Well, I spent a week with Ford’s newest vehicle, the oddly-named C-Max. It’s not a cross-over, it’s a real car. A small 4-door in footprint, but something that offers more than you’d expect from its size. I was excited to check it out, because I love vehicles that don’t sacrifice function for fashion, and I looked forward to seeing what a family like mine could get out of a car like this.
The C-Max is Ford’s entry-level hybrid vehicle. It comes in relatively few trim levels, compared to most Ford products, and starts at $25,199. I drove the high-trim SEL Hybrid, and it rang in at $35,949 as tested. It’s also available in an Energi Hybrid, which is Ford’s plug-in hybrid technology.
Ford doesn’t even hide the fact that this car has Toyota’s Prius and Prius V directly in its sights. Let’s see how it does.
Under the Hood
Here you’ll find Ford’s 2.0-Liter 4-cylinder, running on a lean Atkinson cycle, coupled with an electric motor, a lithium-ion battery pack all working together to provide 188 horsepower. As you’d expect, it feeds that juice through a CVT (continuously-variable transmission) to the front wheels.
Fuel economy ratings are stunning at 5 L/100 km (47 mpg) for both city and highway. Now there’s a bit of chatter that these numbers will be adjusted, and even if that never happens, we all know the ratings are laughable and you couldn’t achieve them if you tried. Well, you’d have to try really, really extra hard and it would suck to be you while you were trying. Anyway, my real-world experience brought me two different numbers. For half the time I had the C-Max, I tried to drive efficiently and I netted 6.8 L/100 km (35 mpg). For the balance of the time, I drove as I normally would and ended up averaging 8.1 L/100 km (29 mpg). Both are fine numbers, but not nearly as great as the ratings would have you think. Of note, the temperatures dropped to between -10 and -18 for most of the “driving like I normally do” period, which obviously wouldn’t help the hybrid system’s efficiency either.
The fuel tank holds 51.1 Liters of rotten dinosaur juice.
I quite like the looks of the C-Max. It isn’t pretty, that’s for sure. It’s a more utility-driven shape, derived from the Focus. Although its family resemblance with the Focus is noticeable, I would say the C-Max is significantly more… Rubenesque, if you will. I appreciated the shape from most angles, but I’m a wagon, minivan, utility, etc. kinda guy. I can guarantee that not everyone will like the shape.
At the front, you’ll find Ford’s new corporate snout, sporting the “I want to be an Aston-Martin when I grow up” grille opening. The headlight pods are long and swept back, and foglights are nicely integrated. The fenders are flared a tiny bit, and there’s a character crease that starts gently after the front wheel opening and gets stronger as it sweeps back over the door handles.
The roofline is smooth, and it drops down dramatically toward the back, toward the rear hatch. I liked how the lower window trim jogs toward the sky at the back and meets the roofline. It’s not dramatic, but I noticed it every time I walked up to the car. The rear tail lights wrap around the corners and are huge.
Other than that, there’s little to say. It’s not a beautiful thing to behold, but it’s also not offensive. It’s a shape that makes sense, considering what you’ll find inside.
The 17″ rims are handsome and suit the car well, and my review sample came in an initially embarrassing Blue Candy Metallic Tint color – it was a bit rich for me, especially considering it costs more, but it actually grew on me over the course of the week.
The interior won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been in a current Ford product. Materials are nice, with a crapload of soft plastics everywhere – the dash, door panels, etc. Fit and finish appears pretty good, with a couple of gaps leaving a bit to be desired. Although there are splashes of brightwork here and there, it still feels like quite a dark cabin with the majority of the materials being black.
I really enjoyed the copious amounts of headroom in the front, and although it’s not a huge car, it never felt tight in terms of cabin width.
The heated, leather-trimmed (with contrasting stitching) seats are very comfortable, but would benefit from some better bolstering. Maybe it’s to discourage spirited driving? The driver’s side is power-adjustable.
Ford’s standard manually-adjustable steering wheel sits in front of you – it’s a good one, and it has buttons for media, phone, cruise and handsfree SYNC controls. Behind it, you’ll also find Ford’s familiar speedometer, flanked by two excellent driver information screens. The left one offers information on fuel economy, power split (between engine and electric), vehicle settings, trip meters and a wealth of hybrid-centric information. The right screen allows you quick visual access to the media system, navigation, phone and the goofy efficiency leaves. Both screens are controlled by D-pads on the steering wheel.
The massive panoramic sunroof does not open, but has a powered sliding sunshade. It also lets a ton of light in and makes a big difference in this dark interior. I like this option although it’s pricey at $1200.
Everything is powered, of course. Windows (all auto-up and auto-down – nice!), locks, mirrors, you name it. The lift gate is powered – there’s a button on the dash, one inside the trunk lid and one on your FOB. Headlights are automatic, but not HID. Entry is keyless, and the ignition is push-start.
