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.

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