At last fall's AJAC TestFest, the winning entry in the 2013 Best New City Car category was the all-electric Ford Focus EV. I drove one and thought it was okay, if a little underwhelming. But when I got home to spend some extended seat time in one, a funny thing happened on my way to pick it up: it wasn't there.
Apparently, the charging unit on board the car wasn't functioning, and it couldn't be recharged. It was dead in the water, which confirmed my deepest fears about all-electric cars: they are not ready for prime time simply because battery technology is just not up to speed.
However, as a consolation prize, I did get to take a turn at Ford's C-Max Hybrid, which, as it turns out, makes more sense anyway, and probably should have won its category at TestFest. It didn't, coming in third, behind the Mazda3 Sport and Hyundai Elantra GT.
For one thing, it costs $10,000 less than the Focus EV; for another, it doesn't need to be plugged in for a recharge because, like a proper hybrid, it recharges itself; and – surprise – it's fun to drive. To a point.
This is thanks in large measure to a purported 188-horsepower hybrid drive that is similar to the same unit utilized in Ford's Fusion Hybrid. In the 1,640-kilogram C-Max, it actually gives the car a bit of a performance dimension and it has some snap. Unofficial acceleration runs revealed 0-100 km/h times in the eight- to 10-second range, which, for a sensible-shoes hybrid, is decent. Faster than the Toyota Prius, for example.
With a 2.0-litre engine mated to an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack for motivation, Ford is claiming that the C-Max Hybrid can run on pure battery power up to about 100 km/h. That was not my experience, but 80 km/h is definitely within the ballpark, which gives it a leg up on most of the competition. The transition between battery and internal-combustion power while on the highway is unobtrusive and, on that score, the C-Max is as refined as the Prius.
Like the Prius, the engine in the C-Max employs Atkinson technology, which means the valves stay open a smidgeon longer to increase engine efficiency and improve fuel economy. This is usually at the expense of performance, but in this application it doesn't make much difference.
It'd be groovy if the C-Max had a proper transmission instead of a CVT, but there it is. I suspect Ford's thinking is that the CVT reduces overall weight and, anyway, most buyers in this segment likely couldn't care less one way or another.
Elsewhere, the C-Max is well equipped. Standard equipment includes tilt/telescoping steering, air conditioning, split/folding rear seat, one-touch up/down power front windows, speed-sensitive volume control on the stereo, and Ford's dumbed-down Sync/MyTouch system.
My tester, an SEL, also came with a rear-view camera, keyless start, upgraded sound system and Ford's cool power remote tailgate feature. This last item is pretty slick; if you've got an armful of groceries or whatever and need to get the back hatch open, just stick your foot under the rear of the car, and presto. Nice. It doesn't work until the car has been unlocked, so you still have to get out your remote key fob, but it's a good idea, nonetheless. All of these goodies come with the Equipment Group package 303A and will set you back an additional $2,500.
Inside, there is all kinds of room. The C-Max will seat five and, with the back seat folded, 1,538 litres of cargo space is revealed. By way of comparison, a Prius v boasts more than 1,900 litres.
Speaking of the Prius v, according to Natural Resources Canada, it delivers 4.3 litres/100 km in town and 4.8 on the highway. The C-Max, in comparison, is slightly thriftier, at 4.0 city/4.1 highway.
Pricewise, the Prius v starts in the $27,000 range – as does the C-Max. My fully equipped SEL came in at just less than $35,000, which is comparable to a middle-range Luxury Prius v. Like all fuel economy ratings, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
Which one would I choose? I don't know, but the point is that there actually is a choice. Toyota has owned the hybrid market up to this point. Various competitors, such as Honda and Hyundai have come forward, but none have been able to mount a proper challenge to the Prius and go head-to-head with it.
The C-Max may signal an end to that.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid SEL
Base Price: $30,119; as tested: $34,749
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder with electric motor
Horsepower/torque: 188 hp/129 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.0 city/4.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Prius V, Honda Insight, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid, Chevrolet Volt