SAN FRANCISCO – The ’13 Ford C-Max did not have the type of launch Ford had hoped, with reports surfacing the new hybrid does not achieve advertised 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km) city/highway fuel economy in real-world driving.

That’s a shame, because the C-Max is the first truly viable competitor to the Toyota Prius, which dominates hybrid sales in the U.S.

Prius deliveries totaled 172,690 units through November, while the second-best selling HEV in the U.S. was the Toyota Camry hybrid with just 41,201, according to WardsAuto data.

The C-Max, on the market since October, posted sales of 7,596 units through November and represents Ford’s first dedicated hybrid. It also is available as a plug-in hybrid, dubbed the C-Max Energi.

Previously, Ford only offered electrified versions of its mainstream vehicles, such as the Escape and Fusion, arguing hybrid buyers didn’t want to stand out from the crowd.

Although there are no conventional powertrains available with the C-Max in the U.S., the vehicle’s subdued sheet metal ensures owners still will blend in with the rest of traffic.

The C-Max exterior borrows design cues from the new ’13 Fusion midsize sedan and small Focus, including the gaping grille and sweptback headlamps, but boasts a higher roofline.

That taller profile and command-style seating makes the car feel roomier than the exterior suggests. The optional panoramic roof ($1,995) only adds to that impression.

Seating options in the 5-passenger sedan include a split, fold-flat second row that turns 24.5 cu.-ft. (0.6 cu.-m) of cargo room into 54.3 cu.-ft. (1.5 cu.-m) with the seat down.

The extra space is welcome and could be a game changer for hybrid shoppers looking for versatility and fuel economy.

The C-Max Energi sacrifices some of that space to house its larger lithium-ion battery pack, which stows below the rear floor. Cargo room measures a maximum 43.4 cu.-ft. (1.2 cu.-m), with 19.2 cu.-ft. (0.5 cu.-m) available with the second row upright.

The interior is well-crafted, with soft-touch surfaces and quality materials, but doesn’t raise the bar in its segment.

However, what is exceptional for the hybrid class is the updated version of Ford’s innovative SmartGauge with EcoGuide.

Designed to help drivers squeeze out every drop of fuel efficiency from the C-Max, SmartGauge not only displays information such as instantaneous fuel economy, it offers a braking coach to help drivers optimize performance of the car’s regenerative braking system.

A similar screen on the opposite side of the main gauge shows leaves growing on vines as a graphic display of how efficiently the car is being driven. This feature has been on Ford hybrids for awhile yet remains one of the most innovative displays on the market.

Both the C-Max hybrid and plug-in are powered by a 2.0L Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. engine paired with a Li-ion battery.

The Energi’s 7.6 kWh pack, more than five times the size of the hybrid’s 1.4 kWh unit, allows it to run in electric-only mode for up to 21 miles (33 km) at speeds up to 85 mph (136 km/h). Energi drivers can select to drive in full electric, allow the car’s computer to decide the best blend of electricity and gas or choose a setting that runs only on the gasoline engine.

The C-Max Energi can be charged fully in just 2.5 hours from a 240V power source. The Toyota Prius plug-in requires only 1.5 hours, but gets far less electric-only range.

Both the C-Max and C-Max Energi offer a dynamic driving experience that’s superior to most electrified vehicles, though the Energi feels bulkier than the base C-Max in cornering as a result of its larger, heavier battery that adds another 259 lbs. (117 kg) to the car’s curb weight.

Ford’s electric power-assist-steering system works well in the C-Max pair. Steering is direct and precise, traits often lacking in other EPAS-equipped vehicles.

However, the Ford-engineered HF35 hybrid continuously variable transmission sucks some of the fun out of the driving. Although superior to the Aisin-sourced gearbox in previous Ford hybrids, throttle-response still lags with the homegrown unit.

Power output for both vehicles is identical – 141 hp and 129 lb.-ft. (175 Nm) of torque – and provides brisk acceleration off the line, especially when torque-happy pure-electric mode is selected.

Spirited driving is possible in the C-Max. But when it comes to hybrids, fuel economy is the top purchase consideration.

The C-Max delivers here, too. The controversy surrounding the car’s mileage rating was ignited by a report from influential buying guide Consumer Reports, which claimed its test drivers were unable to match the car’s ballyhooed 47 mpg.

We weren’t either, but fuel economy did track at a respectable 39.7 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) during spirited driving on steep canyon roads here. During testing in Michigan for the annual Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition, editors achieved 49.3 mpg (4.7 L/100 km) with the C-Max Energi plug-in.

The combination of performance, versatility and fuel economy could be enough to lure in hybrid buyers, particularly considering the car’s competitive pricing: $28,200 for the hybrid and $32,950 for the plug-in.

The ’13 C-Max proves Ford has what it takes to go head-to-head with Toyota in the hybrid segment, but dethroning the Prius with its legion of followers will be no easy task.

bpope@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Ford C-Max
Vehicle type 4-door, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger hybrid cross/utility vehicle
Engine 2.0L DOHC Atkinson inline 4-cyl. gas engine; permanent magnet AC synchronous motor
Power (SAE net) 141 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 129 lb.-ft. (175 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 87.55 x 83.1
Compression ratio 12.3:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 104.3 ins. (264.9 cm)
Overall length 173.6 ins. (440.9 cm)
Overall width 72.0 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height 63.9 ins. (162 cm)
Curb weight 3,640 lbs. (1,651 kg)
Base price $28,200
Fuel economy 47/47 (5.0 L/100/km) city/highway
Competition Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt, Honda Insight
Pros Cons
Solid fuel economy Mileage under scrutiny
Improved hybrid transmission Still needs work
Plug-in available Adds weight