American consumers like nothing better than a bargain, and the ’12 Ford C-Max is a good ol’ fashioned 2-for-1, dealers say.

It affords the convenience of 7-passenger, minivan-style seating with fuel economy rivaling that of a roadster. “It’s a nice sweet spot that gives industry choice,” Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co. president-The Americas, tells Ward’s.

Phil Smith goes further. The executive vice president and general manager of Dick Smith Ford in Raytown, MO, says next year’s arrival of the C-Max – a Ford Focus C-car derivative – is welcome relief.

“As a general rule, a lot of Ford dealers kind of wish Ford hadn’t gotten out of the minivan business,” he tells Ward’s of the auto maker’s exit from the segment in 2007.

Simultaneously, the auto maker is pursuing a less-aggressive minivan market play with passenger versions of its Ford Transit Connect.

The C-Max appears on the scene as its competitive set is dwindling in the face of apparent malaise. Citing slow sales, Kia Motors America is pulling its entry, the Rondo, for model-year ’11 and beyond.

On the U.S. market since 2006, the Rondo’s best year was 2008, with 28,645 deliveries, according to Ward’s data. Through November, Kia had sold just 3,524.

Against this backdrop, Mazda North American Operations, which in 2005 defined the mini-people-mover segment in North America, will launch a second-generation Mazda5 next year.

But its sales record falls short of Rondo’s peak. The Mazda5’s best year was 2008, when the auto maker delivered 22,021 units.

Through November, Mazda5 sales tallied 18,892, barely ahead of 2009’s recession-tinged total of 18,488.

Still, most dealers are confident. Wahid Nasrat, general sales manager at San Francisco Ford in San Francisco, says customers were inquiring about the C-Max well before this week’s unveiling.

Nasrat anticipates a compact vehicle with a roomy interior will resonate in his market. “For our area, it will work perfectly,” he says, citing San Francisco’s notorious parking situation.

The C-Max, which features sliding doors, measures 178 ins. (452 cm) long, compared with 212.5 ins. (511 cm) for the Chrysler Town & Country, the nation’s best-selling minivan through November.

Ford describes the C-Max’s seating configuration as 5+2. The second row features three seating positions, but the center seat can be folded into an adjacent seat to create a walk-through space.

The third row has 2 bucket-style seats that can be omitted as a delete option.

The second and third rows also fold down to create a flat load floor, though unlike the Town & Country, they do not fold into the vehicle’s floor pan.

A Northeast region dealer, who requested anonymity, expresses to Ward’s some concern that Ford will have too many vehicles with three rows of seating.

“We’re curious about that; there’s the Flex and the Explorer,” he says, referring to the midsize Flex cross/utility vehicle and midsize Explorer SUV, which is all-new for ’11.

But Phil Smith has no such reservations. “I think, in all honesty, it will be very easy to sell,” he says.

Ford does not disclose pricing. Nor does it reveal expected fuel economy, a major consideration for a growing number of new-vehicle buyers, Smith adds, as the national average for regular-grade gasoline prices hover near $3 per gallon, nearly $0.40 higher than this time last year, according to the American Automobile Assn.

The U.S. 2010 Fuel Economy Guide gives the Town & Country a city-highway rating of 17-25 mpg (13.8-9.4 L/100 km) compared with 22-28 mpg (10.7-8.4 L/100 km) for the Mazda5, which is identical to the rating bestowed on the Mazda MX-5 roadster.

“But they also want pick-up and acceleration,” Smith says of minivan customers.

To this end, Ford offers two engine choices in the C-Max – a 170-hp direct-injection, turbocharged EcoBoost 1.6L I-4 to complement the base 2.5L I-4.

Also available on the C-Max will be an industry-first sensor-based power liftgate and active park assist, which steers the vehicles automatically.

“The C-Max is really for young families, moving up from compact sedans,” Fields says.

– with Byron Pope

emayne@wardsauto.com