2017 Ford C-Max Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker
June 9, 2017

The 2017 Ford C-Max Hybrid and C-Max Energi are still pleasant all-rounders among hybrids, but they face much tougher competition this year from the Prius lineup.

The 2017 Ford C-Max hybrid hatchback enters its fifth model year with only the most incremental of changes. A frontal restyle so subtle you may miss it, some equipment tweaks, and a slight change to trim levels are the sole updates, along with a single new paint color. The C-Max Hybrid and its sibling C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid version are offered in base SE and high-level Titanium versions.

We've rated the C-Max lineup overall at 5.3 points out of 10, largely reflecting stronger competition from the refreshed lineup of Toyota Prius and plug-in Prius Prime models, plus Ford's omission of the latest modern electronic safety systems. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

The 2017 Ford C-Max Hybrid and plug-in hybrid Energi model are dedicated hybrids—meaning they have no gasoline-only versions. Beneath a tall, slightly bulbous shape are underpinnings from the well-regarded Ford Focus compact hatchback. Up front, a version of the large trapezoidal grille now used throughout much of the Ford lineup marks it as a member of that family. Along the sides, accent lines and window angles give it more of a small minivan appearance. From some angles, the C-Max looks like a tall, more upright Focus; from others, it's more like a wagon, with a vertical tailgate and slab sides.

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The C-Max interior continues to shine even after five years, with sporty charm and good-quality materials. The C-Max's rich, stylish dash and soft-touch materials will appeal to some buyers in a way that the sea-of-plastic dash and scattered instruments in the Prius simply can't.

Ford C-Max performance

A 2.0-liter inline-4 and two-motor hybrid system is rated at 195 combined horsepower. That's more powerful than the 121 hp of the new Prius, but then the Ford is several hundred pounds heavier. Still, the extra power gives a driving feel that's almost perky and much less stressed than some hybrids. The plug-in C-Max Energi offers an all-electric driving range of 20 miles, thanks to its larger 7.6-kwh battery—versus 1.4-kwh in the standard C-Max hybrid.

On the road, it's hard to find fault in how the Ford C-Max drives. Our only real disappointment is that the C-Max doesn't have the tight, lithe feel of the Focus hatchback. That's hardly surprising, given that it's 650 pounds heavier than a Focus five-door—but you can feel it on the road, when occasional road-surface imperfections come directly through to passengers despite a suitably stout suspension and a firm ride.

The C-Max has a somewhat smudged record for fuel economy, and 2017 ratings still aren't out yet. The conventional C-Max Hybrid is rated at 42 mpg city, 37 highway, 40 combined, a number that followed two separate reductions from the original, unbelievable 47 mpg. The C-Max Energi was also reduced; it is now rated at 38 mpg combined, with 20 miles of all-electric range. The whole affair was a major blunder and PR faux pas for Ford, but the ratings are now realistic.

The Energi plug-in hybrid model loses significant load-bay space to its larger battery pack, a compromise some potential family buyers may not find acceptable: What would be a flat cargo floor turns into a compromised, multi-level affair that seems flawed if you flip forward the rear seat backs.

The C-Max is comfortable and spacious for its size, offering enough  interior room to haul around four adults and their luggage. There's plenty of headroom and legroom front and rear, though the back seats sit low, leaving longer-legged adults in a knees-up position. Ride quality is firm but just agreeable enough, active noise cancellation and lots of sound-insulation measures help keep on-the-road refinement at its best.

Ford C-Max safety and features

The 2017 C-Max gets a four-star overall rating from the NHTSA, with four stars for frontal crash and roof strength but five for side impact. The IIHS gives the 2016 version mostly good scores in its testing, although the lack of any forward-crash prevention systems keeps it from the agency's top awards. A backup camera is standard on all models this year.

At the base SE level, the Ford C-Max includes standard 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with USB and auxiliary input jacks, keyless entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, an illuminated glove box, and rear-seat heater vents. As of last year, it can be fitted with the Sync 3 voice-control system. A SmartGauge digital display system with InfoGuide is standard, offering screens on which the driver can configure desired information on the car's energy consumption and operation.

Various standalone and packaged options include heated side mirrors, a foot-operated hands-free power liftgate, the Sync 3 system, and a Parking Technology package.

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2017 Ford C-Max

Styling

The 2017 Ford C-Max is an upright hatchback with frumpy exterior lines, though its interior still feels stylish and a cut above its Prius competitors.

