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Ford C-Max poses true competition to beloved Toyota Prius

The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid shares platforms with

The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid shares platforms with Ford's popular Focus compact car and Escape SUV. Credit:

Few automakers have taken a direct shot at Toyota's green icon, the Prius hybrid, but now Ford has: It's the 2013 C-Max Hybrid, and it's a worthy effort.

Earlier plans to bring a seven-seat C-Max minivan from overseas were scrapped, and now the C-Max comes as a hybrid and a C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, each with five seats. Ford has targeted the plus-sized Prius v as the C-Max's primary competitor, but it's priced closer to the Prius, so you might shop it against both -- or a well-equipped Honda Insight, for that matter.

C-Max trims include the SE and SEL; we tested a well-optioned SEL.

That's One Tall Hatch

The C-Max shares platforms with Ford's popular Focus compact car and Escape SUV, and the styling similarities are obvious. Its profile falls somewhere between the two. It's essentially a very tall hatchback, with a roofline 6.2 inches higher than the Focus and 2.4 inches short of the Escape. It's a stubby profile, too, coming in substantially shorter, bumper-to-bumper, than the Prius or Prius v but wider and taller than both.

The height shows in the interior, where the driving position feels closer to an SUV than a car. The C-Max's abundant headroom is useful; I could elevate my seat high without my head scraping the ceiling in our moonroof-free test car. Alas, the A-pillars stretch far enough ahead to sit in your field of vision, spoiling some of the otherwise commanding view.

Curiously, the second row sits a lot lower. It provides a flat cargo floor when folded down, but seated adults will find their knees pointing up in the air. Given the headroom surplus, I wish Ford had elevated the seat, even if it meant a slight ledge in the cargo floor.

There's 52.6 cubic feet of maximum cargo volume with the seats folded. That figure splits the difference between the Prius' 39.6 cubic feet and the Prius v's 67.3 cubic feet. But the C-Max lacks any backseat adjustments, which the Prius v and several other hatchbacks include.

If Ford merely squeaks by in the race for versatility, it wins the cabin materials contest. From the dashboard and doors to the steering-wheel trim and headliner, the C-Max boasts handsome materials where other hybrids cheap out. The Prius and Honda Insight feel insubstantial, and even the richer Prius v has its share of cost-cutting. The C-Max is a step up.

Alas, the dashboard controls are bad news. Our test car had the latest version of the automaker's much-maligned MyFord Touch. Thankfully, Ford didn't include touch-sensitive dashboard keys in this car, but the system's touch-screen still has too many pinky-size buttons for important functions, and menu changes lag for a full second. Despite efforts to call off the search, Bluetooth hunts for phones that left the car long ago. The voice-recognition software fouls up more address entries than it gets right. And the bungles go beyond MyFord Touch; even the C-Max SE, which drops MyFord Touch, adopts a confusing jumble of stereo controls. The dual-zone climate controls on all trim levels have sunken dials that slip your grasp. It's high time for Ford to rethink its controls, whose issues -- both ergonomic and electronic -- bury other strengths.

Drivability Shines

The transition between the C-Max's electric motor and 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder feels exceptionally smooth, though acceleration from a standing start is modest. Still, the combined 188 horsepower provides enough oomph to beat semi-trucks from the merging lane. The regenerative brakes feel linear enough, as hybrid brakes go.

Ride quality is firm but controlled, and the C-Max steers exceptionally well. The wheel has substantial, hefty confidence on the highway, with precise turn-in when you cut into corners. Toss the car around, and it displays outstanding balance -- a result of Ford's masterful small-car platform. Short of the luxury field, most hybrids drive like high-mileage commuter cars. Kudos to Ford for breaking the mold.

EPA-estimated mileage for the C-Max is 47/47 mpg (city/highway), reflecting the mileage gains from regenerative braking and low-speed EV power, both of which help the city figure. Again, the C-Max splits the difference between the 50-mpg Prius and the 42-mpg Prius v.

As of this writing, the EPA was reviewing mileage ratings for the C-Max after a slew of consumer complaints (read more about it here). Our observed mileage fell short of Ford's numbers, but not by much. With temperatures in the 30s and 40s, I averaged trip-computer mileage in the low 40s over 100-plus miles of driving. Another editor reported 41.0 and 47.4 mpg over two highway commutes with temperatures in the low 30s. If you buy a C-Max and fall short of its mileage claims, shoot us an email to tell us about your experience.

Safety, Features & Pricing

The C-Max has not been crash-tested. Standard safety features include seven airbags plus the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Ford's standard MyKey system allows parents to limit vehicle speed, stereo volume and other features when their teens drive. Click here for a full list of safety features, or here for our evaluation of child-safety seat accommodations.

The C-Max SE starts around $26,000, including the destination charge. Standard features include a USB/iPod-compatible stereo, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls. Add features to the SE or step up to the SEL, and you can get a power driver's seat, heated leather upholstery, MyFord Touch, keyless access with push-button start, a power liftgate, backup camera, front and rear parking sensors with an automated parking feature, a panoramic moonroof, Sony audio and a navigation system. Load up the C-Max SEL, and the price tops out around $35,000.

C-Max in the Market

No doubt many Escape Hybrid fans were chagrined by Ford's decision to redesign the Escape without a gas-electric version. The C-Max lacks an all-wheel-drive option, but its mileage and SUV-like qualities should provide a legitimate replacement. Keep an eye on reliability: The related Focus is well below average, though many owner complaints stem from the dual-clutch automatic transmission, which the C-Max lacks. Still, our test car's check-engine light turned on thanks to a problematic fuel-filler inlet. We addressed the problem as directed in the owner's manual, but to no avail.

Will the C-Max ever reach Prius status? Unlikely. Toyota's halo hybrid has so much brand equity that the automaker could probably get people to buy a Prius pickup or roadster. Ford has a long way to go before it gets there -- but the C-Max, electronics aside, is a good start.

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