AutomobilesExtra

[ROAD TEST] Ford C-MAX Energi: A shot into the Prius stronghold

“Hum hum, it’s a Prius for everyone”, says the cheerful Prius commercial jingle. Ever since I got the keys to the Ford C-MAX Energi, I’ve been noticing the work of Toyota’s marketing department on YouTube more than ever!

So everyone and their grandma knows what a Prius is, but what is a C-MAX? Keep on reading to find out why my test vehicle may be a thorn in Toyota’s side.

Think of the Ford C-MAX as a tall Focus wagon. In Europe they call it a mini-MPV (Multi Purpose Vehicle). Over in Canada, Ford terms it an MAV (Multi Activity Vehicle).

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Regardless of what you call it, there aren’t really many competitors that match the C-MAX Energi point-for-point, aside from the Toyota Prius V. However, even that doesn’t have the ability to plug-in. Only the regular Prius hatchback has that option.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class and Kia Rondo may look similar physically, but both aren’t offered with hybrid powertrains.

This tall Ford Focus wagon description wouldn’t be too far from the truth because the C-MAX is based on the nimble Focus platform but with a higher roof design.

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As many of you who frequent our blog may know, I reviewed the Ford Focus ST a while ago and raved about it’s nimble handling and its eagerness to change directions quickly (in a good way). The C-MAX shares this same DNA and is surprisingly fun to drive, especially considering its hybrid powertrain.

Hybrid Technology and Innovations

For North America, the C-MAX only comes in hybrid or plug-in hybrid form (aka the Energi). Much like the Ford Fusion Energi that I reviewed a little while ago, this C-MAX uses the same hybrid powerplant with the ability to plug into a standard 120 volt wall outlet or a 240 volt quick charger to charge the battery.

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When designing the C-MAX hybrids, Ford’s engineers analysed over 804,000 kms of data collected from their Escape plug-in test fleet. The result is a Ford in-house designed system that does not use different pieces of software and hardware made by different parties. The idea is that everything talks to each other seamlessly because they were designed to be together by the same engineering team.

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There is a 141hp 129 lb-ft 2.0L inline-4 cylinder gasoline powered engine, and supplementing it is a 118hp 117 lb-ft permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor powered by a 7.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack.

In comparison, to our plug-in tester, the non-plugin C-MAX hybrid comes only with a 1.4kWh battery pack. This is similar to the Fusion hybrid but marginally bigger than the Prius. Both the C-MAX hybrid model and the Energi plugin share combined power ratings of 188hp when both electric and gas motors are working together.

While both C-MAX models rely on rely on lithium-ion battery technology, the Energi is fitted with a battery designed for recharging and prolonged discharged when the used as a 100% pure Electric Vehicle (EV). The normal hybrid has a much smaller battery tuned for only shorter bursts of juice.

In comparison to the Toyota Prius V, the Ford is significantly up on power. In fact, the C-MAX’s gas engine alone makes more power than the Prius V’s entire combined power rating!

The Toyota has a 1.8L inline-4 cylinder engine with 98hp and 105 lb-ft of torque. Its electric powertrain is a permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor rated at only 80 hp and 153 lb-ft of torque. Battery capacity in the Toyota is a 1.3kWh nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Less efficient than the Ford’s lithium ion batteries pound for pound.

It seems a bit moot to talk about horsepower comparisons when it comes to these fuel sippers, but it does add to the fun-to-drive nature of the C-MAX over the Prius V without necessarily burning more fuel.

Driving dynamics

Apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because the C-MAX Energi drives very similarly to the Focus. Despite a rather portly 3899-pound curb weight, handling is quite good indeed.

There is far less understeer than expected from a front wheel driver with low rolling resistance tires. The steering is quick and connected enough, and it’s very easy to place the C-MAX on the road and through the twisty bits. I found it much more fun to drive than it’s Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid stablemate.

