2012 Ford C-Max: First Drive

October 5, 2010
2012 Ford C-Max

2012 Ford C-Max

In the world of the 64-ounce Big Gulp, the sizzling buffet and the Expedition EL, can a size-medium MPV make a big noise?

Drive the 2012 Ford C-Max, and you'll hope so. Minivans are a gang of four: the Chrysler twins, the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey dominate the niche, and for families wanting something a bit smaller and a bit less expensive, there aren't many other choices.

With the C-Max, Ford is setting out to change that, in about a year and a couple of months when the classic European-style "MPV" hits American showrooms with less interior room and outward bulk--but with better performance and little more visual sprezzatura than you'll see in the more mainstream vans.

It's part of a vast C-class conspiracy. Ford is spinning off at least ten new vehicles from the "C"-body family in the next few years, while it's also making its American lineup line up much more closely to what it sells around the world. Rather than another abortive attempt at a domestic-flavored minivan--in the Freestar vein--Ford's decided to offer some of its global goodies to fill the usual minivan niche. For people-hauling supreme, it already has the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT, not to mention the Expedition and 2011 Explorer. Cargo hauling? An F-150 or even the Ford Transit Connect commercial vehicle.

For young families just emerging from the millennial generation, it has the C-Max. It actually has two C-Max vehicles, but what's known as the C-Max proper in Europe, will remain over there. According to Ford, that five-seat hatchback sits a little close to the next-generation Escape crossover in size and mission. What we'll get--what will be branded as the C-Max in the U.S.--actually is the seven-seat Grand C-Max everywhere else in the world.

Will it nibble away at the base Grand Caravan and Kia Sedona, and elbow aside the vaguely related Mazda5, and win over converts? Or will its appeal be narrow like the now-dead Kia Rondo and the old Mitsubishi Expo LRV? High Gear Media took off after the 2010 Paris Auto Show to find out firsthand.

 

Look between the lines

From some angles, the 2012 C-Max is easily mistaken for the 2012 Ford Focus that will be built in Michigan and in showrooms early next year. It's all in the front-end treatment. The C-Max has cat-eye headlamps, a pair of geometric air intakes stacked atop each other at the nose, and more angular fog-lamp cutouts to send a dynamic visual message.  Down the sides, it sweeps upward at the shoulders, over semi-circular wheel arches and into a more conventional minivan back end that has shades of Subaru Impreza Wagon in its tailgate angle. A slash across the rear quarter panels adds detail, and gives the dual sliding side doors a long track to retract. Big, tapered taillamps pick up some of the front-end's appeal, giving the C-Max some lightness where minivans typically get tall, thick and overly square.

The C-Max interior cues up all the shapes and textures seen in the 2012 Focus at auto shows, and fits and feels top-notch. Ahead of the driver, cut-tube gauges stare back from a relatively low position, leaving the big glass areas wide open for great visibility. The dash gets deep in the typical MPV way, but the plastics only get hard and shiny very close to the glass, where hands can't touch them regularly. The steering wheel hosts paired circles of rocker switches that give easy access to vehicle functions. Across the dash, a big shield of audio controls and an LCD screen lays back, braced by hockey sticks of metallic trim that bank the climate controls. You've seen some of the same elements at work in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, and it's just as well-executed in the C-Max.

2012 Ford C-Max (European version)

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.

Packaging for pleasure

The C-Max is significantly smaller than the standard Grand Caravan, at 167.3 inches long, with a 109.8-inch wheelbase. Inside, though, it has the flexibility of many larger minivans, and some features common with vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz R-Class. The front bucket seats give great support to big adults, and are tailored in a natty cloth, though leather's sure to be on an options list. Knee room is decent enough, and the dash omits the intrusive plastic pieces that make small cars a hit-or-miss on comfort. Headroom? Take as much as you want.

In the second row of seats, passengers find a little more flexibility, while they also find the wide open spaces of a true minivan missing. With the front seats ratcheted in place for middle-size adults, the second row has acceptable leg room--and on the test cars, fold-up trays on the front seatbacks that evoke unpleasant airline flashbacks. The sliding side doors make it easy to clamber in, but the doors have molded-in can holders that press into adult knees on the outboard side. The seats themselves are a little short in bottom-cushion length but recline back for a nice cruising position. For kids, they'd be a B+; for anyone beyond 21 years old or 180 pounds, they're a solid C.

They do have a nifty trick in their optional playbook. The C-Max's middle second-row seat can be folded and stored under the right-side, second-row seat cushion, giving it an R-Class-like walk-through to the two-child third-row seat, which absolutely isn't intended for adults except possibly Linda Hunt. Both the second- and third-row seats fold down for maximum cargo space, with easy-pull fabric loops.

Ford plans to pitch the C-Max to young urban families who don't want a big van, but want the features it's baked into its other small cars. The base price should start slightly above $20,000, with a well-equipped pricetag of around $25,000. For options, Ford's run through its current hit list for features such as blind-spot warnings and park assist, which steers the vehicle into a tight spot by taking control of the electric power steering.

Also in the options plan are a rear-seat entertainment system, a panoramic sunroof, a navigation system, Sony audio systems, and MyFord Touch and SYNC, which integrate Bluetooth voice controls into the audio system with redundant steering-wheel controls at the driver's fingertips.

At first pass, the C-Max fits lots of garages, and lots of duties that could be assigned to a Dodge Journey, a Honda Element or a Mitsubishi Outlander. It's difficult to see a business case for huge volumes or anything but cult status, but fuel prices and electric cars have begun to erode the American birthright to bigger-is-better cars, trucks and minivans. The C-Max may be ahead of the curve--but it could also be a well-timed surprise, if Ford can convince us that the emphasis in the word "minivan" belongs on the first syllable.

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