By Nat Shirley
Wednesday, Aug 29th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 
Competing head-on with the Toyota Prius - a vehicle so well-established that its name has become synonymous with "hybrid" for many consumers - is no easy task. However, that's exactly what Ford is looking to do with its new C-MAX Hybrid, a tall wagon/small van positioned as a rival to the largest model in the Prius lineup, the Prius V.

On paper, the C-MAX looks like a winner, boasting European-tuned handling and a class-leading 47-mpg combined rating for less coin than the Prius V. But does the Blue Oval's latest really have what it takes to challenge the 800-pound gorilla of the hybrid segment in the real world?

We ventured to sunny Southern California, the land of the Prius, to find out.

Building a hybrid brand
Recognizing the brand equity Toyota has built with the Prius moniker over the years, Ford decided to bring the C-MAX over from Europe (where it has been available since 2003) to create a hybrid-only nameplate of its own for the U.S. market. While the C-MAX Hybrid that we drove will be the first variant to make its way to showrooms, arriving in September, Ford will also offer a plug-in hybrid model called the C-MAX Energi starting later this fall.

Underpinned by a derivative of the platform used by the fine-handling Focus, the C-MAX Hybrid is motivated by a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder that pairs with a permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor. Total system output is 188 horsepower, a full 54 ponies more than the Prius V. Electricity is provided by an air-cooled 1.6-kWh lithium-ion pack located beneath the cargo-area floor, and power is transmitted to the front wheels by a CVT that's in-house-designed and built. Ford's previous hybrid gearboxes were sourced from Japanese supplier Aisin.

While the heavy hybrid components contribute to a somewhat porky 3,600-lb. curb weight, the C-MAX nonetheless manages to achieve an impressive 47 mpg in both the EPA's city and highway tests. For those keeping track, the Prius V is rated at 44/40 mpg. Ford claims that the C-MAX is capable of traveling up to 62 mph in electric-only mode, although based on our experience it would take a featherweight right foot and a long strip of road to achieve that particular feat.

Despite its mass, the C-MAX is actually a fairly compact vehicle: it rides on the same 104.3-inch wheelbase as the Focus and gives up about eight inches of overall length to the Prius V, though it's slightly wider and taller than the Toyota. There's ample room for five to sit in comfort, but the larger V has a noticeable advantage in cargo space, featuring 9.8 extra cubic feet with the rear seats up and 14.7 additional cubes with them folded.

The cabin is quite similar in design to that of the Focus and Escape, with generally high levels of material quality throughout and a modern-looking dashboard. Outside, the styling is clean and devoid of the imitation-SUV cues seen on many current crossovers, which may put off some buyers but is just fine with us.

Ford decided to pursue an aggressive pricing strategy for the C-MAX, with the entry-level SE trim starting at $25,995 (including destination) - that's $1,300 less than the least expensive Prius V. The upmarket SEL that we drove commands $28,995 and adds niceties such as leather upholstery, MyFord Touch and keyless start. Those looking for additional features can spec a navigation system, a nine-speaker Sony stereo or Ford's trick automatic liftgate, which operates by a sweep of the foot beneath the rear bumper.

Hitting the road
The C-MAX's European roots were evident on the curvy mountain roads north of Los Angeles, where the relatively taut suspension kept body motions nicely in check and the steering proved accurate and even fairly tactile. Think "Focus with a backpack" and you've got the idea. The only downside to the relatively stiff chassis tuning was a slightly harsh ride over uneven surfaces, though in most other situations the car rode quite comfortably.

Motoring up steep, prolonged inclines, the C-MAX certainly wasn't a rocket ship, but it also never wanted for power or sounded uncouth. In comparison, the Prius V that Ford had on hand droned harshly up the same hills, feeling out breath for much of the way.

When the time came to arrest its forward progress, the C-MAX's brakes were strong and easily modulated. A braking coach located in the "SmartGauge with EcoGuide" instrument cluster, which can be configured to display numerous efficiency-related readouts, helps drivers capture as much battery-recharging energy through the regenerative brakes as possible.

Also included is Ford's familiar "Efficiency Leaves" graphic, which rewards efficient driving with leaves and vines that accumulate over the course of a drive to create an animated forest. While it sounds laughable in theory, on the road the system is strangely addicting and quite effective - it helped us average nearly 45 mpg while driving with two passengers through L.A. traffic and up vertiginous mountains.

Leftlane's botton line
The C-MAX follows in the footsteps of the original Fusion hybrid, combining commendable fuel economy with handling dynamics that actually encourage spirited driving. Those qualities, along with a refined interior and attractive pricing, should put the C-MAX on the short list of buyers looking for a spacious and economical ride.

The big question that remains for us - and, doubtless, for Ford's marketing execs - is whether the Blue Oval will be able to build the kind of brand recognition with the C-MAX name that's necessary to attract large numbers of efficiency-minded buyers. If the automaker's recent success with the EcoBoost appellation is any indication, however, the C-MAX should do just fine.

2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid base price, $25,995.

Words and photos by Nat Shirley.