• Oct 7th 2010 at 11:57AM
  • 82
The Blue Oval Boys Bet Big By Going Small

2012 Ford Grand C-Max – Click above for high-res image gallery

Historically speaking, the Ford Motor Company has been successful at a great many things, but building minivans hasn't been one of them. Perpetually mired in the shadow of offerings from Chrysler and Japan's automakers, the Blue Oval folded up its sliding-door tent and went home years ago, killing off its undersized Mercury Villager in 2002 and then extinguishing the Windstar-turned-Freestar (and its short-lived Mercury Monterey counterpart) in 2007. Brand supporters will doubtlessly note that the family-ferrying segment was in decline for some years before Dearborn walked away from it, but the truth is that Ford never managed to crack the market's top ranks despite more than 15 years of trying.

So why, then, is red-hot Ford risking a return to the segment in 2012 with the Grand C-Max shown here – a vehicle that's conspicuously smaller and less powerful than the segment norm? Do they know something that we don't? We hopped a puddle jumper to Nice, France after covering last week's Paris Motor Show in an attempt to find out.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

Ford's latest crack at the people mover segment goes on sale shortly in mainland Europe, and it will actually be available in two distinct varieties – a shorter wheelbase, conventionally doored model dubbed C-Max and a longer, dual slider-equipped variant called 'Grand C-Max.' It's the latter of the two models that we'll receive in the United States early in 2012, but with U.S. sales so far afield, we were only able to sample Euro-spec versions of both – one with the 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine that we're getting and the other with the larger bodystyle that Ford has committed to selling. As such, we're not yet prepared to pass judgment on the new C-Max range, but we have been able to form some strong early impressions.

Ford is not going after the red-meat portion of the minivan market.
To begin with, Ford is making a calculated bet by not going after the red-meat portion of America's minivan market – the segment long dominated by the Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Town and Country and Toyota Sienna. Instead, it hopes to nibble at the segment's lower-end fringes with a more stylish, affordable, higher-tech and fun-to-drive small entry in the mold of the Mazda5 and the recently departed Kia Rondo.

Unusually, Jim Farley, one of Ford's rising stars and head of its global marketing efforts suggests that the C-Max's success doesn't just hinge on the right product, but also on timing. According to Ford's data, as new generations of car buyers come of age, they make willfully different purchasing decisions than their parents, and that tendency is the driver that spawns new market segments. As that logic goes, people who grew up in the back of Dad's Country Squire wagons naturally gravitated toward the first minivans. Their children, in turn, eschewed minivans for SUVs. Now, those same Generation Y members are having kids and they're stepping down from sport-utes, yet they don't have the same negative image of minivans because they didn't spend their childhoods in them. Additionally, Ford is hoping that by positioning optioned-up C-Max models around the base price of most larger competitors, buyers will choose content over size.

2012 Ford Grand C-Max, side view2012 Ford Grand C-Max, front view2012 Ford Grand C-Max, rear view

Buyers will also likely be tempted by the C-Max's looks, as this is one slick little package. Based on Ford's new global architecture that will shortly underpin the new 2012 Focus, the Grand C-Max artfully crams a three-row interior into a modest footprint without looking like a shoebox. If anything, the GCM's shape looks almost like an out-of-scale hatchback, what with its gaping trapezoidal lower intake, pumped-up wheel arches, rising swage line and high-set rump.

Dimensionally, the Grand C-Max spans nearly 178 inches riding on a 109.8-inch wheelbase. That's a few inches shorter than the Mazda5, but you wouldn't know it thanks to a longer wheelbase that visually lengthens the design while maximizing interior space. Interestingly, those dimensions actually make the Grand C-Max marginally longer than the original Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager that debuted way back when Frankie was teaching the world how to 'Relax.' What's old is new again.

2012 Ford Grand C-Max interior2012 Ford Grand C-Max gauges2012 Ford Grand C-Max climate controls2012 Ford Grand C-Max start button

Pitching content and quality over quantity in the minivan segment is a tough row to hoe, but at least Ford's marketers have a good head start. Inside of our high-end Titanium-spec test models, we found a tasteful mixture of forms and materials, with a well-placed and high-set gearshift lever, clear analog gauges, a good-feeling leather-wrapped wheel and an aesthetically pleasing gloss black Sony-branded infotainment system. Build quality and ergonomics were first-rate, the latter marred only by smallish buttons on the dual-zone HVAC system and an optional navigation system that required some time to figure out. Officials confirm that SYNC will be available when the car hits North America, but the C-Max was designed without MyFordTouch in mind (the titchy five-inch display is located too far away and too small for touchscreen duty anyhow).

While we quickly found our sweet spot in the front seats, it's the second- and third-row seating that tends to make or break vehicles like this. To that end, Ford's origami artists engineers have come up with an ingeniously multi-configurable interior that provides for a number of different seating arrangements. The Grand C-Max's Show-and-Tell stunner is its disappearing second-row middle seat. By yanking on a series of red pull straps, it's easy to flop and fold the center seat so that it's swallowed up by the passenger-side bottom cushion. It's an ingenious trick that gives more space to the remaining mid-row occupants while allowing for easy walk-through access to the third row.

