Look out Prius, there's a new kid on the block. The Ford C-MAX, a five-door hatchback originally built for the European market, has come to the U.S. But instead of the traditional gas-powered engines found on C-MAX models overseas, the American C-MAX sticks solely to hybrid and plug-in hybrid offerings.
Built on the same platform as the Ford Focus, the C-MAX hybrid and plug-in, the latter dubbed the C-MAX Energi, are powered by a 2.0-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder engine paired with a 118-hp, 88kW electric motor. The Ford C-MAX Hybrid uses a 1.4 Lithium-ion battery, while the Ford C-MAX Energi packs a hefty 7.6-kWh Lithium-ion pack. Gears are selected by an electronic continuously variable transmission (eCVT).
Notably, the Ford C-MAX hybrid is EPA-rated at 47/47 mpg City/Highway driving, city mileage the same as highway mileage. In general, hybrids are most efficient in the city, since stop-and-go driving uses the regenerative braking system more frequently to help charge the battery. As power management technology continues to improve, we expect to see more hybrids achieving better fuel economy numbers on the highway.
The Ford C-MAX Energi offers better fuel economy equivalents and a longer range than the hybrid, although in this variant, city driving still gives the best bang for the buck. It's rated at 108 mpg equivalent (MPGe) in the city, 92 MPGe on the highway and 100 MPGe combined, with a top speed of 85 mph. It can drive up to 21 miles in electric-only mode, and can go up to 620 miles with a fully charged battery and a full tank of gas. This beats the Toyota Prius plug-in, which has a six-mile all-electric range and 540-mile total range.
Like something out of a sci-fi movie, the C-MAX can learn frequently driven routes and will automatically adjust its settings to maximize efficiency. Ford engineers developed this feature, called EV+, which uses the car's built-in GPS and proprietary software to adjust how battery power is used. For example, if the vehicle is nearing a frequent destination, it will remain in electric-only mode to save fuel.
Charging times for the C-MAX Energi are about seven hours with a traditional 120-volt household outlet, and about 4.5 hours with a 220-volt Leviton fast charger. The latter must be purchased separately and is available at Best Buy stores.
Its layout and design makes the C-MAX versatile enough for commuting or weekend road trips. There's a 60/40-split rear seat that folds completely flat, creating more room for cargo. However, because of its battery, the C-MAX lacks the trunk space of most gas-powered compact sedans. The hybrid offers a fair 24.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats, yet, the Energi offers a mere 19.2 cubes. Optional is a handsfree liftgate, first found on the Ford Escape, that allows anyone with the key fob to open the hatch by simply waving a foot underneath the back of the vehicle.
Versions of the C-MAX equipped with navigation use the latest version of MyFordTouch, which has improved since the last generation but can still be irksome to use. Still, there are some handy features, like charging station location information on the C-MAX Energi. But, unfortunately, it's not possible to tell in advance if those stations are already occupied. Once the C-MAX Energi is plugged in, however, Ford's software can alert drivers via text message if the charge is interrupted, foiling any potential plug stealers.
Competitors to the C-MAX are few and far between. Alternatives to the hybrid include the Honda Insight, the traditional Toyota Prius, and the Prius v wagon. Plug-ins that rival the C-MAX Energi are currently limited to the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius plug-in. Because the federal tax credit for hybrid and electric vehicles is currently calculated according to battery size, the C-MAX Energi earns a higher credit than the Prius plug-in, making its adjusted base price $29,995.
Ford C-MAX Hybrid SE ($25,200); Hybrid SEL ($28,200); Energi SEL ($32,950)
Ford is strictly limiting the C-MAX to hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants in the U.S. Why? Maybe because research says early hybrids based on existing gasoline models didn't sell. Marketers soon figured out that people wanted a unique-looking car that people could recognize right away as being a hybrid. And although Ford is now offering an electric version of the Focus and a both hybrid and plug-in versions of the Fusion sedan, the C-MAX will satisfy those who still insist that alternative fuel cars should look different.
Despite its distinctive shape, the Ford family resemblance is apparent. C-MAX has the same wheelbase and footprint as the Ford Focus, but, in addition to its wagon silhouette, it's also taller and has a more upright, utilitarian look. The front end features a thin, narrow upper grille with the oval Ford logo, and a wide-mouthed, geometric lower grille with strong horizontal lines. Headlamps are long and angular, and blend up into the hood line.
From the side, the C-MAX has a high roofline and strong wheel arches. A high, straight character line runs across the door handles to the wraparound tail lamps. Standard 17-inch wheels make the car look substantial, in contrast with some of the dinkier wheels and tires found on early hybrid models from other brands.
