Wagon, hatchback, or mini minivan? First impressions of the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid make it difficult to classify, and it doesn't get any easier with the second look. Despite refusing to fit into a simple slot, the C-Max offers immensely practical interior space and fuel economy.
Ford started selling the C-Max, built on the Focus platform, in Europe in 2003. Offered with a multitude of engines there, in the U.S. it only comes as a hybrid. That move may seem a little stingy on Ford's part, but it does gives the company a dedicated hybrid vehicle, similar to Toyota's Prius model.
Comparisons with the Toyota Prius are inevitable, and Ford itself takes aim at the iconic hybrid car in its literature. However, Ford sets the C-Max Hybrid up against the Prius v due to comparable interior space, and how well Ford's hybrid stacks up in the specifications.
Where the Prius v gets its best fuel economy in the city, at 44 mpg, the C-Max boasts 47 mpg both in the city and on the highway in EPA estimates. At the same time, Ford gives its car 182 net horsepower from its hybrid drive system, versus the somewhat anemic 134 horsepower of the Prius v. The Prius v takes the lead in cargo space, at about 30 percent more than the C-Max Hybrid.
The C-Max Hybrid's driver's seat takes a little getting used to. Its position feels higher than it should, and a long field of plastic extends from the top of the dashboard to the lower edge of the windshield. The deep dashboard is not so different from the Prius v's, but the steering on the C-Max Hybrid feels more precise, with the electric power-steering unit tuned for responsive and easy turning with minimal play.
The superior handling of the C-Max Hybrid can be chalked up to the European-designed Focus platform on which it sits. The multilink suspension gets stabilizer bars in both front and rear, resulting in generally comfortable ride quality and a vehicle that doesn't wallow in the turns. However, the ride height made me reluctant to push it hard through corners, and the typical hybrid buyer will be more interested in maximizing fuel economy than playing RallyCross driver.
Using a 141-horsepower, 2-liter gasoline engine and 118 horsepower electric motor, the same combination as the new Ford Fusion Hybrid, the C-Max Hybrid can drive under electric power at speeds up to 62 mph. During a long freeway trip, I found the engine remained on most of the time, resulting in fuel economy on the trip computer hovering around 42 mpg, even as I tried to be gentle with the throttle. Arriving in a city, the trip computer's fuel economy rose quickly as I was able to take advantage of the C-Max Hybrid's electric-drive capabilities.
CNET's overall fuel economy for the C-Max Hybrid came in at 45.1 mpg, with an ample amount of freeway and city driving.
As is typical with a full hybrid, going easy on the accelerator from a stop led to quiet, electric propulsion, but it was difficult to maintain EV mode without pissing off the line of cars behind me. Quicker acceleration caused the engine to fire up, and when I floored it for passing or freeway merging, the engine wound up to high rpms with a less-than-pleasing grinding noise. That minor cacophony may be Ford's way of discouraging heavy gasoline usage.
Despite the roughness, I was pleased with how well the C-Max Hybrid was willing to get up and go. The electronic continuously variable transmission lacks rev drops for gearshifts, leading to smooth acceleration. Braking smoothly transitioned from regeneration to friction when coming to a stop.
You won't find Sport or Eco buttons in the C-Max Hybrid, and I'm quite happy with that. Eco modes in other cars usually make the accelerator frustratingly unresponsive, and the word Sport really has no business with a hybrid focused on fuel economy.
The instrument cluster, a combination of the MyFord and SmartGauge displays, offered almost too much information. The display to the left of the speedometer shows a variety of running data, which I could customize with the left steering-wheel controls. Along with trip data screens, Ford includes a set of screens that show the operation of the hybrid power train, including engine speed and when the car is operating under EV mode.
These small screens will delight data-happy types who want to closely monitor the C-Max Hybrid's performance. Others will probably ignore this side of the instrument cluster, or merely stick with a single screen. However, there is a driving-coach screen, which can turn efficient driving into contest.
The other side of the instrument cluster shows screens for the phone, navigation, and audio system. The right steering-wheel spoke gives some limited control over these applications, letting you choose a phone contact, for example, but not browse a music library.