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- Finally, a viable Prius competitor
- Stylish and high-quality interior
- Very quiet and refined inside
- Second most fuel-efficient car on sale
- Styling neither mainstream nor distinctive
- Handling not as responsive as other Fords
- Load floor higher than tailgate opening
- No all-wheel-drive option
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is the first head-to-head challenger for the Toyota Prius since that car grabbed the green mantle a decade ago--and in many ways, the Ford's a better daily driver.
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.
2013 Ford C-Max
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is nowhere near as distinctive as the Prius, but the interior is clearly more stylish.
It's sometimes hard to say exactly what kind of car the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is. Europeans consider it a small minivan--like the Mazda5--while in the States, where no gasoline-only version is sold, it's a five-door dedicated hybrid hatchback. Ford calls it a Multi-Activity Vehicle, but we're not going to be sucked into another acronym, so we'll settle on five-door hatchback--or, if you like, wagon.
The C-Max sits higher than the Focus compacts it's based on, but it shares common Ford design touches, including a large front grille opening meant to tie the C-Max to the appearance of the Ford Focus Electric, the company's only all-electric vehicle. For a tall hatchback, the stylists have done their best to give it flowing lines, including highlighted wheel arches and a slight haunch over the rear wheel.
The exterior lines are nowhere near as racy as the Focus five-door hatchback, but this car serves a different audience: buyers who want the highest gas mileage and a car whose style says it's a hybrid. We're not sure how successful that latter message is, since the C-Max shape isn't nearly as distinctive and iconic as the ultra-aerodynamic Prius profile. Perhaps in time, observers will link the C-Max shape to "hybrid"--but we're not betting the farm on it.
The interior of the C-Max is considerably more stylish and comfortable than the bland exterior. It shares many styling cues with the Focus hatchback and sedan--not surprising, since the cars are built on the same assembly line and use the same compact understructure.
The dashboard's modern styling, soft-touch surfaces, and chrome accents give the C-Max a more upscale look than the hard-plastic interior of the Prius, with its Space Age design and flying-buttress console. The Ford's full-color information display behind the steering wheel--one panel each side of the central speedometer--can be configured to show the car's operating data in a variety of ways, depending what the driver would like to see.
2013 Ford C-Max
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid not only delivers very high gas mileage, it's less stressed and more pleasant under heavy loads than a Prius.
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid uses the latest version of Ford's hybrid system, which incorporates a specially tuned gasoline engine and a pair of motor-generators. One electric motor can power the car alone, at speeds up to 62 mph (under certain circumstances), or add torque to the engine output, and the other recharges the battery through regenerative braking and on engine overrun.
The 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is mounted under the load floor just behind the rear seat, with a covered compartment behind it.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at 141 horsepower and 129 lb-ft of torque, but the power output of the engine and drive motor together is 188 horsepower--or 54 hp more than the total output of the Toyota Prius powertrain. Ford notes that the engine is entirely free of accessory drive belts, with even the water pump being electrically powered, as well as the air-conditioning compressor and the power steering.
Along with a lot of development effort aimed at reducing engine noise and harshness, the extra power means that the C-Max doesn't feel like it's struggling as much as a Prius under heavy loads. The engine note sounds less desperate and shrill under full acceleration, giving drivers more confidence in situations like short uphill freeway on-ramps. For more power, the driver can shift into "L" as well, and the C-Max also incorporates Hill Descent Control that simulates increased engine braking.
On the road, the C-Max has a firm ride, and road surface imperfections sometimes come directly through to passengers, probably due to the low-rolling-resistance tires. The noise suppression is quite good, though, including Active Noise Cancellation that analyzes certain sounds inside the passenger compartment and transmits anti-noise through the door speakers in real time to cancel them out. That meant that passengers may feel the road surface, but they didn't necessarily hear the tires passing over it. We did occasionally hear a slight electric whine, but it's wasn't all that objectionable.
Our one disappointment with the C-Max on the road was that it simply didn't have the tight, lithe feel of the Focus hatchback we tested last year. Our test C-Max Hybrid held the road well enough, but it's a tall and heavy car--at a curb weight of 3,600 pounds, it's 650 pounds heavier than a Focus five-door--and you can feel it on the road.
2013 Ford C-Max
Comfort & Quality
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid has plenty of room for people and goods, and Ford's well-thought-out controls and comfortable seats make the experience a pleasure.
The interior of the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is a pretty nice place to spend time. The front seats are very comfortable, and there's plenty of space front and rear even for adults over 6 feet tall. The base SE model seats are covered in a pale synthetic upholstery material whose recycled content Ford proudly touts, though you'll find the leather seating surfaces on the SEL far more luxurious.
Ford has put a lot of effort into little interior details on the C-Max, and it shows. One example: Most cars with 12-Volt power sockets (the old "cigarette lighter") have rubber plugs to close them off, often on a floppy rubber leash. The C-Max has a hinged plastic lid, with a neat chrome ring around it and "12V" printed on top. The quality of that little item simply gives a better and more luxurious impression than the hard plastics and almost grim esthetic of the Toyota Prius range.
