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The C-Max Hybrid is a compact people-mover built on the Focus platform. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
The C-Max Hybrid is a compact people-mover built on the Focus platform. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive: Ford C-Max Hybrid

The C-Max dilemma: Good things may come to those who wait Add to ...

With the demise of the Ford Escape Hybrid, this all-new C-Max Hybrid makes a lot of sense. It’s a compact people-mover built on the Focus platform that trades the faux off-road pretensions of the Escape’s SUV-ish styling for a roomier body that helps it use roughly half as much fuel as Ford’s small SUV.

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But the fuel-sipping C-Max Hybrid doesn’t make nearly as much sense for savvy buyers in Ontario, Quebec, and arguably British Columbia, some of the most gas-price-sensitive areas in the country.

How could this be? In short, because of the healthy provincial incentives on plug-in vehicles in those provinces, and because a more advanced C-Max Energi plug-in version slated to arrive by the end of 2012.

Coming in, I was disappointed that Ford decided not to bring in the C-Max seven-seater that it originally announced would be available. But after seeing the hybrid’s cargo area, with its high floor and relatively short length, it’s clear to see why. The C-Max hybrid’s cargo area is not small, but is notably tighter than its competition. It maxes out at 1,528 litres of space with the rear 60/40-split seat-backs completely folded, compared to a neighbourhood closer to 1,900 litres for its key rivals, and the Escape.

The room back there is wide and nicely unobstructed, but the lithium-ion battery and its associated hardware components create a noticeably higher cargo floor in an area that is not overly deep to start. Sure, there’s a flip-up panel that gives back some of the space eaten up by the higher floor. But it’s a sign of a hybrid done on the cheap, by modifying an existing gas-only vehicle to hybrid use.

Climbing into to our C-Max Hybrid base model (SE) reinforced this penny-pinching impression, with fabric seats that are made out of a natural soy foam material, but look like bargain-bin specials. Up-level SELs nearby looked much more refined inside, and both C-Max interiors were vastly more aesthetically pleasing than the Prius v’s centre-mounted monochromatic digital dash.

But as we explored the C-Max over a short morning driving session, handy touches emerged, such as a 110-volt three-prong plug in the back seat, an optional power-operated lift-gate that can open with the wiggle of your foot under the bumper, and a self-parking system. The futuristic but still finicky MyFord Touch system is also available, as is an impressive panoramic sunroof, all of which are thankfully not confined to the $30,199 SEL trim level.

The cargo area is notably smaller than the Prius v, which Ford bravely brought out at the C-Max’s press preview for comparison, and the Ford doesn’t have rear seats that slide fore and aft for more flexible cargo-versus-occupant space. But overall passenger room is greater in the Ford than in its maxi-Prius nemesis.

Both of these hybrid family haulers start at just less than $29,000 in Canada, after freight. In the United States, the C-Max Hybrid starts at a more compelling $1,300 below the biggest Prius.

Behind the wheel, the C-Max Hybrid is no powerhouse, with its 188 hp from its 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle engine, but it’s not painfully slow either, though Ford doesn’t recommend you tow with it.

This gas-electric hybrid is more about fuel economy anyway. With very leisurely driving, we managed to see a dashboard fuel consumption rating as high as 45 mpg (5.2 litres/100 km), though some in our group managed to get into the low 60 mpg range (3.9 litres/100 km). We had a Ford engineer sitting in the back who coached us on fuel-saving techniques, though we were obviously missing some of the finer points of hybrid hyper-miling.

Officially, Natural Resources Canada rates the C-Max Hybrid at 4.0 city/4.1 highway (figures have not been released for the plug-in C-Max Energi). Using more realistic American EPA numbers, the C-Max Hybrid manages 5.0 in both city and highway measures, just beating out the Prius v’s 5.6 overall average. That’s a major improvement over the hot-selling, similarly sized Ford Escape, which averages between 9.0 and 9.4 litres/100 km in front-wheel-drive form, says the EPA, even with its highly hyped EcoBoost engines.

The next level of fuel savings will come a couple months after the C-Max’s scheduled October arrival, when the plug-in C-Max Energi is slated to land in dealers. It will offer up to 32 kilometres of all-electric range on a full charge, as well as a top speed of 135 km/h in its driver-selectable electron-only mode. Depending on your commute, it could conceivably take you home and back without using a drop of gasoline, especially if your place of work is amenable to you plugging in to a regular 110-volt outlet during the day. And when the engine does come on, you’ll be using fuel at the same miserly rate as the regular C-Max Hybrid.

Starting at $36,999, the C-Max Energi will be eligible for a $5,808 rebate from the governments of Ontario and Quebec. This will lower the price to $31,191, compared to the similarly equipped C-Max Hybrid SEL at $30,199. So, for a thousand bucks over a well-equipped C-Max Hybrid, waiting a couple of months to try the C-Max Energi in those provinces is a no-brainer.

The more modest $2,500 rebate in B.C. makes the C-Max Energi a tougher call over a C-Max Hybrid if you’re primarily looking for a quick fuel savings payback. I’d never recommend a vehicle without driving it first, and haven’t yet sampled a C-Max Energi, whose larger battery cuts into cargo room even more than a non-plug C-Max. But the numbers all point to patience being a particularly valuable virtue with C-Max buyers, especially in central Canada.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid SE

Type: Compact five-seat gas-electric crossover

Base price: $27,199; as tested, $33,249 (estimated), including $1,550 freight

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four-cylinder, Atkinson cycle

Horsepower/torque: 188 hp/129 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 5.0 city/5.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5 SkyActiv, Nissan Rogue, Toyota Prius v

 
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