Review: The Ford C-Max Guide to the Galaxy
The new hybrid from Ford is much more fun to drive than Prius
That's the city, highway and combined mileage of the all-new 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid: 47, 47, 47.
The five-passenger runabout, which arrives at dealerships this fall, does an impressive job of playing multiple roles for discerning customers. It will easily get the kids to school, a wife to work and, with a total range of 570 miles, take the entire family to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and back.
Ready for battle
Like any Adams story, really, there's nothing that original in the parts that make up the C-Max, but it's the way they are combined that creates the magic.
The C-Max comes from Europe, where it has roamed Autobahns as a gas or diesel powered five-passenger and seven-passenger family hauler. Built on the Ford Focus platform, the C-Max keeps that European styling with a high roofline, narrow body and lots of windows (known as greenhouse in automotive parlance).
But for America, the C-Max will be known as only an energy-efficient hybrid ready to battle the Toyota Prius.
The Howl of Efficiency
The C-Max appears ready for the monumental task. Its powertrain combines a 2-liter gas-powered engine, a torque-filled electric motor and continuously variable transmission to create a powerful and efficient powertrain. This is the next generation hybrid powertrain that will soon be feature on the 2013 Ford Fusion when it arrives later this year. It's also a significant upgrade over the outgoing version.
It produces 188 net horsepower and can pull the C-Max along at 62 mph on electric power only. It out muscles the bigger Prius v by more than 50 ponies under the hood. Arthur Dent couldn't ask for more.
During a test drive around Malibu, Calif., the C-Max never wanted for power. Its off –the-line power was noticeably pleasant with quick acceleration. Along the highway, the C-Max cruised along quietly at 80 mph without a problem.
The only noticeable quirk was when the C-Max needed an energy boost going up a hill or sudden acceleration. Because the engine is tuned to run on the Atkinson cycle and has a CVT, it tended to while at a set rpm. There's simple logic to this, as the engine immediately hits its most efficient rpm setting to provide the most power. Unlike regular engines that need to rev up and down, this engine moves directly to its most efficient point. Think of the engine whine as the howl of efficiency. There was never a power lag, or lull, just a whine that may take some adjusting to for some owners.
But they'll be rewarded with the C-Max's overall performance. Based on the Ford Focus platform (one of 10 vehicles Ford builds on that platform), the C-Max handles like a sporty sedan, not a hybrid. Even with its tall roof, the C-Max held crisp lines through the quick curves in the Malibu canyons. The electric power steering is crisp and with an excellent return to center.
More over, the C-Max rides quietly when it's supposed to and toughens up when it needs to. It's a hybrid full of surprises.
One pleasant surprise was the way Ford uses technology to cover up some of its blemishes. To make the engine more efficient, Ford tuned it to run on an extremely low idle. Running this way can create uncomfortable audible pops. However, Ford uses active noise cancelation in the cabin to digitally mask those sounds.
It's that kind of smart technology that the C-Max outpaces any other hybrids offered today. Of course, Ford added all of its current pieces of g-whiz gadgetry to the C-Max to provide it with lots of consumer friendly features.
The C-Max includes the foot-activated liftgate, that allows someone to walk up to the vehicle with her hands full, wave a foot under the bumper and have the hatch open automatically. There's also the active-park assist, that lets a driver quickly parallel park on the street without the stress of trying to squeeze into space manually. Even the fictitious Heart of Gold didn't possess this feature.
Real High Mileage
Ford touts 15 class exclusive features ranging from voice operated Sync and MyFord Touch to the SmartGauge with Eco Guide. Some of Ford's boasting is as silly as an infinite probability drive. Of course no one else offers Ford's infotainment system or voice activated SYNC, that would be illegal. But the C-Max does have some special features.
The SmartGauge is the C-Max's key instrument and uses two small LCD screens bookending an analogue speedometer. The programmable gauges help the driver to eek out as much mileage as possible and monitor his progress.
During one segment of my drive, I was able to achieve 52.5 mpg driving through Los Angeles. The gauges helped change my driving habits to press lighter on the brake and gently touch the accelerator to achieve better scores on the instant readouts. While I've never been keen on hypermiling, the C-Max tricked me into doing just that.
Comfortable and Complete Interior
Inside the cabin, the C-Max provides lots of practical space. Behind the second row there's 24.5 cubic feet of storage space, and if you need more, the pull of one lever quickly folds up the second row and provides 52.6 cubic feet of space.
There are also unexpected amenities that seem to abound inside the cabin such as lots of nooks to store things, a deep center console and 110 volt receptacle in the second row.
With the high roofline, there's plenty of headroom and the well-laid out interior provides more than 40 inches of legroom in the front row and 36.5 inches of legroom in the second row. All of this space means that adults would be comfortable in any seat.
Additionally, the unique ride height makes ingress and egress extremely easy. This is not like some cars that are so low you have to fall into to sit down or so high that you fall out of when you arrive somewhere. You just slide in and go.
Most importantly, the C-Max's interior uses top grade materials throughout the cabin. Everything feels well-crafted with high quality materials. Even the cloth seats in the base model are comfortable (and made of the environmentally friendly soy bean foam).
While Americans continue to clamor for fuel-efficient vehicles, it's unclear if they have completely fallen in love with gas-electric hybrids. Only the Prius has captured the public's imagination to the point of people buying them in bulk. The Prius continues to outsell all other hybrids combined.
But Ford's plan appears to create its own eco-friendly brand: The C-Max. First comes the hybrid model, and shortly after that, will arrive the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid that will drive 20 miles on electric only power before converting to a regular gas-electric hybrid.
While the C-Max lacks the iconic look of the wedge-shaped Prius, it does arrive with it's European flavored exterior. But more to the point, it provides a better ride, a better interior and, in case of the larger Prius v, better mileage.
It's the pure utility hybrid that's fun to drive. Eco-centric buyers won't be the only people looking at this vehicle – at least they shouldn't be. This nameplate just might have the staying power Ford has always wanted and America has needed. And this is one time, that even in Douglas Adams' world where 47 is truly greater than 42.
Scott Burgess is the senior editor at AOL Autos. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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