LOS ANGELES – Ford expects its upcoming C-Max hybrid-electric cross/utility vehicle to grab sales from Toyota’s segment-leading Prius hybrid, says Michael O’Brien-electrification marketing manager.

That’s a bold statement considering the Prius accounted for the majority of hybrid and hybrid plug-in deliveries in the U.S. through July, with a commanding 47.8% market share of the electrified-vehicle segment, according to WardsAuto data. In comparison, the Ford Fusion hybrid sedan garnered a 2.3% share.

However, the gap is narrowed by the fact the hybrid market accounts for only 3.1% of U.S. light-vehicle sales.

Despite Toyota’s grip on the segment with the Prius, whose 4-model range includes the Prius V wagon, Prius C and Prius plug-in, O’Brien says Ford sees opportunity. “There are a lot of folks that have indicated they are very interested in hybrids but felt they were compromising,” he tells WardsAuto at a media event here.

“This product is not first to market, but best to market in lot of different ways, so if they’re interested in the technology and couldn’t get it before, they can now on (the) C-Max,” O’Brien says.

Fuel economy is another consideration. Ford says the C-Max’s 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km) combined fuel-economy rating bests the Prius V by as much as 7 mpg (3 km/L).

Price is a battle Ford also expects to win. The C-Max will start at $25,995, compared with $27,295 for the Prius V. If a hybrid shopper is looking for more power, “we get 54 more horsepower than a Prius, with the C-Max (rated at) 188 hp,” O’Brien says.

Ford has concentrated on driving dynamics as well with the new C-Max. O’Brien says in-house research indicates many car buyers are put off by hybrids because they lack the “fun-to-drive” factor.

“The C-Max is a great car to sit in and a great car to drive, so we think we’ve addressed a lot of the reasons customers have shied away in the past,” O’Brien says.

While he declines to say whether the C-Max can dethrone the Prius as the leading U.S. hybrid, O’Brien believes hybrid buyers “are savvy folks” who “do their homework” and expects the C-Max to succeed.

The C-Max is a departure from Ford’s earlier hybrids that were variations of traditional gasoline-powered models, such as the Fusion and Escape CUV. O’Brien says the auto maker will not entirely abandon that strategy with the upcoming ’13 Fusion, which will be offered with gas, hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains.

But the C-Max will launch this fall as a hybrid, to be followed by a plug-in hybrid version late in the year, and will not be offered as a traditional gasoline-powered model. That decision is based on the success the Prius has enjoyed in the market and Ford’s theory that there are two types of hybrid buyers.

“A deeper understanding of today’s market suggests you need a clear-and-present, hybrid-only vehicle, (as well as) a vehicle on an existing nameplate for folks that don’t want to be as conspicuous or sacrifice appearance in any way, shape or form,” O’Brien says. “We have them both now.”

Ford will launch marketing for the C-Max shortly before its U.S. debut. O’Brien says there will be television, print and online elements to the campaign but declines to provide details.

He also is reluctant to speculate on volume projections other than saying Ford will build to demand. However, he does reveal there is a lot of interest in the C-Max by government, commercial and rental-car fleets, but notes the vast majority of sales are expected to be to retail customers.

Shortly after overseeing the C-Max hybrid launch, O’Brien and his team will prepare for the arrival of the C-Max Energi PHEV, which is expected to sell at lower volumes and draw a different breed of buyer.

Today’s hybrids are “more of a mainstream choice,” O’Brien says. In comparison, “we see PHEV buyers as being more technically savvy and more interested in technology.”

bpope@wardsauto.com