Ford C-Max Hybrid — A Prius alternative

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Ford it seems has developed the near-perfect vehicle for the small family — or for anyone who values fuel economy, decent cargo space, and a surprisingly sporty demeanor. It has the high-riding traits of a compact SUV, the practicality of a hatchback and the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius. Ford calls it the C-Max, which comes only in hybrid configuration in the U.S. with an EPA rated 47 miles per gallon in both city and highway driving.

Is it too good to be true? Well, perhaps, in regards to the posted fuel economy. There have been numerous consumer complaints over the C-Max's inability to hit the magic 47 mpg number. We managed 40 miles to the gallon over a wide variety of driving situations including high-speed interstates, city stop-and-go traffic and winding rural roads. Other reviewers have posted anywhere from 40 up to the magic 47.

But few hybrids realize the posted EPA mileage. That's probably due more to outdated testing procedures than to driving habits. Regardless of 40 or 47 or something in between, the new C-Max performance is so good that a few miles per gallon less than 47 probably won't make much difference for most people who value driving enjoyment with the added reward of commendable fuel efficiency.

Ford has singled out Toyota as its chief competitor, and at a driving event in Los Angeles last summer Ford officials urged journalists to jump into one of several Prius V vehicles they made available for testing. The Prius V, a bigger version of the standard Prius, stacks up well against the C-Max in cargo capacity with the ability to haul 67cubic feet of stuff with rear seats folded and 34 cubic feet with seats in place. The C-Max features a cargo capacity of 54.3 cubic feet and with seats in place, 24.5 cubic feet.

This begs the question, how much cargo-hauling space is needed because in virtually every other area including styling, interior design and refinement, performance, handling, and EPA-measured gas mileage (the Prius is rated at 44/40) the C-Max stands out.

Performance trumps a lot of things in our book — it's as much a safety feature as airbags and brakes — providing the driver with the ability to get out of trouble and to keep from getting into trouble. In this regard, the C-Max has the upper hand making 188 horsepower from its 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine and its electric motor, which is charged by a 1.4 kWh Lithium Ion battery pack. That's 54 more horses than the Prius. And what's more, Ford says the C-Max can reach 62 mph in EV mode. The Prius can manage only 25 mph.

We were impressed with the C-Max’s ability to climb hills and surge past highway traffic with gratifying acceleration and outstanding gas mileage. That's a nice combo. The C-Max also shines in ride and handling. The ride is on the sporty side, but we think most people will find it suitable. It offers nicely weighted steering with a precision accuracy rarely found in this class, and it acquits itself quite well in the corners. The brakes also do a nice job slowing the car, but they do get a bit spongy in initial pedal travel.

The exterior of the C-Max is stylish in an Escape/Focus sort of way, an eye-catcher. And the interior is delightfully handsome. The C-Max features the SmartGauge system from the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a traditional speedometer flanked by two LCD screens that can display an array of information.

The much-criticized MyFord Touch system was included in the top trim level SEL model that we drove. Perhaps we are getting used to the features and buttons, but it posed no problem in the C-Max. And there were traditional dials and buttons for the dual-zone climate control system.The C-Max comes well equipped with full power accessories, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, the Sync voice-activated system, and a six-speaker sound system with CD player with audio jack and an iPod/USB interface.

Our test vehicle came with the optional premium audio and navigation package the power liftgate, hands-free technology package, rear view camera, keyless entry — including starter and tailgate and a rear park aid package. Bottom line was $31,940.

For those who want even better fuel economy, the C-MAX Energi plug-in can deliver 550 miles of total range, including more than 20 miles in electric-only mode, about 50 percent more than the electric-only range of the Toyota Prius plug-in. The starting price is $33,745.

One of the interesting features of the Energi, a Ford official told us, is that the 20 miles of electric-only driving, can be "saved" until it is needed the most.

Base price: 25,995; as driven, $31,940
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder plus electric motor
Horsepower: 188 combined
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 173.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,640 pounds
Luggage capacity: 24.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 52.6 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 47 highway, 47 city
0-60: 8.1 seconds (MotorTrend)
Also consider: Toyota Prius V, Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Mazda 5

The Good
• Excellent gas mileage
• Quick acceleration for a hybrid
• Stylish interior
• Responsive handling

The Bad
• Infotainment controls can be aggravating

The Ugly
• Many competitors have more cargo space