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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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