Having been advertised for months prior as a Prius beater, Ford’s C-Max Hybrid vaulted to the ninth spot among hybrid sales in its inaugural month last September.
Ford’s ads have especially targeted the spacious 42 mpg Prius v highlighting any perceived advantage. The C-Max Hybrid has been promoted as more fun to drive with 54 more horsepower than the Prius Liftback and Prius v while delivering mileage and interior capacity between the two. Further, drivers won’t have to suffer with unexciting styling, says Ford which has played a strategy of knocking Toyota’s icons while hoping to establish a similar one of its own.
Half a year into it, the five-seater C-Max Hybrid has climbed within top-six sales territory trailing the established number-one Prius Liftback, which outsells any other hybrid by no less than three to one.
The C-Max has achieved this despite an outcry among some buyers who, along with several car reviewers, say they cannot get within five to nine mpg of its 47 mpg EPA rating for city, highway and combined driving.
Several class action suits against Ford are now in process, and we’ll note we have not crested past 42 mpg ourselves, but do not say it’s impossible. Ford has cited many satisfied customers who do get the stated mileage, some even beating it by a few mpg.
The C-Max Hybrid also offers several other unique benefits besides.
(Not) Hybrid Synergy Drive
The architecture underlying Toyota’s “Hybrid Synergy Drive” is shared in several key points by Ford’s “Powersplit” system but there’s no infringement because they both cross-licensed each others’ patents in the 1990s after first suing each other for potential violations perceived.
Actually, TRW originated the hybrid system’s basic principles in the 1960s, and Toyota and Ford had independently recognized a good thing.
At the heart of Ford’s marriage between gas and electric power is a 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle engine assembled in Chihuahua, Mexico with aluminum block and head and four valves per cylinder. To save parasitic drag, the car has electrically powered water pumps, power steering, and vacuum pump. Also, the air conditioning system draws from the high-voltage 1.4-kwh Li-ion hybrid system battery in the trunk.
The engine displaces 12-percent more volume than the 1.8-liter in both the Prius Liftback and v. It is rated at 141 horsepower, 129 pounds-feet of torque and this exceeds the 134-horsepower gas-plus-electric total output in the powertrain shared by both Prii.
The C-Max’s electric motor contributes 114 horsepower and 177 pounds-feet torque at 6,000 rpm. This output is mated via a planetary gearset that can decouple or combine the two independent power sources for seamless propulsion.
Because the electric motor and gas engine peak at different times, total C-Max hybrid system output routed through the front wheels via an Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT) is 188 horsepower. Torque is unspecified, but it feels like around 200 pounds-feet or so.
While positioned as a competitor to the Prius v, its 173.6-inch overall length is actually shorter than the 181.7-inch-long v and the 176.4-inch-long Prius Liftback. However, the C-Max is 1.9-inches taller than the v, and 5.2 inches taller than the Liftback while also 2.1-inches wider than the v, and 3.3-inches wider than the Liftback.
Interior cargo volume is therefore larger than the Liftback’s, but smaller than the v’s.
The C-Max is also the heaviest of the bunch at 3,640 pounds, compared to the Liftback’s 3,042 pounds, and Prius v’s 3,274 pounds.
Riding on a global Focus platform, the C-Max is appropriately named. It’s like a Focus that wanted to be a minivan when it grows up.
Up front is Ford’s signature Aston-Martinesque grille, so maybe it also wants to be a Rapide when it grows up.
Actually, it is its own unique creation, and Ford took pains to avoid some of the iconic design cues established by Toyota and mimicked by Honda’s Insight and to an extent, Chevy’s Volt.
Its fuel-saving coefficient of drag is a respectable 0.30 but this trails the Liftback’s 0.25 and v’s 0.29.
Machined alloy 17-inch wheels shod with wide 225/50 series Michelin low rolling resistance tires provide a big footprint and add to a purposeful stance. The Prii come standard with 195 series tires, with 215s optional.
The hood is positioned low and the acoustic laminated windshield provides excellent forward visibility.
Out back is an electrically operated tailgate that opens with a kicking motion under the rear bumper assuming you have the remote key with you.
Overall, it’s a tall box shaped as sveltely as possible for a vehicle with the mission of extremely practical fuel sipper. We find it handsome enough from most angles.
From the driver’s seat, the C-Max Hybrid is modern automotive. Here too, Ford avoided designs too evocative of the green car persona.
The floor is cut low, so the seating position approaches that of a minivan. I’m six-feet-tall, and in the video, you can see the car swallows me up, and I look like maybe I’m 5-foot-6 under the high ceiling.
Knee room is excellent even for long legs, and the car has knee protection airbags among its seven total.
Seats are comfortable front and rear, and our SEL had electrically controlled driver’s seat.
Front and rear HVAC controls are a plus the Ford enjoys over the Toyotas.
Instruments, centerstack and 8-inch touch screen in our SEL model are all well laid out within a sculpted, multi-plane surfaces as contemporary as they come in this segment. They add up to an aesthetically pleasing quasi cockpit-like feel behind a long dash area reaching to the base of the windshield.
Both the SE and SEL trim packages come at least with the useful and effective dual-LCD next-generation SmartGauge with EcoGuide. This has customizable screens to show energy usage, source, and features including Efficiency Coach and Brake Coach.
The SEL is upgraded with SYNC with MyFord Touch, an agnostic interface that allows you to plug in your device of choice to operate on the 8-inch touch screen which, like the main instruments, is nicely hooded to minimize sun glare.
Among optionally available features on our SEL were navigation and voice commands, and connectivity is replete with 12-volt sockets, dual USB plugs, SD card slot for navigation, and coaxial plugs for a video game to be played on the screen if desired.
