Ford's C-MAX tall wagon/crossover provides a well-appointed interior, useful technology features and an engaging, European-flavored driving experience that stands out from the hybrid norm. Downsides include controversial infotainment controls, a relatively small cargo area and fuel economy that can fall short of the official ratings in real-world driving.
For the latest model year, Ford has downgraded the C-MAX's efficiency ratings twice - first from 47/47 city/highway mpg to 45/40 mpg, then down to 42/37 mpg - in order to more accurately reflect the mileage buyers should expect.
In addition, the automaker has rolled out a number of changes designed to improve fuel economy, including a new final drive ratio, lower-friction engine oil, and a new hood seal, front and rear tire deflectors, A-pillar moldings and a rear lift gate deflector that are said to enhance aerodynamics.
The C-MAX is the first model from Ford to be offered solely as a hybrid in the U.S., positioned as a direct competitor to Toyota's Prius V wagon. It's based on a model that was originally designed for the European market, where buyers demand serious sophistication from their small cars, and as such is surprisingly refined in several key areas.
For example, the C-MAX doesn't drive like a typical hybrid - the steering is precise, the body motions well-controlled, and, while acceleration isn't overwhelming, it has more than enough power for most driving situations.
Furthermore, its cabin is a pleasant place to spend extended periods of time, with high-quality materials, a modern-looking dashboard and nifty displays. The instrument panel contains screens on either side of the speedometer that display efficiency-related information - on the left, "SmartGauge with EcoGuide" includes a brake coach function that helps drivers capture the maximum energy possible through regenerative braking, while on the right there's an "Efficiency Leaves" graphic that rewards efficient driving with leaves and vines that accumulate over the course of a drive to create an animated forest.
There's plenty of technology inside, as all C-MAX models come standard with SYNC, Ford's Bluetooth-based connectivity system that allows smartphone users to place calls and stream music by using voice commands or steering wheel-mounted buttons. SYNC can also read incoming texts aloud to help the driver keep his or her eyes on the road, and allows the use of Ford-approved apps like The Wall Street Journal news and Pandora radio.
The C-MAX can be spec'd with MyFord Touch, an infotainment system that builds on SYNC by letting users control everything from navigation to climate control to the sound system with voice commands. MyFord Touch also replaces conventional sound system knobs and buttons with a center-mounted eight-inch touchscreen, dual 4.2-inch displays in the instrument cluster and touch-sensitive controls in the center stack. Many consumers report that the system is a "love it or hate it" item, so those interested in the C-MAX are advised to try before they buy.
Unfortunately, the C-MAX it isn't quite as big inside as its crossover-like look would suggest - while the Prius V has 34.3 cubic feet behind its 60/40 split folding rear seats, the Ford manages only 24.5 cubic feet. With these seats folded down, the Toyota still has an advantage, with 67.3 cubic feet versus 54.3. The C-MAX does offer Ford's trick automatic tailgate, however, which operates by a sweep of the foot beneath the rear bumper.
Power comes from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that runs on the efficient Atkinson cycle and teams with an electric motor. The setup is good for an estimated 42 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.
With 188 horsepower flowing to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the C-MAX is quicker than the average hybrid, dispatching the zero-to-60 mph benchmark in roughly 8.5 seconds.
Thanks to its air-cooled 1.4-kWh lithium-ion pack located beneath the cargo-area floor, the C-MAX can drive in electric-only mode at up to 62 mph (provided the driver isn't looking to get anywhere in a hurry). Buyers interested in traveling extended distances using only electricity should also check out the more expensive C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, which packs a larger battery pack that cuts down on cargo space but provides a 21-mile electric-only range.
Trim Level Breakdown
The C-MAX is offered in SE and SEL trim levels.
The SE is fitted as standard with dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with AUX and USB inputs, SYNC, Bluetooth connectivity, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, cruise control, full power accessories and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The SEL adds leather upholstery, a power-adjustable driver's seat, Ford's MyTouch infotainment system, ambient interior lighting, a proximity key with push-button start and a reverse-sensing system.
Highlights from the options list include a Sony-branded premium audio system, a navigation system, a power liftgate, a rearview camera and a panoramic sunroof.
All C-MAX models come standard with dual front, side and full-length side curtain airbags in addition to a driver's knee airbag, traction and stability control systems and emergency brake assist.
The C-MAX has only one direct competitor - the Toyota Prius V. The Prius is bigger inside but slower and slightly less fuel-efficient, at least on paper (as always, your mileage may vary).