We love the Toyota Prius. No, really, we do. And not just as a de facto punch line for our most conventional moments of automotive enthusiasm. Priuses are the fluoride in the automotive water—and we’re happy for the upstanding 2 percent of citizens who avail themselves of such superb technology, thus benefitting us all.
But as gas prices rise again and cylinder counts continue to drop—and even BMW engines now clatter portentously to a halt at stoplights—we can’t help but wonder why another car company has not stepped up to punch Toyota in the Prii. Preferably with something more engaging in drive, a hybrid that produces similar mileage but superior dynamics. If we are all forced to drink the Kool-Aid one day, can we at least have ours laced with a slug of something harder?
Enter the 2013 Ford C-Max hybrid, a European people mover based on the same architecture as the Focus and mated with the 188-hp hybrid powertrain developed for the new Fusion. On paper, the idea seems like gold: A $25,995 Focus-ish wagon (that’s $1350 less than a base Prius V) that nails 47 mpg in EPA fuel-economy testing across the board? Make our electrification end-times cocktail a Pimm’s, please.
Ford is keen to position the C-Max hybrid as a ’tween—bigger than the standard Prius but smaller than the Prius V—despite the fact that the C-Max’s 104.3-inch wheelbase and 173.6-inch length are both shorter than that of either Toyota. But the C-Max is wider and taller than the Priuses, which makes it slightly roomier for passengers—Toyota’s only edge is a bigger cargo hold in the Prius V.
Our first dry run reinforced the notion that, much like its platform-mate, the C-Max can be fun to drive. It proved powerful enough to do 0 to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds, which only seems slow until you commit the same crime in one of the Toyotas.
Inside the C-Max, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, with a conventional cockpit and gearshift lever similar to the Focus’s. The instrument panel does feature a new “Brake Coach” display, furthering both thrift and the game-ification of driving, but not helping stopping distance: The C-Max took 191 feet to halt from 70 mph, 16 more than the Prius V. Our preproduction C-Max also demonstrated the strange ability to initiate regenerative braking under light pedal application without disengaging its cruise control. Ford assured us this defect would not be present in production vehicles.
While our scales told us that the C-Max was chubby at 3658 pounds (269 more than the Prius V), hustling through some corners confirmed it. At slow to moderate speeds, the C-Max’s steering feels light and communicative, and the suspension does a good job soaking up bumps. Once you approach the car’s modest limits, however, its weight and height become more noticeable as the body motions are no longer so well controlled. Despite feeling more engaging than any Prius and wearing decent-size tires (225/50R-17 Michelin Energy Savers), the C-Max registered only 0.77 g on the skidpad, right there with the 0.78 g of the Prius V.
With data mitigating our initial enthusiasm, we proceeded to collect more. Our primary area of investigation was that 47-mpg EPA highway rating. Of course we’d find the bureaucratic number optimistic, but we wondered how the C-Max could flatten out the typical hybrid inversion of having better city mileage than highway, while purportedly flattening the Prius V as well. Given that the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine in the C-Max hybrid makes 141 horsepower all on its own—seven horses more than the output of the Prius V’s total hybrid system—getting seven more highway miles out of every $4 spent at the Shell station seemed an extraordinary feat.
The secret sauce to Ford’s new hybrid recipe is to fit a larger traction motor than the Toyotas’ in its continuously variable transaxle (118 horsepower, versus 80 in the Prius V). This, along with a larger and more powerful lithium-ion battery pack (1.4-kWh capacity), enables the C-Max to go full EV all the way to 62 mph, some 20 mph higher than the Prius. This ability to shut down the engine at higher speeds helps in four of the five EPA fuel-economy schedules that have top speeds reaching no higher than 60.
Back in the real world, however, we ran a 67-mile out-and-back drive with the cruise control set at 75 mph, and the C-Max’s trip computer reported only 34 mpg. At 32 mpg, our overall observed fuel economy in the C-Max was even lower than the 35 mpg we saw from the last Prius V we tested.
We did actually top 40 mpg in the C-Max by driving really slowly and carefully—you know, like in a Prius—confirming a larger truth. Ford may have developed a better hybrid, but even in the C-Max, having more fun inevitably burns fuel.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
PRICE AS TESTED: $31,885
BASE PRICE: $25,995
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter inline-4, 141 hp, 129 lb-ft; 2 AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric motors, 118 hp; combined system, 188 hp
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Length: 173.6 in
Width: 72.0 in Height: 63.9 in
Curb weight: 3658 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 8.8 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 23.8 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 8.6 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 16.7 sec @ 86 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 118 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 191 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.77 g
EPA city/highway driving: 47/47 mpg
C/D observed: 32 mpg
TEST NOTES: Given its size, weight, and excellent drivability, the hybrid’s 47-mpg EPA ratings are impressive. Cornering and braking abilities are, unfortunately, limited.
View Photo Gallery