My Uncle Manuel is a car guy through and through, and knows that as an automotive scribe, I occasionally get the keys to some interesting rides. When I visit him and my aunt, he usually greets me with a few questions about my conveyance. He snaps a few pictures on his point-and-shoot, and a few minutes later, we enjoy lunch. That's usually it.But when I pulled up in the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid, he wanted more than a photo. He insisted on a ride. Now, I've parked our long-term Nissan GT-R Black Edition, Mercedes-Benz SLS Roadster, and a McLaren MP4-12C his driveway. But it wasn't until I came by with this newest Ford that he asked for a ride."Wow, this is a Ford?" he asked as we cruised almost silently in all-electric mode. I told him we could rely solely on the Michigan-assembled 1.4-kW-hr lithium-ion batteries up to 62 mph if I proceeded with a light, gradual application of the throttle, which is the norm when it comes to switching from electric/engine to all-EV power."I really can't believe this is a hybrid. I can hardly tell when the gasoline engine kicks on - it's as smooth as glass," he said, smiling. Before I could mention the C-Max's enemy Numero Uno, the Toyota Prius V, he concluded: "I'd rather have this than a Prius. It looks good and feels solid."
If C-Max chief program engineer John Davis and his team could have heard my uncle's unprompted observation, red, white, and blue fireworks and confetti might have blasted above Dearborn, or at least, on their team's computer screens.On paper, the C-Max Hybrid brings a lot to the compact hybrid vehicle segment that has so far been dominated by Toyota's sales juggernaut. Let's face it: When you think hybrid, you think Prius. Toyota worked for years to achieve this status, and Ford wants to change it.According to Davis, during the initial product planning of this latest C-Max a few years ago, Ford decided that rather than introduce a global model with a four-banger onboard, Ford's EcoBoost-filled American lineup needed something different to woo potential buyers. What better way to introduce Ford's third-generation gasoline-electric powertrain than in the new C-Max?Product planners and engineers focused on styling, packaging, efficiency, and price. Only two models will be available this summer: a $25,995 entry-level SE and $28,995 range-topping SEL, both with varying equipment groups that include options like MyFord Touch, panoramic roof, rearview camera, and interior lighting. Ford loaded our SEL to the gills and included all of those options plus the trick power liftgate. A simple wave of your foot below the rear bumper opens the hatch for easy loading when your hands are full.The C-Max's stylish, European flair attracted loads of stares during my multi-day test. It's an extremely fresh form compared to most anything on today's U.S. roads. A few staffers called it a "bloated Focus" (they're built on the same production line and use the same C-car platform), but for the most part, people loved its cutesy-but-cool modern looks, which put the Prius' awkward, robotic physique to shame.
I was asked the "That's a Ford?" question by strangers at least four times on one particular day of errand running. Each time I was asked I offered a quick explanation of the C-Max's bells and whistles and a peek into the well-appointed cabin. It's a comfortable and airy environment with plenty of cushy materials, bright lightings, and supportive seating. The extra-large windows add to the interior's open feel and allow for superb all-around visibility. Storage compartments and power outlets galore make the interior as useful as it is stylish.When it comes down to numbers, the C-Max bests the Toyota in front/rear headroom (41/39.4 inches versus the Prius' 39.6/38.6 inches), rear legroom (36.5 versus 35.9 inches), and front hip room (54.3 versus 53.5 inches). Front/rear shoulder room is dead even at 55.9/55.2 inches. The Prius nudges out the Ford when cargo space behind the second row is taken into consideration: 34.2 cubic feet versus 24.5 cubic feet. Even so, I had no issues with stuffing three friends' luggage into the cargo area, and I could have also folded down the 60/40 split-fold seats for more space.My impromptu spiel also outlined its Prius V-beating 47 mpg EPA fuel ratings in city, highway, and combined situations. During my week of normal driving, I achieved single tank ranges of 523 miles and 547 miles (Ford says it'll go 570 miles) and easily attained an indicated 44 mpg without hyper-miling or careful use of the regenerative brakes.If you drive it with the A/C blasting, radio blaring, and the occasional jackrabbit start from a stoplight, you'll easily see 35-plus mpg, thanks to its highly efficient 2.0-liter Atkinson four-cylinder that's good for 141 hp and 129 lb-ft of toque, 118-hp electric motor, and library-quiet HF35 eCVT transmission. Together they produce a relatively hefty and "real car"-like 188 horsepower. Getting it up to 62 mph on electricity alone is the real deal -- the C-Max will gladly stroll on battery power when prodded judiciously.When stabbing the go-pedal, you'll be treated to some surprising pep in the C-Max's step. Getting the 3664-pound C-Max to 60 mph from dead stop took 8.2 seconds on our track -- nearly 2 seconds quicker than a Prius V (10.1 seconds).After scooting it around our figure eight, testing director Kim Reynolds said driving the C-Max was like "driving a cupcake." To Kim's point, the C-Max is indeed soft and not all that impressive, but it isn't a horrible mess, a bore, or an unpleasantly riding people-mover when the road gets twisty or bumpy. Thanks to the SmartGauge's Brake Coach menu, passengers' entertainment will likely come in the form of optimizing the performance of the regenerative brakes, not setting time attack records.Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman described the C-Max's handling like so: "Simply put, the Prius hates to turn. The C-Max Hybrid, however, is different. While no means a sports car, it is a sporty little upright hatchback that's actually fun to toss around. So much, in fact, that this week I told two different people to purchase a C-Max Hybrid instead of a Prius."Does the C-Max Hybrid give the Prius V a run for its fuel-efficient money? If you're a car nut who enjoys stylish five-passenger road machines as much as my uncle, you already know the answer. And you'll be insisting on a ride very soon.
2013 Ford C Max SEL
PRICE AS TESTED
Front engine, FWD, 4-pass, 4-door hatchback
2.0L/141-hp/129-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 118-hp electric motor; 188 hp comb