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.
Ford's hybrid C-Max is 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. 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.