The 2017 Ford C-Max was first designed for the European market, and its utilitarian lines reflect that. You can see several cars in it: a hatchback, a tall wagon, even a small minivan with conventional rear doors rather than sliders. It's closer to a hatchback than the tall and capacious Prius V wagon, but notably stodgier than the new Prius Liftback—which, to be fair, has styling so polarizing that it may have affected sales of the lower, more aerodynamic hatchback.

We give the C-Max a 4 out of 10 on our scale: it loses 2 points for its awkward and humdrum exterior lines, but gains one back for an interior that remains above average even after five years. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

For 2017, the front end of the C-Max has been slightly tweaked, though sadly Ford did not fit the much nicer and racier nose introduced two years ago on the European version of the car. The two grille openings are inharmonious and bottom-heavy, missing the taut grace seen throughout the rest of Ford's car lineup. The snub nose, arched roofline, and high window line of this tall hatchback remain unaltered too. And with fairly small wheels and tires centered in large wheel arches highlighted with fender creases, the C-Max now looks thick and bulbous from some angles. But unlike the latest Prius, it doesn't scream "oddball styling"—which we suspect many buyers will like.

The C-Max continues to offer a stylish and rich interior, even against newer competitors, including the fourth-generation Prius. Its soft-touch surfaces and a few dashes of brightwork give it a more premium look and feel than you might expect from  a vehicle with such high fuel-economy ratings. It's more conventional, and upscale, in look and feel than the improved but still odd interior of the brand-new Prius. Ford's upholstery and surfaces are simply nicer than those found in most highly efficient compact cars, and the full-color display screens can be configured to show a variety of operating information at the driver's whim.

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2017 Ford C-Max

Performance

The 2017 Ford C-Max is now no more than average in hybrid driving quality; against conventional cars, it's heavy and somewhat slow.

Both hybrid and plug-in hybrid Energi versions of the 2017 Ford C-Max can travel solely on electricity at lower speeds. Otherwise, the electric motor serves as a generator, recapturing energy that would otherwise be wasted and storing it in a battery pack, to be used when engine assistance is needed. That gives the C-Max better gas mileage than the similarly sized Ford Focus, which is lighter and lither. 

We rate the 2017 C-Max pair at 4 out of 10 on our Performance scale. They were slightly better to drive than average hybrids when they launched for 2013, but they've remained largely unchanged since then while the rest of the world has caught up. We never thought we'd say it, but the much lighter Toyota Prius is probably as rewarding to drive as a C-Max—and delivers far better gas mileage. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

While Ford hasn't confirmed it, we expect the company to fit this year's C-Max with the slightly updated powertrain already rolled out in the Fusion Hybrid and Energi models. The two cars have always used identical powertrains, and it would only make sense. Until we find out if ratings have changed, we'll say the C-Max powertrain delivers 195 horsepower.

Its 2.0-liter inline-4 and pair of electric motors will easily move the C-Max along in electric-only mode up to 62 mph, Ford says, as long as you don't floor it. When the gasoline engine fires up, it blends seamlessly with the electric power as the driver accelerates and the car gathers speed. As soon as you lift off, the C-Max recovers energy while braking or coasting and stores it in a 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. Ford's blending of electric and friction braking—a hard thing to do smoothly—continues to be first-rate.

The C-Max can accelerate electrically under even medium to heavy loads, and it includes hill-descent control to help drivers down slippery driveways. There's also an "L" mode to give drivers stronger regenerative braking, similar to a "Low" gear on a regular car. Reducing engine noise and harshness were a priority for Ford, and noise suppression is good. The engine note is far from desperate under full power.

The plug-in Energi model's much larger 7.6-kwh battery gives an EPA-rated electric range of 20 miles before the engine switches on. That's no longer ahead of most other plug-in hybrids, however. We've found the C-Max Energi to deliver remarkably close to this in real-world driving, so it's perfect for even medium-distance commuters who can drive to work, recharge the car there during the workday, and then drive home—all on electricity.

It's hard to fault how the C-Max models drive. Their steering is well-weighted and precise, better than what you'll find in most small crossovers. A hefty curb weight of almost 3,700 pounds (and 200 more in the plug-in Energi) leads to handling more like that of a large car than the "compact car" feel you might expect from its size. Still, the C-Max offers more driving enjoyment and road feel than most vehicles you'd consider its rivals.

