minivan buyers have opted to stay with less expensive front-drive compact MPVs.

Weighing in at roughly 3,300 pounds, the C-Max with the EcoBoost engine and the PowerShift dual-clutch gearbox should be capable of a 0-60 mph run of 8.5 seconds, while Ford expects highway fuel economy will be higher than 30 mpg. That's thanks in part to the C-Max's electric power steering and to a lighter-weight body.

Further ahead in its life cycle--sometime in 2013--Ford will introduce plug-in hybrid and electric versions of the C-Max.

Inside, the C-Max has the flexibility of many larger minivans, but it also has some features common with vehicles like the Toyota Highlander and the Mercedes-Benz R-Class. The front bucket seats are followed by a second of seats, with a folding middle portion that stores under the right-side, second-row seat cushion--which gives the C-Max a walk-through to a two-person third-row seat. Both the second- and third-row seats fold down for maximum cargo space, too. Still, the C-Max is significantly smaller than the standard Grand Caravan, at 167.3 inches long, with a 109.8-inch wheelbase.

Young enough?

Even at a well-optioned pricetag of around $25,000, the C-Max will offer safety features like blind-spot warnings and parking assist--which steers the C-Max into a tight spot by taking control of the electric power steering--as well as a rear-seat entertainment system, a panoramic sunroof and the MyFord Touch system and SYNC, which integrate Bluetooth voice controls into the audio system with redundant steering-wheel controls at the driver's fingertips. A navigation system also will be on the options list, along with Sony audio systems.

With smarter performance, styling and sizing, Ford hopes the C-Max will appeal to a whole new set of up and coming families--urban couples having their first children, or grandparents pitching in for carpool duty. The C-Max also will depend on those premium features and the lower base pricetag to stir interest among those younger drivers.

And Ford expects to do it all without the minivan label, equating today's minivans with the appliance image that's always dogged anything tall, boxy, and dull.

"We are going to give millennials [an MPV] that's not a refrigerator," Farley says.

Stay tuned for High Gear Media's first drive of the 2012 Ford C-Max and more live photos.

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