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Despite its height, you can feel confident pushing it through the twisties and having some fun. But push it too hard and you will feel the weight eventually.

Torsional rigidity of the body structure is substantial, and you can feel this too when you push the C-MAX through the corners. On rough surfaces, bumps get soaked up in a European firm fashion, but there is enough dampening to still make the ride comfortable.

The C-MAX also benefits from many standard active safety and driver-assist technologies including Curve Control (designed to slow you down if you’re cornering too fast), Torque Vectoring Control (though there isn’t enough power for torque steer), and AdvanceTrac stability control with Roll Stability Control (to prevent rollovers; a technology borrowed from Volvo when Ford used to own them).

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In the Fusion Energi, I complained about the engine noise when the eCVT transmission held the gas engine at high RPMs upon heavy acceleration. I didn’t have this complaint in the C-MAX. Engine noise seemed to be dampened better and was a distant hum unless you stabbed the accelerator hard. The electric motor is all but silent aside from some spaceship-like wind down noises at low speeds. Cool! For the most part, the gas engine only kicks in upon heavy acceleration during passing or hill climb maneuvers when you are in “Auto” EV/Hybrid or “EV later” mode.

Compared to its main competitor, the C-MAX Energi is much more engaging than the Toyota Prius V which is efficient but boring. As a car guy, I appreciated that the C-MAX drives like a regular small hatchback, rather than an appliance vehicle that just gets you from point A to B.

Electric Vehicle Experience

Most of my thoughts about the C-MAX’s Electric Vehicle experience mirror my Fusion Energi review. Click over to it to see what I had to say.

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In my tests, I found that despite the same powertrain, as a pure EV and on the same trip to and from my office, the C-MAX Energi was less efficient with its battery usage than the Fusion Energi. On the same route from home to the office, I averaged approximately a 7% more battery usage compared to Fusion. This could be due to the less aerodynamic shape of the C-MAX compared to the Fusion.

I’m still a huge fan of Ford’s high tech looking four-quadrant LED haloed electric charge port. A blue LED ring surrounds the plug and lights up in 4 different stages to signify how complete the battery is charged up.

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A HUGE differentiator is that unlike the Fusion Energi, the C-MAX Energi’s trunk is actually still highly usable. Instead of stealing trunk space from all 3 dimensions (length, depth and height), the C-MAX Energi’s battery pack only steals height. It’s raised about 8” up from the base load floor.

The result is that the Energi’s plug-in battery pack only uses up an extra 5 cubic feet of extra space versus the regular hybrid’s (Black vehicle)

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Technical specs-wise, the C-MAX Hybrid has 1,538 litres (54.3 cubic feet) of space behind the first row and 705 litres (24.9 cubic feet) behind the second row. In the C-MAX Energi, there is 1,226 litres (43.3 cubic feet) behind the first row and 541 litres (19.1 cubic feet) behind the second row.

Even though the C-Max doesn’t offer as much cargo capacity as the Prius V (67.3 with the 60/40-split rear seats folded down), there’s still plenty of room. Not bad considering the C-MAX is about a foot shorter than the Prius V. Note that the C-MAX’s luggage space is almost double that of a Chevy Volt.

Interior and tech features

Inside the cabin, you’ll find a Focus-derived cockpit and gearshift lever. This is good news as there are real buttons on the dash (not touch sensitive ones), and everything is where you would expect it to be.

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Interior plastics are of high quality for this price point, and gone are the days of Rubbermaid disposable Tupperware textures in the Ford “world cars” (i.e. models slated for global consumption, not just North America).

Our car was equipped with Ford’s MyTouch with SYNC and navigation, Sirius satellite radio, push-button start and Active Park Assist. We also had the excellent backup camera with active guidelines mounted on Ford’s trick handsfree power liftgate.

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But sharing the Focus’ design means that the deep plastic shroud that surrounds the 8” MyTouch LCD screen is back, and it annoyingly obscures information being displayed on the lower left hand edge of the touchscreen.

