You could look at the Ford C-Max and see first what it’s not. It’s not Ford’s answer to the Prius. It’s not a worldwide car that’s unfiltered for American tastes. And it’s certainly not a tall Ford Focus.
Nope, the Ford C-Max is just a family car. The bad news: It’s a little bit of everything else, too.
This year’s Ford C-Max — likely the last year before the car’s first significant upgrade since it arrived on America’s shores — is first and foremost a family car. Perhaps unluckily, its own background noise drowns it out before it’s had a chance to sing its opening tune. What if James Brown were just a bandleader and nothing else?
It’s an SUV’s SUV’s SUV’s world out there — that much we know for sure — and consequently the mini-minivan C-Max has a difficult berth to start. Sales have not been hugely impressive in the first three years. The Focus-based family car is only available in hybrid or plug-in hybrid versions in the states and manages better than 40 mpg in either spec, although the Energi plug-in version offers slightly fewer mpg thanks to heavier batteries. In exchange for electrons in the trunk, the C-Max Energi can run up to 20 miles on electricity alone, although mileage varies greatly depending on driving habits. (In stop-and-go traffic, the Energi is just fine. Drag it up hills and battery life can be shortened by more than 25 percent.) That’s fairly lock-step with other plug-in hybrids on the market at the moment such as the Plug-In Prius and Chevrolet Volt, but the C-Max offers wins and losses over both.
Much like the family of Toyota Priuses in the world, the C-Max is packed with a small four-banger mated to a CVT with batteries behind both. In C-Max Energi spec, such as our tester, the 141-horsepower gasoline engine and 118-horsepower electric motor work separate from each other depending on charge in the battery. If either figure, 141 or 118, bowl you over as copious amounts of power, you’d be right. The Plug-In Prius manages even less, a total engine output of 134 horsepower, but it’s also significantly lighter; 700 lbs. shy of the C-Max.
Tipping the scales at nearly two tons, the C-Max doesn’t hide its heft — it just manages it well. Despite being much taller than the Focus, the C-Max still manages the same sharp turn-in and flat behavior of its donor platform. The C-Max feels solid at all four corners, despite relatively vague steering, but the overboosted assist makes city driving much easier. (The C-Max can even park itself, although that feature didn’t want to work on our tester.)
For anyone who’s ever driven a European Ford, you should feel right at home in the American C-Max. Overdamping in the C-Max’s suspension leads to a stiffer ride without rattling your dental work. The same suspension philosophy that makes the Fiesta so much fun to drive helps the C-Max handle its weight. To directly compare, the Prius is more nimble (relatively speaking) and the C-Max wins the big man dance challenge.
Which brings into view the other domestic plug-in hybrid that begs competition: the Volt. To be fair, the Volt’s importance can’t be understated and strictly speaking, it’s a hugely important car for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. But the C-Max Energi and Volt don’t play in the same sandbox. It doesn’t take a tape measure to see that the C-Max Energi is larger and better suited for families, nor does it take a math major to see the Volt’s electric range is more than twice the C-Max. The Energi has 19 cubic feet of rear space in the back (there’s more space in the regular hybrid, batteries eat up space in the back) and nearly 100 cubic feet of total room is more than enough for a family of 4 or 5. Your preference of vehicle depends entirely on your tribe in the back.
Inside, the C-Max doesn’t beat you over the head with its own technology. Ford’s SYNC with MyFord Touch is the industry standard for confusing names for a relatively good infotainment system. Smart money sticks with the $1,360 entertainment package (navigation, premium audio) without diving into Ford’s suite of hands-free parking, cameras everywhere and conga recognizing rear lift gate. Despite whining up a hill, the C-Max is mostly quiet inside, even more than the current generation Prius.
At more than $31,000 to start, the C-Max Energi is still hundreds less than the Plug-In Prius. At $24,170 the C-Max Hybrid makes a more compelling case for short-term value based on better mileage and overall value. Our tester, a C-Max Energi clocked in at a grand $37,100, but much like its driver (read: me) could stand to lose a few extras without much fuss.
Maybe, for whatever reason, you’re one of dozens of Americans who believe an inch of snow on the driveway doesn’t require a search-and-rescue capable vehicle. Maybe, perhaps, you’re one of tens of tens of Americans who thinks family wagons aren’t dead yet. The C-Max hits a sweet spot for most of those buyers for reasons beyond its technology and relative importance to Ford. The C-Max is a solid chance to see what a good car from Ford looks like, if only it could just get out of its own way.
Aaron Cole is managing editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org