If adding complexity, cost, and mass to a car is your idea of efficiency and a Toyota Prius feels too much like wearing someone else's jeans, then take note of the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid.
Available in Europe since 2003, the C-Max is a new nameplate for the United States. The moniker dares to convey industry slang for a C-segment vehicle that's larger than an A-segment minicar or B-segment subcompact and achieves maximum passenger volume (in this case, an impressive 99.7 cu ft). Although many years late, the C-Max Hybrid is Ford's designated Prius-fighter. And it will have help: the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid comes soon; however, being another heavyweight on a dainty platform, the Energi will have the Hybrid's major foible: occasional ponderousness.
Beyond vehicle dynamics, though, Ford has a marketing challenge as it introduces the C-Max, a widgeon amid a flock of mallards. Nevertheless, while considering odd waterfowl, the C-Max Hybrid should most definitely be cross-shopped against the cootlike Prius v. The latter has more cargo room but can boast no other significant advantage over the Ford.
Being almost identical in dimensions and specifications to the Subaru Crosstrek XV, the C-Max easily seats five yet is a tidy 14.4 feet long. With a trapezoidal grille and swept headlamps helping to compose its mute face, it looks like the Focus Electric and in a strange way reminds us of the Dancing Bear on "Captain Kangaroo." The lobate roofline could have come from a crop-dusting airplane's canopy. Satin chrome trim along the nicely drawn beltline adds distinction. Of the same delicate scheme as the Focus Electric, the elegant 17-inch wheels caused a thrill to go up our leg. As far as looks go, the C-Max Hybrid is a camisole top and pencil skirt compared to the chintz housedress of the Prius v.
Because it starts with superior underpinnings derived from the Focus, the C-Max Hybrid offers a reasonably satisfying driving experience, too, although exhilarating isn't the superlative we would use in describing acceleration. Ford didn't give us a 0 to 60 mph figure, but we definitely couldn't keep up on Sunset Boulevard with the supermodel in her Mercedes roadster. On the other hand, in the highly unlikely event she'd been so inclined, she wouldn't have been able to tail us as we tried to elude her over the 570 miles the C-Max Hybrid can deliver on one 13.5-gallon tank of regular fuel. So take that, Beverly Hills!
Under the C-Max Hybrid's hood is a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder of the Atkinson Cycle persuasion, which in the name of efficiency relies on extended valve openings for a lengthened power stroke. The gas engine receives assistance from a permanent-magnet AC synchronous motor and small lithium-ion battery pack to contribute as much as 35 kW of oomph, resulting in the equivalent of 188 hp. Teamed with a continuously variable transmission of Ford's own manufacture, the C-Max Hybrid achieves 47/47 mpg city/highway, which surpasses the Prius v by 3/7 mpg city/hwy. With all sirens wailing, the C-Max Hybrid hits its top speed of 115 mph. In electric mode 62 mph is possible, although we imagine the car heading from west to east across the downward sloping plain of Kansas with a mighty Chinook tailwind. If we could introduce one improvement, we would add the Crosstrek's CVT paddle shifters and emulate six fixed ratios. But a satisfactory aspect is found on the C-Max Hybrid's centrally located shift lever, where a button actuates a downhill descent mode that wakes the engine, using it as a brake -- a useful thing in the Santa Monica Mountains. We also must praise the seamless interaction between gasoline and electric powertrain components, not to mention the near invisibility of the regenerative braking system. Touche, Ford!
The C-Max Hybrid starts at $25,995 in SE trim. While it can be had with the optional panoramic roof and other key features, the SE's interior is upholstered in a scratchy synthetic fabric that might be easy to clean but is no match for the SEL's wonderful standard leather. Our SEL tester also had navigation, hands-free technology, a rear-view camera, and the keyless tailgate that's a must: just insert your toe under the rear bumper, step back, and the door lifts or closes itself. Other gadgetry includes the cartoony effects of the instrument cluster, better known as SmartGauge with EcoGuide, presenting whizbang displays of efficiency and consumption in addition to such basics as speed and distance. Unexpected extras were the overhead sound siphons of the active noise cancellation system; these lead us to say we think the car is quieter than the Black Keys in live performance. The C-Max Hybrid's worst trait is the stilted way it took bumps on the Ventura Freeway. At speed, the car's corpulence is too evident. We wish it could weigh 1250 pounds less, but it doesn't. Never mind that the Prius v drives almost robotically. Where the C-Max Hybrid has its most obvious advantage, besides a somewhat lower sticker price, is that it excels as an example of discerning design. It's a very pleasant car to sit in, to drive, or just to lean on.
We were also impressed by the Ford employees who showed off their new baby, which is on sale now. They're a confident bunch. The company has compelling leadership and a clear strategy, so the team appears unified. If they keep up the excellence they've shown so far in carrying out their electrification program, they'll be knocking some heads together.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
Base price: $25,995, including $795 destination and delivery
As tested: $30,690
Engine: DOHC 2.0-liter with variable valve timing
Power: 141 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 129 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Electric motor: Permanent-magnet AC synchronous
Battery: 1.4 kWh lithium-ion
Battery peak power: 35 kW
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: Independent short and long arm, double lower ball joints, stabilizer bar
Suspension, Rear: Independent multilink twist blade, stabilizer bar
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with regenerative capability, ABS
Tires: P225/50R-17 all-season
L x W x H: 173.6 x 72.0 x 63.9 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Track F/R: 60.5/60.4 in
Weight: 3607 lb
Cargo volume (rear seats up/down): 24.5/52.6 cu ft
0-60 MPH: N/A
Top Speed: 115 mph
EPA Mileage: 47/47 mpg city/highway