In back, angular tail lamps and deep body creases keep it interesting without being obnoxious. A prominent rear bumper is both distinctive and useful for resting groceries or packages. Optional on the C-MAX is Ford's handsfree liftgate technology, which allows anyone with the key fob to open the liftgate by simply waving a foot underneath the back of the vehicle.
The similarities to the Ford Focus continue with the interior design of the C-MAX. The instrument panel, climate controls and center stack feature the same angles, vents and knobs. It looks busy compared to the Prius's clean, almost too-austere controls.
The C-MAX instrument cluster uses a central speedometer with Ford's pleasing soft blue lighting. On either side, 4.2-inch LCD displays keep drivers informed about energy use, phone functions, audio settings and other vehicle details. Dubbed SmartGauge, these dual screens include a Brake Coach feature that helps train drivers how to get the most out of the regenerative braking system.
The steering wheel on the C-MAX is covered with soft-touch material and is comfortable to hold and use. However, as with other Ford steering wheels, the myriad controls look confusing and cluttered. The audio and handsfree phone controls, which are placed low on the wheel, are especially awkward to use.
Overall, materials are attractive and appear durable. The gear shift seems unnecessarily large and bulky, and sticks out at an angle from the center console in sharp contrast to the Prius's nubby little shifter. Door inserts have a softer plastic above the arm rest, and hard plastic below, with deep, wide pickets for cans, water bottles and various accessories.
Models equipped with navigation and MyFord Touch use an 8-inch touch screen that displays live traffic and weather in addition to audio and navigation controls. On the C-MAX Energi, charging station locations are embedded into the navigation maps, although technology doesn't yet exist to know whether those stations are occupied. Drivers can pair their Android or Apple smartphones to use streaming audio via Bluetooth and other features. While the MyFord Touch system is good in theory, certain aspects are annoying, including not-so-accurate voice recognition and menu options that aren't immediately intuitive.
Front seats sit very high and upright. Even shorter people feel tall in the car, especially in the passenger seat, which doesn't have a height adjustment feature. This is almost disconcerting for those used to driving or riding in a low, cockpit-style cabin. Front leg room is 40.4 inches, a couple of inches less than the Chevrolet Volt, and about an inch less than the Prius v.
However, the high roofline on the C-MAX makes for plenty of headroom, even in the back seat. Rear headroom is 39.4 inches, almost an inch more than the Prius v and nearly three-and-a-half inches more than the Volt. The Ford C-MAX bests the competitors when it comes to rear legroom, too with a spacious 36.5 inches, a tad more than the Prius v and a whopping five-and-half inches more than the Volt.
In back, the C-MAX has a 60/40-split rear seat that folds completely flat, creating more room for cargo. However, because of its battery, the C-MAX lacks the trunk space of traditional gas-powered compact hatchbacks. The hybrid offers a fair 24.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats, far less than 34.3 cubes found in the Prius v, but a tad more than the original Prius hybrid. Because of its larger battery, the Energi offers only 19.2 cubic feet of cargo space, about a cube less than the Prius Plug-In. Still, that's substantially more than the Chevrolet Volt's 10.6 cubic feet.
Driving the C-MAX is similar to driving just about any other hybrid car. It's smooth and quiet, and switches between gas and electric power nearly seamlessly. Energi models have three drive modes: Auto EV, which will automatically switch between electric and gas modes to optimize fuel economy; EV Now, which runs the vehicle purely on electricity, and EV Later, which will operate the car like a traditional hybrid and turn off the all-electric capability.
Active noise cancellation is standard on the C-MAX. Microphones in the cabin monitor road and wind noise, and send noise cancellation waves as needed through speakers in the doors. We found this worked very well, and on a competitive drive loop, we found the C-MAX Energi much quieter than the Prius plug-in.
Thanks to instant torque from the electric motor, the C-MAX is peppy off the line, and acceleration adequate in other scenarios. The eCVT operates smoothly, although it lacks the changing gears feeling of a traditional automatic transmission. The screen on the left side of the speedometer told us when we were driving in a way that maximized energy savings, and when we could do better.
Ride quality is firm, but not overly stiff. We found it surprisingly softer and more compliant than the Prius. Steering is comfortable, and we didn't notice any egregious body roll while weaving through turns along the Northern California coastline. Braking is confident although a tad grabby, as is characteristic of regenerative brakes.
The Ford C-MAX offers versatility, practicality and efficiency in two fuel-saving variants. Though hybrids and plug-ins continue to come with a high price premium, the C-MAX's superior range and tax credit eligibility make it a good value in the segment.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Laura Burstein reported from San Francisco after her test drive of the Ford C-MAX.