Ford of America officials we spoke with recognize that in a vehicle this small, the third-row is an occasional use proposition for a pair of consenting individuals, and as such, they probably won't market the GCM as a seven-seat vehicle, instead relying on terms like "three-row" and "five plus two" to temper expectations. It's a smart strategy, but the third-row is surprisingly accommodating and easy to access – especially when the second-row passengers slide their seats forward to maximize legroom. As this vehicle wasn't really designed with the U.S. market as its first priority, we weren't surprised to note that the cupholders are somewhat undersized for Big Gulp thirsts and there will be no optional factory-installed rear-seat entertainment system or power sliding door option.

Even with the third row in use, there's a sliver of actual cargo space – three cubic feet. That doesn't sound like much, but it's useful, and the third row isn't a bang your head against the rear glass sort of arrangement. When it comes time to haul bigger items, both the third and second-row seats fold completely flat, with the load floor unfurling to cover the gap between the stowed seats. With both back rows folded, the Grand C-Max offers 60 cubic feet of cargo room, and in five-passenger mode, there's still a reasonable 25 cubes on-hand.

Aside from its intelligent packaging, the best thing about the C-Max is the way that it handles unlike any other minivan on the market, Mazda5 included. In nearly every dynamic discipline from roll resistance to wheel control, the C-Max outpoints its rivals, feeling more like a hatchback wearing a knapsack than anything with three-rows of seats. Ford has clearly worked hard to get its electric power steering tuned correctly, for instance, which exhibits consistently good precision and feedback with just a hint of elasticity off-center. As a bonus, it's even genuinely quiet.

2012 Ford Grand C-Max headlight 2012 Ford Grand C-Max emblem2012 Ford Grand C-Max wheel2012 Ford Grand C-Max taillight

With the U.S. model a year or so off, engineers have yet to nail down powertrain specifics for our market, but officials tell us to expect both a normally aspirated four-cylinder (likely the 2.5-liter Duratec from the Fusion) and an optional version of the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine that we drove. In Europe, the latter is available in two specifications, and we drove the version with 148 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Final power figures for the U.S. will likely vary a bit after the engine is optimized for U.S. emissions laws. We sampled the less powerful of the two in the 220-pound-lighter, short-wheelbase C-Max and found it to have a surprising amount of chutzpah, thanks in part to its flat torque curve (peak torque arrives at just 1,600 rpm) and an overboost function that can momentarily muster 199 lb-ft when you carpet the pedal from as few as 1,900 revs.

Ford officials Autoblog spoke with downplayed the likelihood of American models receiving the PowerShift dual-clutch transmission that we sampled, as the costlier gearbox has been optimized for use with the car's diesel powerplants (which we also won't be getting). Thus, we can probably expect a conventional torque-converter six-speed automatic, a combination that should still be good for at least 30 miles-per-gallon on the highway. For the sake of comparison, that's three mpg better than an automatic-equipped Mazda5 or 2011 Odyssey and a whopping six notches better than the four-cylinder Sienna. The gearbox swap-out shouldn't alter the driving experience too greatly, as the PowerShift has been programmed to mimic a good slushbox convincingly.

We remain curious to see how the C-Max behaves when fully laden down with kin and kit (we drove it with two to three people and no luggage), but with good power from the 1.6-liter engine and solid, linear brakes that were reassuring on the jaw-dropping mountain roads of Southern France, we suspect rear-seat occupants will cry 'uncle' long before the C-Max's talents are called into question.

2012 Ford Grand C-Max, rear 3/4 view

It bears noting that our GCM tester rode on 17-inch Michelin Primacy HP radial tires – summer shoes – and any stateside models will undoubtedly be shod with less-aggressive all-seasons. And while we're on the subject of niceties we won't see, the six-speed manual is a peach, with short throws, easy gate location and positive engagement feel. Let's hope the self-stirrer in the 2012 Focus is every bit as good.

So, we've established that Ford's new C-Max is unique, clever, quite good to look at and surprisingly fun-to-drive. But we still don't know if it will sell. Ford is taking a significant gamble here, as volumes in this minivan subset have historically been very low and the body counts high (anyone remember the Nissan Stanza Wagon or Axxess? Mitsubishi Expo LRV? Colt Vista? Isuzu Oasis?). Still, after flogging the C-Max on France's challenging roads and spending a good amount of time assessing each seat in the house, we think Ford's product planners may just be on to something.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      How is the Mazda5 more practical? The two are very, very similar, and the Grand C-Max is much more attractive than the 2011 Mazda5.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Make this a hybrid or bring the diesel. I need 40 mpg or it's that expanded Prius for me...
        • 4 Years Ago
        Isn't Ford working on an EV version of the Focus? Maybe they will over an EV version of this car... could make lots of sense since it would have more room to store batteries than the regular Focus.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I agree, bring the diesel! And make mine a stick. I really like this car.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I like it. The 2.5liter would be nice, should have a 6 speed stick, same as the fusion. I like that the roof rails are the entire length of the roof. What would be nice is a 5 seater option so I can have a larger trunk. Now whats the tow rating? And hopefully it has a towing package available and not a dealer installed option, something similar to the towbar style in euro fords/volvos. I need to tow my rec. toys, small trailer, not caravans, just DIY home improvement loads.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I love Ford...but I swear they are the automotive equivalent of injury lawyers. They chase trend, after trend, after trend, after trend. Never seem to have a real identify, always trying to be someone else.