For the 2nd row passengers, there are two auxiliary air vents and a 115 volt AC power inverter at the back of the centre console. Perfect for plugging in cell phone chargers, DVD players, laptop computers, etc. With its tall greenhouse and more upright seating position, there is more than enough room for two six footers to sit comfortably despite in the 2nd row the car’s compact dimensions. In fact, Ford boasts that four 6 footers can comfortably fit in the C-MAX without banging their heads, knees, or shins.

Safety-wise, you get 7 airbags including a driver’s knee airbag. The MyTouch SYNC system also has a feature called SYNC 911 which uses hands-free phone capabilities to connect the driver directly with a local 911 operator through the Bluetooth paired phone should an accident occur in which an airbag deploys.

Price comparisons

Our C-MAX Energi SEL has a base price of $35,749. A few optional extras such as Sony premium audio and Ford’s MyTouch system with Navigation, Rearview camera, Bluetooth, a Power Liftgate with handsfree sensor brings in an as tested price of $39,199.

In comparison, the non-plugin C-MAX hybrid has a base price of $25,949, slotting in neatly between the price of a Toyota Prius hatchback and the Prius V. Ford clearly wants customers to think of the C-MAX as a ‘tweener, and as far as physical size is concerned, it slots in similarly with the Prius hatchback and the V.

Points for improvement

Like most vehicles, there are a couple of niggles that I take issue with. One of them would be the terrible turning circle for the size of vehicle. While Ford officially reports it as just 35.8 feet, I found myself doing 3 point turns just to get into the same parking spots that I park my personal vehicle in (which does actually have a turning circle of 35+ feet). Other reviewers have reported that the actual turning radius is closer to 39 feet lock-to-lock and I believe them!

Fortunately the front parking sensors and the rear sensors combined with the excellent backup camera helped me to keep the paint intact on my test vehicle. Too bad the active park assist buttons are tiny and hidden in the ventilation controls

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My second niggle would be about the C-MAX’s brake pedal feel. Like the Fusion Energi, the transition between the friction brakes and regenerative braking system is totally seemless. The engineers have earned their pay cheques here. But I found the C-MAX’s pedal grabby and more difficult to modulate than the Fusion Energi. The first quarter inch of travel feels artificial and required a light touch to avoid pinning your passengers against their seatbelts

Finally, I suppose the sun visors could be a bit longer when flipped to the side windows. Due to the tall greenhouse, the lack of extensions meant that there is a 2-3” gap between the B-pillar and the edge of the sun visor that allows sunlight to stream in and potentially shine onto your face.

Recommendations

If you’re looking for a fuel sipper that is practical, spacious, fun to drive and most of your trips are of the longer variety, go for the non-plugin C-MAX hybrid.

Like the Fusion Energi, you do pay a hefty premium for the benefit of being able to plug-in the C-MAX Energi. But if you plan on using the C-MAX Energi as a pure EV and you plan on plugging in most of the time like I did in my week long test, the Energi will pay itself back much quicker. I only used 8.22L of fuel in over 267 kms.

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What you can also add to the equation (though perhaps not in dollars and cents) is the fact that most public quick chargers are located much closer to store/bank/mall entrances! So you’ll also get the best parking spots available, presuming no one else is charging there. In crappy weather conditions, it’s definitely an added bonus.

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Regardless of what you choose to buy here, the real winners are the environment and your wallet. The only losers here are the oil and gas companies.

I applaud Ford for firing a direct shot across Toyota’s bow. The C-MAX is a true challenge to the venerable Toyota’s Prius trio and Toyota shouldn’t be humming too freely anymore!

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My ratings (each category out of 10)

Power: 7

Handling: 7

Ride comfort: 8

Controls: 8

Quality: 8

Fuel consumption: 10

Technology: 8

Value for money: 6.5

TOTAL: 62.5/80

 

 

Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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