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2017 Ford C-Max

Comfort & Quality

The 2017 Ford C-Max has a quiet and comfortable interior, and its tall shape lets occupants sit upright, though cargo space in the Energi plug-in model is badly compromised.

It may sit on the footprint of a compact car, but the 2017 Ford C-Max is spacious and practical inside. Four adults will fit comfortably for long trips, and the Hybrid version has decent if not exceptional cargo space. It also has an impressive an impressive ability to reconfigure the space for multiple uses.

The C-Max started as the European equivalent of our larger minivans. For buyers who don't need three rows of seats or the bulk of a U.S.-style minivan, it's a sensible choice. We rate the C-Max twins at 5 out of 10 points, about average for all cars rated. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

Refinement in motion is what really distinguishes the C-Max from crossover utility vehicles of the same size. The ride quality is firm but agreeable, and copious sound insulation plus active noise cancellation keep road and engine noise muted. Few compact vehicles are this smooth and capacious with anything like the C-Max's fuel economy.

In the cabin, adults of 6 feet or taller will find plenty of space. The front seats of the C-Max are comfortable and feel lushly padded, with pale synthetic (recycled) upholstery in the base SE mode. You can move up to plush leather seating surfaces on the Titanium version. The height of the C-Max makes it easy to enter and exit, though the rear seat puts longer-legged riders in a slightly knees-up position.

Remarkably, the rear seat is comfortable too—frequently a failing of compact crossovers—and it folds and lowers with a single lever. Leg room and head room in the rear, again, is fine for adults. Practical, family-friendly features include grocery-bag hooks, a storage net, and a 110-volt outlet in the rear compartment load bay. Rear passengers even have small storage bins under their feet.

Cargo space and interior space is a mixed bag. The total total interior volume of 99.7 cubic feet just misses the 100-cubic-foot minimum to be categorized as a mid-size vehicle. With the rear seat up, you'll have cargo volume of 25 cubic feet. Put the seats down, and that expands to 52 cubic feet of load space. The load-bay floor is oddly higher than the bottom of the tailgate, though it makes loading easy. Those volumes are 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 C-Max Hybrid's 1.4-kwh battery pack sits under the load floor, just behind the rear seat. But the plug-in Energi model's much larger 7.6-kwh battery, which also sits under the load floor, impinges significantly on the cargo bay. With the rear  seats up, the C-Max Energi has only 19.2 cubic feet of load bay volume (against the Hybrid's 25) and 42.8 cu ft with the seat down. Its liftover height is also considerably higher. The reduced cargo space is one of the few knocks on the C-Max Energi, since flipping the rear seat back forward gives you a multi-level load bay that seems both odd and challenging to use.

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2017 Ford C-Max

Safety

Safety ratings aren't bad for the 2017 Ford C-Max, now in its fifth model year, but the hybrid lacks advanced electronic safety systems—though a rear-view camera is standard at last.

The 2017 Ford C-Max continues to earn decent if not stellar scores on crash tests and other safety-related ratings. But Ford hasn't chosen to fit it with any of the advanced electronic active-safety systems it's rolling out through the rest of its lineup, including adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic crash braking.

The expected simpler safety features are all present, along with seven airbags. They include front and side airbags for each front-seat occupant, side air-curtain bags for first- and second-row occupants, and also a driver's knee airbag.

We give the 2017 C-Max range 4 out of a possible 10 points for Safety this year, docking it a point for its four-star overall rating from the NHTSA. The federal agency also rates the C-Max at four stars for frontal crash and rollover, with its top rating of five stars for side impact only. Those ratings apply both to the C-Max Hybrid and its Energi plug-in hybrid version. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

The IIHS gave the 2017 C-Max Hybrid the top rating of "Good" for all tests except the new and tougher small-overlap front crash, where it got a second-best "Acceptable" rating. It hasn't yet issued ratings for the 2017 model year, nor has it rated the lower-volume C-Max Energi model.

The C-Max features also the usual electronic safety systems—including stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes with emergency brake assist. A rearview camera is standard on all trim levels: the SE models have a standard 4-inch in-dash display screen, with an 8-inch screen optional, and the Titanium models have the larger touchscreen as standard.

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2017 Ford C-Max

Features

The 2017 Ford C-Max is far from an old-style "economy car," with standard features and options that belie its frugal character, plus a new high-end trim level this year.

