Mr. Green Car: C-Max — Ford’s answer to the Prius-v

The Ford C-Max is based on the Ford Focus chassis. (Photos by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

Once again, Mr. Green Car has found his way to a small-town car dealership for a test drive of a new fuel-efficient vehicle.

Recently, I journeyed to Fairway Ford in Freeport, Ill., where I met up with Sales Manager Phil Vittorio to take the new Ford C-Max for a short drive. When I arrived, the dealership, that has been in business under one name or another since the 1940s, was in full promotional event mode — including a Santa Claus wandering about. Phil kindly took time to show me a new car he was obviously proud of.

At first, it looked as though the C-Max was going to be another mini-van. The European version has seven seats and sliding doors. But the North American version is a hybrid-only five-passenger four-door hatchback. Based on the Focus chassis (but it is not a “Focus”), this larger vehicle is intended to confront the hot-selling Prius-v head on. To that end, the base version, the SE, has a base price of $25,200. That’s about $1,300 less than the equivalent Toyota Prius. However, the car Phil and I were to tool around the Freeport countryside in was a fully-optioned SEL version that window stickers at a base price of $28,200 with $5,250 in options and freight, bringing the price to $34,245. This is in the same range as the Prius-v in full trim, too.

Right off, I was impressed by the general layout of the seating (heated leather) and overall functionality of the layout. The rear seat backs fold down 60/40 split, and Phil delighted in showing me the feature where you put your foot under the rear bumper to make the rear hatch pop open. A great feature for when you return with an arm full of Christmas presents from some power shopping at the mall. Like many new cars, they sense you are near with the key fob in your pocket, and that allows it to unlock/use this feature. Likewise, the keyless ignition was a large start/stop button on the dashboard.

Controls were all exceptionally well placed and fairly clear as to what their function was. I liked that the heating and air conditioning controls were on the console and not part of the touch-screen system. Regular readers know I’m fond of analog display speedometers — the C-Max’s was great, using blue accents and flanked by LCD screens on either side with a variety of information that is controlled by two cursors on the steering wheel. The left side showed data and what was happening at that moment, while the right side was mostly dedicated to a “green” encouragement system that earned leaves as you drove gently.

Most hybrids feature these encouragement systems — and some people do like them. Over on the center stack was a large 8-inch infotainment display (4-inch on the SE version). In reverse, the screen shows what is behind you and shows where you are headed. It can also show any traffic coming from the sides and alert you to traffic hiding in your blind spots. It takes some getting accustomed to the notion that you don’t really need to turn around and look out the back window. The screen is also where you control the Ford MyTouch electronics accessories of every sort — and it has them all. I even noted there were jacks in the armrest for plugging in a DVD player. It could also hold a Minuteman missile down in there as well!

As with most hybrid drives, we rolled away without use of the engine. Since it was mostly a country drive, I did not get much start and stop driving, but the C-Max does use the electric motor extensively while under way.

After our photo shoot at the Freeport Albertus Airport, the C-Max rolled nearly a mile at 30 mph without the engine starting — and that was with the heater running and the headlights on.

Phil kept emphasizing how important the regenerative braking was to keeping the lithium-ion battery full and making best use of the EV mode (there is not actually an EV mode you can switch on/off, as the Prius-v has).

As Phil pointed out, people need to learn to drive a bit differently: “It’s a new way of driving for most folks,” he said.

Basically, you try to coast as much as possible instead of zooming up to some point and mashing on the brakes. I did not notice the braking as being anything but seamless — although I’ve read a report that claimed the regenerative brakes were a bit aggressive in traffic, making for a jerky ride. I did not see it.

Ford claims the C-Max can reach 62 mph in EV mode. I did notice that its 188 horsepower, 2.0-liter engine did a good job of accelerating to highway speeds. It is considerably more powerful than the Prius, yet turns in 47 mpg city or highway MPG — quite a feat in a car this size.

Later this year, we may see a plug-in version of the C-Max that will have the battery capacity to go 20 miles in EV mode. With this, the average Freeport resident could probably get by without using gasoline at all until they head out of town. Undoubtedly, it would add considerable expense to the price — but if gasoline goes back over $4 per gallon, you may be happy you bought that option. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims driving a C-Max will save you $1,170 per year in fuel cost compared to the average vehicle. The EPA also gives the C-Max the highest (10 of 10) score for Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. So, whichever C-Max you drive, you’ll be saving money and helping the planet.

At the end of the drive, I turned to Phil and said, “I’ve got nothing to complain about.” Usually, I find something to be critical of, but I really liked the car and found it very appealing.

I’ve read some gripes about the MyFord system — but I don’t mess with that stuff — so I have no opinion. I suspect it takes a little figuring out, then you can do all those things with your smart phone while driving that you do at home.

I’ve hardly touched the surface of all the features of the C-Max, so you’ll need to check it out if you are interested. Even without the plug-in package, a careful driver and limited use of power-consuming features (lights, air conditioning), you may be able to roll around Freeport on your average errand with barely using a cupful of fuel — maybe none at all. And that is progress.

From the Dec. 12-18, 2012, issue

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