Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ford C-Max -- A Prius Alternative

The Toyota Prius has been successful partly because it offers something better--and is now an iconic presence on the road. Even people who don't own one or have even been in one know that a Prius is a hybrid that gets great mileage and is environmentally friendly.

Well, who says the Prius has to have all the attention? Ford has offered numerous hybrid alternatives, most notably the compact Fusion sedan and Escape SUV, but those cars look almost exactly like the gas-only versions and can't match the Prius' posted 50 mpg.

Ford has decided to build the Europe-designed C-Max in Wayne, Michigan. The C-Max is a compact but tall four-door hatchback, and will sell only as a hybrid in the U.S. And it not only looks like a member of the new Ford family--it stands apart as a hybrid only. Now the marketing people can take over and create a recognizable brand.

It's a very nice vehicle, as I discovered with a week of driving one. My Blue Candy Metallic Tint Clearcoat SEL model had the feel of a new car but also the familiarity of what a hybrid is supposed to be. The side window line was pretty close to a Prius, I have to admit, but the nose has the new Aston Martin" grille appearance--although it sits low on the prominent plastic bumper, close to the road. 

The real point of a hybrid, of course, is to get high fuel economy and drive clean while you're doing it. There may be a bit of "hey, look at me, I'm driving a hybrid," too, and Ford's high-tech screen actually thanks you for driving a hybrid!

Like a good hybrid should, the C-Max mates a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor to make your fuel fill-ups take you further. The Prius has made a point of showing you a screen of wheels turning and where the energy is coming from and where it's going. The C-Max doesn't, but has a coach to guide in in driving intelligently. It shows you how much power is in the battery and displays when you're charging it by regenerating power while braking. It even tells you the percentage of energy you regenerated. One screen on the highly-configurable MyFordTouch instrument panel lets you grow leaves with your good driving behavior.

The airy cabin is welcome--and a buyer expectation from dedicated hybrids. The windshield goes way forward and there are little triangular panes in the substantial pillars. The various angles and surfaces in Ford of today are always moving your eyes around the cabin, so you don't get bored. The tall ceiling also lends a sense of connection with the outside, but you won't hear much from there. And, when the car's using the electric motor only, it's blissful silence.

Ford's SYNC system is a fascinating look at the future (and some might even say the present) of automotive technology. The problem is, it's frustrating to use. I spent substantial time testing the voice commands for the audio system, navigation system and climate control. I asked for an artist and sometimes got the wrong person. I set up a destination via voice and the car actually took me to the wrong address.

But when it worked, it was satisfying, and even when the system let me down, I kept going back for more. It discovered that it works a lot like software, in that you need to move from one screen to another, systematically. It would be great if the system understood a sentence and didn't need to be fed a series of commands, such as "Audio > USB > Sirius > artist > song." Ford has taken a hit for confusing and confounding its buyers, but this is exciting--even if it feels like we drivers are working as Ford's beta testers.

The car is listed by the EPA as averaging 47 miles per gallon (and the same for City and Highway ratings). Sadly, with my long stop-and-go commutes and in-town driving, I averaged just 37.9 mpg over my test week. That's actually great--and better than virtually any other car I've driven, but the Prius does better and the sticker said 47.

Perhaps it makes more sense to compare the C-Max to the new Prius V, which is more wagon-shaped. My test of a 2012 Prius V recently came up with 38.8 mpg--pretty much a wash.

The Prius has never been been renowned for it's sporty driving experience despite its undeniable competence at everything else. That may be the Ford's biggest selling point. The car handles tautly, and feels more alive on the road. Of course, you're up high, so it's not like a sports car, but the steering is more direct than the Toyota and the engine feels responsive.

At this point, C-Max models include the SE and the SEL, but a plug-in hybrid model is coming soon. Like the Prius Plug-In, it offers fuel-free motoring for a limited distance and you can charge it with a plug and cord to make that happen. For folks not intending on traveling major distances routinely, it could offer the advantages of an all-electric car with the freedom to add fuel and take off for wherever you want.

Prices for a C-Max SE start at $25,200. The SEL, with additional content, starts at $28,200. My car had a $3,080 optional equipment group that included Premium Audio and Navigation, a power liftgate, keyless entry, the high-tech parking technology package, and the charming and aggravating hands-free technology package. Like a Prius, the price range starts out fairly reasonable and moves into entry luxury territory in a hurry.

The C-Max is a new entry in the American car market, and seems to have the right ingredients. Perhaps passing on the SYNC voice interaction would be a good plan, but for hauling your family and gear--with some driving satisfaction--it seems poised for success.

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