Both the standard hybrid and the Energi plug-in hybrid versions of the 2017 Ford C-Max come in two trim level, as in previous years, but while the base SE stays the same, the higher-level SEL trim has been replaced by a Titanium model.

Even after five years on the market, both the regular Hybrid and the plug-in Energi start well-equipped and approach the level of a premium brand's compact offering at the top of the scale. They're not as far ahead of the Toyota Prius as they were when launched, but even a C-Max SE represents a good set of features at a competitive price—more so lately because Ford has had to discount its dedicated hybrid to sustain sales in the face of continued low gas prices and a pair of fuel-economy rating reductions. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

Every C-Max Hybrid comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with USB and auxiliary input jacks, keyless entry, an illuminated glove box, and rear-seat heater vents. All C-Max models also have Ford's SmartGauge digital display system with InfoGuide screens, a set of information panels that offer the driver the ability to show only desired information on the car's operations and energy usage.

The Sync 3 voice-control system is optional on the SE model, standard on Titanium versions. It replaces the previous MyFord Touch system, and it's clearly an improvement over that unloved and sometimes unworkable software.But Sync 3 isn't without its faults. While the interface is sharper and slicker, the hardware still lags at times and can get confused in switching between day/night display modes during dawn and dusk.

The top-level Titanium version of the C-Max adds not only Sync 3 but also different 17-inch machined aluminum alloy wheels, leather-trimmed front seats, a 10-way power adjustable front passenger seat with lumbar support, keyless ignition with proximity sensing, rain-sensing wipers, a reversing proximity warning system, and ambient LED interior lighting.

Available options include both individual features and commonly-ordered packages. The Sync 3 system, a hands-free power liftgate—triggered by a kicking motion below the bumper—and heated side mirrors are available on an individual basis. A Winter package bundles heated power mirrors with side indicators, and puddle lamps, and the Power Liftgate is grouped with the Rear Park Assist system. There's also a package that bundles Sync Services, the voice-control system, and Sirius XM satellite radio. The tech-heavy Hands-Free Technology package includes the hands-free liftgate operation, and a Parking Technology package will automatically steer the C-Max into a parallel parking space.

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2017 Ford C-Max

Fuel Economy

With a pair of downward adjustments in the past, the 2017 Ford C-Max delivers real-world gas mileage around 38 or 40 mpg, and up to 20 miles of plug-in electric range.

The 2017 Ford C-Max remains one of Ford's most fuel-efficient cars, though during its five-year life, the C-Max Hybrid has suffered not one but two downward adjustments to its EPA ratings. With the advent of a new generation of Toyota Prius, Ford no longer has any hope of positioning it as a competitor to that car—which now has a top model rated at 56 mpg combined. So it's switched to pitching the C-Max as a fun but sensible vehicle that happens to get good gas mileage. With continued cheap gas and the switch to all-wheel-drive crossover utilities, however, sales have waned since its second year on the market.

Ratings for the 2017 C-Max are not yet out, but the C-Max lineup still rates at 9 out of 10, simply because so many of the vehicles sold in the U.S. do significantly worse on EPA ratings. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

Last year, the conventional hybrid C-Max was rated at 42 mpg city, 37 highway, 40 combined. The same car had started far higher when it launched in 2013, at 47 mpg combined. Complaints quickly piled up when most owners got nowhere near that figure. Ford first cut the ratings on the 2013 C-Max Hybrid to 43 mpg, and the company had to send checks to C-Max owners who'd bought before that adjustment, to compensate them for the extra fuel costs. Ford had to cut the ratings on the hybrid C-Max a second time, midway through the 2014 model year, after settling a broader inquiry by the EPA into gas-mileage ratings on six different Ford models.

The rating of 38 mpg combined for the C-Max Hybrid correlates much better to what we've seen on test drives than either of the earlier ratings. City and suburban driving may return figures in the low 40s, falling to mid- to high 30s on higher-speed highway trips. Ford fits a set of displays called Eco Coach as standard, oriented toward helping drivers understand the power flow of the powertrain and optimize their use of electric power, gasoline, and regenerative braking—as well as charging for the plug-in Energi.

The 2016 C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid model stood at 42 mpg city, 37 highway, 40 combined, and its its all-electric range and efficiency numbers were also cut in mid-2014. For last year, those were 20 miles of range and 88 MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon Equivalent—the distance a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in a single gallon of gasoline.

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