Over the past 12 years, the Toyota Prius has made hybrid cars a household term and given the carmaker the greenest image of any manufacturer. The competition isn't just sitting on the sidelines and watching the Japanese manufacturer dominate the world's demand for fuel-efficient cars with a growing Prius model line; cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf provide some alternative to help consumers save on energy usage. But no model from Detroit has taken a direct aim at the Prius.
That is, until now. Enter the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid, a five-passenger tall hatchback that, like the Prius, will only succeed or fail as a hybrid.
While newcomers tend to challenge incumbents on several levels, Ford hasn't been shy about tacking the Prius head-on with two key features: a cheaper sticker price and better fuel efficiency. At a base of $25,995, the new C-Max Hybrid is $1,300 less than the comparable Prius V. And it carries a 47-mpg city/highway/combined EPA efficiency rating that beats the Toyota Prius V's 44 city/40 highway mark, while offering a range of 570 miles on a single tank of gas.
To get those figures, Ford paired a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine with a a 35-kW permanent-magnet AC motor, a lithium-ion battery pack and a continuously variable transmission. Together, the combined output of 188 hp can propel the 3,600-lb C-Max to 60 mph in about 9 seconds, about a second faster than the Prius V. Those aren't spectacular figures, but the C-Max's innovation may be as much about where it's made than performance alone; like Toyota, Ford builds all of the major C-Max hybrid components in its own factories -- with the C-Max itself assembled in Michigan -- rather than relying on outside suppliers.
Like the Prius V, the 2013 C-Max Hybrid has a tall, wagon-like hatchback profile with seating for five, with a bit more space than the Prius V, and like the Prius V, it's not sold here with the third row of seats available outside the United States. The chassis uses the same setup as the Escape and Focus on which it's based, and the electric power steering is one of the best versions on the market today for feel and weighting. Around twisty mountain roads north of Los Angeles, the C-Max's 17-inch Michelin tires did a great job of holding on to the curves without too many screeching complaints. The suspension, with added roll and yaw control for safety, keeps the car in check when tackling the corners with a little more oomph.
And this is the rare hybrid that can make a curvy mountain road enjoyable at speed. At full throttle, the power delivery of the C-Max is much smoother and more potent than that of the Prius V, without the Prius' sense of being disconnected from the road. The C-Max is not a sports car, but it doesn't drive like what you would expect from a high-mileage hybrid. In more typical city and highway driving, the C-Max is quieter than the Prius V, thanks to the car's active noise cancellation technology.
Ford's technology has caused it some stumbles, with Consumer Reports among others criticizing its MyFord Touch in-dash system as overly complicated, but the C-Max puts the touch screen front and center. Among its tricks: a "SmartGauge with EcoGuide," which coaches drivers on how to proceed more efficiently, such as providing tips on when the brakes are recharging the battery along with an animation of leaves and vines in the instrument panel that grow with energy-saving driving. There's also Ford's parallel-parking assist and the kick-step activated power hatch.
Overall, the Ford C-Max Hybrid offers better driving dynamics, fuel economy and price than the Prius V, and bests other hybrids such as the Honda Insight in usefulness. The C-Max has an uphill battle to overcome the already established image of the Prius brand, the best-selling hybrid in the world. But if Ford has the patience and ambition, and follows through quickly on future C-Max models, it might have a chance by consistently offering better performing cars.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
Four-door, front-wheel-drive hybrid hatchback
2-liter 4-cylinder; 35-kW AC electric motor; lithium-ion battery
Continuously variable transmission
188 hp total
9 seconds (estimated)
3.1 tons of CO2/year
47 mpg city/highway
$25,200 - $28,200
No getting away from MyFord Touch
A capable execution of the Prius' tried-and-true formula