No One Ever Said Dethroning A Prius Would Be Easy

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

It's generally not polite to start a story about a new Ford by referencing a very popular Toyota, but we're going to make an exception this time.

With fuel prices continuing to creep upwards, sales of advanced-powertrain vehicles are booming (in May of this year alone, nearly 46,000 units left showrooms). While some vehicles, like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, soldier forth with modest sales from month-to-month, Toyota's Prius family of vehicles (the standard Prius, smaller Prius C, larger Prius V and Prius Plug-In Hybrid) consistently leads the sales race. Understandably, that places a big red target on their backs.

Aiming its scope, and bracketing wisely, Ford is introducing a slew of new advance-powertrain models over the next year. These include full hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. One of the first to arrive is the all-new C-Max Hybrid, which has the Prius V aligned in its crosshairs, and not a single person carrying a Blue Oval business card is keeping it a secret.

To determine whether or not the new Ford has the right stuff to challenge the Prius V, we put one through its paces in Southern California last week.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid side view2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid front view2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid rear view

The Ford boasts 52.6 cubic feet of space behind the first row and 24.5 cubic feet behind the second row.

The Prius family won't be easy to dethrone, as Toyota has conjured up a well-liked family of hybrids that are quirky enough (both inside and out) to be unique and immediately recognized as something special. Of course, they also deliver the fuel economy and reliability expected of an industry-leading hybrid vehicle.

To go head-to-head with the Prius V, Ford wisely chose its global C Platform as a starting point. The chassis, also underpinning the Ford Focus, wears a five-door C-Max shell in this application (very familiar to Europeans). Thanks to its high roofline (63.9 inches), the Ford boasts 52.6 cubic feet of space behind the first row and 24.5 cubic feet behind the second row. It also offers more headroom in both the front and rear seats than the Prius V (41.0 and 39.4 inches, versus 39.6 and 38.6 inches), according to Ford. Add it all up, and the C-Max Hybrid offers 99.7 cubic feet of passenger space (the Prius V offers slightly less at 97.0 cubic feet). The C-Max's standard five-place cabin also features a 60/40 split-fold-flat second row, designed with one-handed operation in mind, for additional utility.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid interior2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid front seats2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid rear seats2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid rear cargo area

Ford says the C-Max will run up to 62 mph in pure EV mode.

Under the front hood of the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle gasoline-fed inline four-cylinder rated at 141 horsepower that has been mated to a 35-kW permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor for a combined system power of 188 horsepower. The transmission, sending power to the front wheels, is an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (HF 35 eCVT). Electrical energy, captured through regenerative braking or from the internal combustion engine (ICE), is stored in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries placed directly over the rear axle. Ford says the C-Max will run up to 62 mph in pure EV mode. For reference, the Toyota Prius V features a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter gasoline-fed inline-four rated at 98 horsepower mated to an electric motor for a combined system power of 134 horsepower, and the Toyota uses nickel-metal-hydride cells. The NiMH technology requires more space and is a heavier battery technology.

Other worthy mechanical specifications of the C-Max include an independent MacPherson strut front suspension, Ford's Control Blade multilink rear suspension and gas pressurized shocks behind each wheel. In addition, there are disc brakes at all four corners (ventilated up front and solid in the rear) and standard 17-inch alloy wheels (wearing 225/520R17 tires) on both trim levels, and electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) is also standard.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid engine

The C-Max will deliver a 570-mile cruising range – New York to Toledo.

Despite the Ford's curb weight being a portly 333 pounds heavier than the Toyota (the five-door hatchback is 3,607 pounds before passengers climb on board), as well as having more power under the hood, the C-Max Hybrid bests its rival in fuel economy. The C-Max Hybrid earns 47 miles per gallon in the city and 47 mpg highway (47 combined), while the Prius V earns 44 mpg city and 40 mpg highway (42 combined). Thanks to its 13.5-gallon fuel tank, the C-Max will deliver a 570-mile cruising range – New York to Toledo.

Ford will initially offer two trim levels: SE and SEL. The base price of the SE is $25,995, a figure which includes destination and delivery (neatly undercutting the Prius V by $1,300). Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power accessories, rear wiper, cruise control, remote keyless entry and more. The upscale SEL, adding equipment such as auto-dimming rearview mirrors, leather upholstery, rain-sensing wipers and a power-operated driver's seat, starts at $28,995. The automaker says the C-Max Hybrid also offers class-exclusive technologies (e.g., SmartGauge, EcoGuide, hands-free liftgate and active park assist) as standard equipment or bundled in optional equipment groups.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2012 Ford C-Max Hybrid

We drove the C-Max from Hollywood west to the Pacific Ocean before heading up the coast and slightly inland for lunch at the Malibu Golf Club. After eating, we continued over the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Fernando Valley where we picked up major freeways for the trek home. Overall, it was a good mix of driving conditions including everything from urban traffic to climbing mountain canyons to high-speed cruising.

The cabin of the five-door is comfortable in all four primary seating positions, with impressively generous head, leg and shoulder room.

The cabin of the five-door is comfortable in all four primary seating positions, with impressively generous head, leg and shoulder room (the middle passenger in the second row won't be as comfortable on the slightly taller cushion, but it is fine for short jaunts). Fit and finish is good, and there are grab handles to ease ingress/egress (their use is actually declining - blame side airbags), seatback map pockets and generous door storage.