      What is the real Ford People mover? Is it the Flex? Or this? Or it it that 1/2 baked joke of a CUV with SUV clothes called the new Explorer? What does Ford want to be when it grows up?

      The #1 complaint I hear about the Flex isn't the styling. Its the lack of space. The old station wagon and the SUV....you could move all the people you want and still have room for cargo. The Flex problem is that if you use the 3rd row, you kill the cargo space. Same with most 3-row CUVs. Everyone who I know who was in the market for a people mover didn't buy a Flex because it had no cargo room when you used the 3rd row. They all went back to the mini-van because it was the only thing that met their needs cargo wise and still turned a MPG to their liking.

      This Grand C-Max is fine for across the pond. But if the Flex issue is cargo room, then how is this thing going to be received by the same customer base? Its got less overall room than the Flex.

      Take this C-max and stretch it a good 15-18 inches or so...and you got a winner. No sense in a 'people mover' than can move either people or their stuff...but not both! Waste of money and a waste of time.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The Flex's problem is the styling (although I personally like it). Just look at the GM 7/8 seaters. They sell like hotcakes, even though they really don't have any more storage behind the 3rd row than the Flex. The Honda Odyssey, the top selling mini-van, is outsold by the Chevy Traverse.

        The Grand C-Max is a niche vehicle. Like the article said, it's a 5 + 2 seater, not a 7 seater. It's for those with 2 kids that might pick up their friends for a sleepover or go for a short trip. For those people, the full size 7-seat CUV or a mini-van wouldn't make as much sense. It'd be overkill.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Everyone I know of who has evaluated the Flex liked the styling. Granted...its a love it/hate it kind of thing. But that's ok. For everyone who hates it you will find a group who loves it. They way I evaluate things is like this:

        Lets say you got a family of 5. 2 parents, a teenager (15), a younger kid(8), and a infant/toddler (2). You can't fix all three kids in the back without using the 3rd row. Especially when/if your taking a distance trip. You can use the 3rd row, but now you don't have any cargo space. This is the issue that I have seen plague shoppers looking for vehicles in this segment. People need the space and the seating, not one or the other. And they walk away from these 'people movers' because they don't have the room for the people and their stuff at the same time.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Very practical.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Wow! A minivan that is actually mini?!? What a concept! If I HAD to buy a minivan, I think this would be it. I absolutely love the 6-speed stick!
      • 3 Years Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      No My Ford Touch? Gotta have it before any Ford makes it to my shortlist.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I agree. The more I learn about MyFord Touch, the more I think it's going to be something of a game changer. Car guys may wave it off as frivolous e-clutter, but I think that ordinary buyers are going to quickly adjust standards upwards when it comes to what they consider to be an acceptable system for phone, music, and navigation.

        If Ford can figure out how to add it in, the CMAX will likely leading candidate to replace our 2012 Focus 5-Door once we add kid number two.

        Would love it if they keep the manual transmission on the US version.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Looks good, and the next-best thing to a true wagon. I wonder if they can sell more of these than the Mazda5. The 5 never really had any marketing budget because they intended it to be low volume, as a low-margin imported niche. I'm guessing if Ford markets it, they could sell 100k a year?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yea, I always viewed it as basically equivalent to a midsize sedan with a huge trunk that could accommodate two of your kid's friends in a pinch. Not a true minivan.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Because they only build it in Japan, which makes it sensitive to the yen's exchange rate, and didn't want to have to take the risk of opening a new factory somewhere else. At least that was my understanding of the situation.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The Mazda5 seats 7 overseas. The trick middle seat, similar to the one in the Grand C-Max (although the C-Max's seat is a bit cooler), didn't make it due to safety testing concerns. Hopefully it will make into the 2011 Mazda5 the U.S. will get 7 seats.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It won't sell well unless it has an AWD option. We've been sold the AWD line for the past few decades as the reason SUVs were superior, it's almost a must for any CUV if you're trying to get people who want something smaller and more practical, yet seemingly just as capable.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It would've been nice to see more detailed pictures or even video of the disappearing 2nd-row center seat--it's quite intriguing.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Did you manage to drive one of its arch-rivals to make a comparison? Such as VW Touran, Renault Scenic, Opel Meriva/Zafira, Peugeot 5008 or Citroen C4 Picasso...
        • 4 Years Ago
        None of those are or will be sold here, so they're non-entities for the purpose of this blog. A better question is if they've driven the Mazda5, and they have.
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