All controls are within easy reach, and the steering wheel has multi-function buttons that can be learned intuitively by someone only half tech-savvy along with controls for cruise control and phone.
Quality of materials is good in all, with soft-touch vinyl strategically placed on front door panels, dash, with matching harder plastic in back. Some may find the quality of some of the materials to hold an edge over the Toyotas.
Fit and finish for the car put together at the cavernous Michigan Assembly Plant are very good inside as it is also for the rest of the car.
Our SEL included thoughtfully placed ambient lighting in places like the foot wells and door handles. As a whole, the car is quite functional offering many features that only a decade or so ago would have been broaching on luxurious, if not outright not available.
On The Road
Our SEL had pushbutton start, and quietly defaults to EV mode unless accessories demand gas-engine power.
It will drive up to 62 mph in EV mode, maybe a bit faster, but putting your foot down will kick on the gas engine. That said, it’s more likely to stay in EV than the Prii.
The C-Max is quick for being such a heavy car. Various 0-60 mph runs have been made with results ranging from 7.05 seconds to mid 8s with quarter mile time of as low as 15.5 seconds at 92 mph.
This shows how cars have come a long way. Want some perspective? Ford’s new eco car might run with a 1991 Mustang GT with 5.0-liter engine, which records show was good for 7.2 seconds to 60 mph and 15.6 in the quarter.
Comfort-wise, the electronically controlled driver’s seat is sufficiently supportive with decent, non-adjustable lumbar support. Legroom front and rear is sufficient if not ample for an average span of body sizes.
The middle back row may crunch some with longer legs depending on how far back the front seats are adjusted.
Cornering manners are respectable for the four-wheel independent suspension, and combined with the wider tires, brisk back country driving can be more rewarding than with the Toyotas.
The eCVT – as is typical for CVTs – does not produce music to the ears of driving enthusiasts accustomed to the up and down melody of a standard car’s exhaust note.
Braking action feels controlled and the Brake Coach encourages best behaviors, but hard stops are no cause for more than the usual level of concern.
Bumps in the road are taken up pretty well. On rough highways, the car did pogo the driver in the seat a few times, but compliance is on par with other cars in this class overall.
As for that all-important mpg, we did a few tests, and averaged 36.8 mpg on one, 40.3 on another and 41.13 on another, and never did we measure higher than 42 mpg.
Want a possible explanation?
If you noticed, in this review we mentioned: 1) the engine is bigger than the Toyotas’, 2) the tires which create rolling resistance are wider, 3) aerodynamics for the wider, taller car are less efficient by a notch, 4) curb weight is the heaviest of all.
On paper, it is very difficult to see how the C-Max would usurp the Prius v with all driving conditions being equal. Engineering efficiencies in the powertrain must overcome an inherent set of disadvantages working against fuel economy.
That said, we’ve pushed the Prii on various occasions only to see them not meet their advertised mpg targets either.
Overall, it is easier for a careful driver to make the grade in the Toyotas, but it’s probably not impossible in the Ford.
Ford also says mileage should get better once it’s fully broken in. Our car had around 6,200 miles (10,000 km) on the odometer when received from Ford’s media pool, which means it is pretty well broken in, but might have further to go.
Ford vs. Toyota
If you’re wondering, we could have considered other competitors, but the two Toyotas we’ve been comparing are most like the C-Max, and Ford knows this having spent millions on ads pointing out the differences.
The Ford C-Max SE starts at a base price of $25,200 and the SEL starts at $28,365.
The Prius Liftback Grade Two is the base level among five trim packages available, and starts at $24,200. The Prius v Grade Two is the base among three possible trim levels and starts at $26,650.
Specifying options above this will naturally shift the variables, but what about those operational costs?
Hypothetically if you only managed to get 39 mpg in a C-Max, and assuming the Prii did make their EPA numbers, that would mean at 15,000 miles per year you’d burn roughly 384 gallons in the Ford, 357 gallons in the Prius v, and 300 gallons in the Prius Liftback.
Now, take the difference and multiply it by your price of gas. Assuming an average of $3.50 per gallon, driving the Ford would cost $94.50 more annually than for the Prius v, and $294 more than the Prius Liftback. At $4 per gallon, it rises to $108 more than the Prius v, and $336 more than the Liftback.
Further, if the C-Max only got 39 mpg, but is advertised at 47 mpg, the extra cost per year would be $227 at $3.50 per gallon, and $260 per year for $4.
If you liked the Ford equally to the Prius v, and the Toyota cost $1,450 more, it would take several years to burn $1,450 in excess fuel consumption in the Ford even if it only got 39 mpg, and assuming fuel prices will rise.
Of course, as Ford has pointed out, you may meet the 47 mpg number, in which case our above scenarios are void, but we’re just putting these out there to get the mental wheels rolling.
Beyond mpg questions, the U.S.-built Ford is nicely appointed inside and avoids the uber-greencar look inside and out if that’s of value to you. It is more sporty, faster, more solidly handling, with more usable space than the Liftback, but less than the v.
The Ford is loaded also with technology – especially if you upgrade to the SEL – and these must be compared and contrasted as well.
Unknown is the C-Max Hybrid’s long-term reliability record, and here Toyotas’ head start is worth considering.
In sum, assuming the C-Max Hybrid proves durable, even if it does have a tougher time meeting EPA numbers, it may still be worth it depending on one’s preferences, but this may not be a black-and-white decision.
The C-Max Hybrid we drove is a bright Candy Blue. It pops in the photos, but Ford’s new hybrid offers pros and cons that – when compared to the competition – blur the value presentation picture with shades of gray.