Unlike the Toyota's Prii, which are configured with center-mounted gauge clusters and non-traditional cabin designs, the C-Max is familiar and traditional. The primary instrument panel is located behind a four-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, and it houses a large analog speedometer with digital economy/efficiency gauges on either side. The center stack features Ford's touch-screen display at the top, with HVAC vents on both sides and analog HVAC controls at the bottom. In addition to the side climate controlled vents, there is a fifth vent directly below the display (it is hard to see in the pictures) that annoyingly blew air directly at our torso – thankfully, it can be blocked.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid speedometer2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid audio system display2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid multimedia system controls2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid climate controls

The center console also houses a traditional stick-operated transmission lever (PRNDL), heated seat controls, 12-volt accessory plug, a mechanical lever-actuated parking brake and two cup holders. The cushioned arm rest offers plenty of storage space and an assortment of USB, audio and video jacks for the infotainment system.

Your grandmother, still tooling around in a 2002 Mercury Topaz, could drive the C-Max Hybrid without instruction.

Your grandmother, still tooling around in a 1994 Mercury Topaz, could drive the C-Max Hybrid without instruction (try that with a Prius). A traditional key "starts" the standard SE model, booting up all systems into electric vehicle (EV) mode. To move, the shift lever is slid from Park into Reverse or Drive, depending on the desired direction of travel.

Acceleration is anything but lethargic. We found the C-Max Hybrid moved smartly off the line with the flow of traffic and was never challenged to keep up (Ford didn't quote 0-60 numbers, but figure on taking about 10 seconds to reach the benchmark). Top speed, if you are into such hybrid mischief, is reportedly 115 mph. While Ford says the vehicle will do more than 60 mph in pure EV mode, our right foot must have been simply too heavy - each time we'd give a bit more throttle, the combustion powerplant would kick-in to lend assistance (while there was nothing particularly wrong with the engine's near-seamless involvement, we'd like a demonstration of 55-plus mph pure EV highway travel to see what we were doing incorrectly).

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid grille2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid headlight2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid badge2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid taillight

The powerplant does a fine job of being unobtrusive, and the transition between EV and combustion (or a combination of the two) is smooth and continuous. Acceleration at higher speeds is acceptable too, as the C-Max Hybrid had little problem pulling itself and two adult passengers up a sizable grade on Kanan Dume Road en-route to lunch.

Don't expect the C-Max Hybrid to carve canyons like a Mustang Boss 302.

With fuel economy as its mission objective, don't expect the C-Max Hybrid to carve canyons like a Mustang Boss 302. In fact, it won't even come close. Press it hard, and its 3,600-pound curb weight will push it wide into corners. Additional corrective steering input becomes mostly ineffective as it controllably understeers. The driver is offered plenty of warning and stability control gets involved before things get too ugly. The Michelin Energy Saver A/S tires are quiet when overstressed, lacking any annoying squeal, which drivers and passengers alike will appreciate.

Regenerative braking, the ability of the electric motor to reverse roles and become a generator to recharge the battery, is a must-have on any hybrid vehicle. But the side effect, in most cases, is an unnatural brake feel as the electronics choose when and how much to get involved. The C-Max Hybrid is not immune. Around town, the brakes were a bit touchy and awkward. Things improved at higher speeds and after we had put in more than an hour behind the wheel (familiarity is key). To maximize regenerative opportunity, the driver may press a small button on the left side of the shifter. We used it when descending the mountains and our storage battery quickly filled itself back to 100 percent (we could also hear a difference in the engine's speed when it was working).

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid rear 3/4 view

Ford wisely provided a Toyota Prius V for us to drive back-to-back against its C-Max Hybrid – it was a nice little show of confidence in its product. Without question, the Prius is slower and much more sluggish under all acceleration conditions. Its cabin and primary controls require a bit more familiarization, and its handling is second-rate when compared to the C-Max. However we felt the Prius V had a slightly more comfortable overall ride and its steering felt better (less electric in response). Neither exhibited any qualities that we would ever consider "poor," but it was very obvious that the Ford and Toyota five-door gasoline-electric hybrids approached design, ergonomics and fuel efficiency at a different angle.

It is very obvious that the Ford and Toyota hybrids approached design, ergonomics and fuel efficiency at a different angle.

Will the C-Max Hybrid dethrone the Prius V? Ultimately, we don't think so. The fuel-sipping Toyota with five-digit monthly sales (Toyota reports sales of all Prius models as one number) has a built-in audience after several generations of existence. The wedge-shaped Japanese vehicle has become somewhat of a cult car for the "green" movement, equally embraced by environmentally conscience soccer moms, wealthy CEOs and high-profile celebrities. As good as it is, and despite more impressive fuel economy and a lower price, we can't envision the new Ford ever wearing such a socially acceptable hat.

Yet the new 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is very good - better than the Prius V in many ways - and buyers will recognize that if they're truly shopping. Its cabin is comfortable and roomy, and the five-passenger configuration offers plenty of utility. The 2.0-liter hybrid powertrain is seamless in operation and delivers very impressive fuel economy in all driving cycles. Most important, the system develops sufficient power to make driving mildly engaging and enjoyable - that's a sentiment we don't often feel while behind the wheel of a Prius.