There is what seems like a few acres of dash in front of you, a veritable meadow of black plastic, leading to a vast expanse of windshield. The styling is unique, and not really to my liking, but it works well enough.
At the top of the stack, stuck inside a plastic cave, you’ll find Ford’s ubiquitous MyFordTouch screen. Its home screen splits into quadrants, handling your phone, the navigation system, the climate control and the media system. The sound system sounds decent, and feeds off of AM, FM, satellite, USB, CD and Bluetooth streaming sources. Below the screen is a little media control knob, and underneath that, a nice simple dual-zone automatic climate control system.
There’s a diagonal part of the center stack below and it houses the gear selector. On the narrow center console, you’ll find a traditional parking brake lever, a 12V plug and two lovely, rubberized cupholders. Behind them is an upholstered armrest.
Oh, you know what else that touchscreen handles? The backup camera, which has lovely and useful trajectory lines, and is complemented by front and rear audible parking distance sensors. These are great additions to making sure you keep your expensive paint job pristine in a parkade.
Speaking of parking, this C-Max was equipped with the Active Park Assist, which basically parallel parks the car for you. It does a perfect job – every time. Yes, I can parallel park, and I don’t even fear it, but this sure makes things easier and quicker when you’re not sure and there are a hundred people sitting at bistro tables 10 feet away.
Here you’ll find three seats, three seatbelts and three headrests. They don’t slide fore and aft, nor do they recline. The two outboard seats are very comfortable, while the middle one is narrow, hard and raised, making it a crappy place to call your throne if you’re an adult. With that said, we had our three kids back there and they were more than happy with the space, and you get two sets of LATCH anchors for their seats.
The head and leg room is simply fantastic in the back of the C-Max. I was able to sit behind the front seat comfortably when it was all the way back, and I’m 5’10”.
The middle seatback folds down to become an armrest with two cupholders. In terms of other conveniences, you get adjustable air vents and something every car out there should have – a normal 110V household plug. Thank you Ford! The door pockets are basically just bottle holders, and there are two seatback map pockets as well as good dome lighting for either side.
I felt the C-Max to be woefully short on small storage spaces throughout the cabin – and I’m a big fan of those spaces. So that made me sad.
The glove compartment is decent, with two levels. The door bins are small but usable, and include bottle holders. The bin under the armrest is super-deep, but not very useful because the square footage is small. In there you’ll find another 12V plug and 2 USB plugs.
One cool feature I liked, although it doesn’t add a huge amount of utility, was that there are under-the-floor storage bins in the back seat area. On either side, under the floor mat, you’ll find a small, shallow compartment, which won’t hold much, but would allow you to secure valuables, etc and keep them out of the hands of someone breaking into your C-Max. Unless they’ve read this review of course.
The roofline slopes down substantially behind the second row and does cut into the cargo space in terms of vertical room. The cargo space can be covered by a retractable, removable tonneau cover. Although the floor is a tad higher than you’d expect (because the hybrid battery is under there), it’s still a very nice, useable space. The trunk offers you 694 Liters (24.5 cu.ft.) of capacity, and if you fold the second row of seats flat (they fold 60/40), you have a very sizeable 1489 Liters (52.6 cu.ft.) to work with. There are mesh pockets on either side of the trunk, and some solid-looking metal tie-down loops, as well as another 12V plug. A great, well thought-out space with a lot of utility.
Once you get settled in and comfortable, you reach up, depress the ignition push-start and enjoy the throaty rumble of the engine as it springs to life. Or, wait. Maybe not. Actually, almost without exception, you’ll hear nothing but a gentle whine because there’s enough juice in the battery that the car is ready to drive without firing up the gas engine. When it does fire up, it’s quiet on the inside, but you do notice the cycling when it turns on and off while you’re driving. It’s not intrusive by any means though.
The C-Max has plenty of power for cruising around town, and if you get on the go pedal, it will move ahead smartly. It won’t lurch ahead, but it won’t disappoint. As a matter of fact, its sub-8-second 0-60 time is stellar for a hybrid.
Everything it does is smooth, and the integration of the drivetrain and the CVT are no exception. Once the engine revs up under heavy load, it gets a bit buzzy, but honestly, unless you really need to get into a small gap in traffic or pass someone, you’ll rarely be spooling the engine up. And it’s the engine you’ll hear, not the CVT. I never heard strange noises from the CVT, unlike say the Subaru Impreza.
On the other hand, if you feather the throttle gently, you can easily get going to 60 or 70 km/h on electric power alone, which is very impressive. It’s that gaining of momentum that kills your fuel economy, and this car has enough power to do it on battery alone if you take it easy. THAT’S when you save gas.