Another example we particularly liked: Most cars have two pairss of ventilation outlets in the dash, one at the outboard corners and one in the center. The C-Max has a third seat, midway down the center stack, that point downwards and notably increase the flow of heated or cooled air.
The rear seat folds and lowers with a pull on a single lever, and with the seats down, the C-Max Hybrid offers 52 cubic feet of load space (out of total interior volume of 99.7 cubic feet, just barely below the cutoff between compacts and mid-size cars). 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 cubic feet with the rear seat up) but lower than the Prius V wagon, which has 34 to 40 cubic feet with the sliding rear seat up, and 67 cubic feet when it's down.
The load bay has a full complement of family-friendly grocery-bag hooks, a storage net, and a 110-Volt outlet in the rear compartment. There are even small storage bins under the rear passengers' feet. But the floor of the load bay is actually a couple of inches higher than the bottom of the tailgate, which makes loading easy but somehow appears odd.
2013 Ford C-Max
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid hasn't yet been rated for crash safety, but Ford expects it to do well--and it comes with all the latest electronic safety systems.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has rated the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid for crash safety as yet, but Ford is confident its five-door hatchback will achieve high ratings.
The 2013 C-Max Hybrid includes front and side airbags for both front-seat occupants, side air-curtain bags for the first and second rows, and a driver's knee airbag.
It has the usual array of electronic safety systems, including stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes with emergency brake assist, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. As befits a family vehicle, its front shoulder belts have adjustable anchors to ensure they fit the widest range of occupants, from growing teens to full-sized parents.
2013 Ford C-Max
Base versions of the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid are considerably nicer than the more utilitarian Prius, and buyers can add options galore.
There are just two trim levels for the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid: SE (starting at $25,995 with delivery) and SEL, which adds $3,000 to the price.
All C-Max Hybrids come with standard 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with USB and auxiliary input jacks, an illuminated glove box, keyless entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear-seat heater vents, the Sync voice-controls system, and the SmartGauge digital display system with InfoGuide screens that let the driver configure information on the car's operation and energy consumption.
Options on the SE trim level include a Winter package (heated power mirrors with side indicators, and puddle lamps), a Power Liftgate and Rear Park Assist package, and a package that bundles Sync Services, the MyFord Touch voice-control system, and Sirius XM satellite radio.
The SEL trim level adds Sync with MyFord Touch, a push-button start with proximity sensing, rain-sensing wipers, a reversing proximity warning system, heated and leather-trimmed front seats, and ambient LED interior lighting.
Options for the C-Max Hybrid SEL model include a panoramic moonroof, the Power Liftgate and Park Assist package, a Premium Audio package, a Hands-Free Technology package that offers hands-free liftgate operation triggered by a kicking motion below the bumper, and a Parking Technology package that lets the driver direct the C-Max to steer itself into a parallel parking space.
2013 Ford C-Max
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is EPA-rated at 47 mpg combined, making it the second most fuel-efficient car sold in the U.S. without a plug.
The EPA gives the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid a 47-mpg rating on all three of its measurements: city, highway, and combined gas mileage. That combined figure is just 3 mpg lower than the smaller Prius Liftback, and 5 mpg higher than the Prius wagon.
In a mix of city stop-and-go and freeway driving, we saw figures of 37 mpg over a total distance of about 50 miles, including quite a lot of energetic mountain driving. On a shorter and more urban 20-mile route, we logged 44 mpg.
Ford proudly promotes the C-Max Hybrid as having a total range of 570 miles, higher than that of any Prius at the EPA-rated mileage. We think any family using the C-Max is likely to require rest stops well before achieving that distance, but reducing gasoline stops is always a good thing.
UPDATE: While the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid was originally rated at 47 mpg combined (47 mpg city, 47 mpg highway), Ford was forced in August 2013 to lower its ratings to 43 mpg combined (45 mpg city, 40 mpg highway). The reduction came after Ford admitted that it had used the gas-mileage figures for the 2013 Fusion Hybrid sedan, which fell into the same weight class and used an identical powertrain. That practice was entirely legal under EPA rules, but after widespread buyer complaints and an investigation by the EPA into its real-world fuel economy, the company agreed to lower the ratings.
Then, in June 2014 Ford again lowered the ratings--this time to 40 mpg combined (42 mpg city, 37 mpg highway) after discovering errors in lab-test measurements and calculations for aerodynamic drag. Ford agreed with the EPA to reduce the ratings a second time, and send a check for the increased gasoline costs to all owners of 2013 C-Max Hybrids, along with five other cars whose ratings were reduced at the same time. While 40 mpg is still higher than the majority of cars on the market, it is a lower rating than the larger (if less powerful) Toyota Prius V wagon.