In any hybrid, the brakes regenerate a large amount of energy which flows back to the battery, and you can expect a spongy/grabby response from them. I have to say, the C-Max’s brakes took me longer to adjust to than any other car I’ve driven. They are very grabby, and so you need to feather them to avoid that. The first couple of drives, there were a few times where I thought I’d end up on the road ahead of myself, after flying through the windshield. The brakes ARE powerful enough when you need them, and there’s a braking coach, showing you how efficiently you are braking in terms of regenerating energy. Irritating, but helpful.
The C-Max’s ride is very good. It soaked up the worst that our Edmonton streets doled out, and although it was firm, it was never too firm. I much prefer a slightly firmer, and more controlled in this case, suspension – and I’ll take this over the Prius’ sloppy numbness any day.
Though the handling is good, the C-Max always felt top-heavy around corners. Actually, make that just heavy. It will grip tenaciously, but never felt as tossable as the Focus does. Driving the Focus was a joy because it felt like it wanted to play. The C-Max is more of a mature-feeling drive, and less fun because of it. Why does it feel heavy around corners? Because it is. It tips the scales at 3640 pounds – and that’s before you plant YOUR butt in it. Not that your butt weighs a lot. I’m just saying… never mind. It weighs over 3600 pounds.
Something else that sapped a bit of driving pleasure, in my opinion anyway, was that the C-Max required plenty (almost constant) steering input. I never felt it was quite centered. It might just have needed an alignment, so I won’t chalk that up as a problem.
I really liked the fantastic visibility out of the car – there weren’t any issues from any angle.
I complained about this in my review of the Ford Escape as well. I hate how the touchscreen which, by definition, should be touchable, isn’t. Well, not everywhere. Because it’s sunken into a cave of plastic, the outside edges of the screen (which often have important touch areas) are difficult to reach, unless you’ve got yourself an E.T. finger to work with. And while I’m complaining, I’m not excited that it’s quite a reach to the screen too. Short people won’t like that.
MyFordTouch lost contact with my phone on a regular basis, which is more than irritating – it’s downright inconvenient, and the whole system appeared to have a stroke one day, and I could do nothing about it. It needed to restart on its own, which left me with a blank screen for about 5 minutes. Not sure what triggered it.
Oh hey, while I’m dissing ergonomics, have a look-see at where the climate control system is. That’s right. It’s hidden behind the gear selector. I know you don’t fiddle with it often, but that’s still inexcusable. I hate stuff like that.
I always thought it was a bit gimmicky, but Ford includes the ambient lighting on all their cars, which allows you to adjust the brightness and choose between a whole bunch of colors. But never, EVER underestimate the ability to choose colors in your car as something that will occupy your kids’ attention for a long time. They love it!
A number of people who asked about the car expressed concern over the longevity of the hybrid componentry – not specifically for the C-Max but for hybrid cars in general. Although the car is covered by the generic 3 year/60,000 km basic warranty, you’ll be pleased to find that the hybrid electrical components are covered by a 96 month/ 160,000 km warranty, which adds to the peace of mind.
In the end, competing directly with the Toyota Prius isn’t that hard. The Prius, while offering a bit of utility here and there, is not a great car. What it’s got going for it is the fuel economy. And it does not disappoint in that department. Well, the C-Max didn’t really compete there. Sure, it got great mileage, but not Prius mileage. But it certainly does give you a significant upgrade everywhere else – in terms of driving experience, comfort, luxury and cabin tech – for nearly the same price. Stay off the options list, and you can come in even cheaper than the Prius V.
I give the Ford C-Max a 7 out of 10. I’m waffling between that and a 7.5. While it’s not as exciting to drive as a Focus, the C-Max’s few, very minor compromises are quickly adjusted to. Unlike the Prius, which is just never a good driving car, the C-Max starts to feel very much like a normal car, instead of an eco-weenie’s hybrid, and that’s what I liked.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was surprisingly high. I wasn’t sure what she’d say, but she really, really liked it. She liked the shape, because it was tall and spacious inside. She liked how it drove, because it felt like a normal car. And she liked the interior because everything worked well for her. Oh, and because she took it shopping, she loved the powered liftgate. No surprise there. What she ended up saying was very telling, because she hasn’t said this before. She is in love with her minivan, but she said she’d consider trading it for something like this. Huh.
All in all, it’s just a smart car, this C-Max. It offers space, practicality, great mileage (although not as great as I had hoped for), great tech and convenience, and a reasonable price. Yet I fear that it might be a tough sell. The reasonable price pales a bit when it’s beside a Focus for thousands less. But there’s not a lot of competition for this car – it’s basically Toyota’s Prius line-up. If a buyer were to choose this over the Prius, I firmly believe they’d be rewarded with what is simply a better car. Now it’s up to those sales guys to convince the buying public to come over to the Ford dealership and give it a chance.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Ford Canada.
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