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Ford C-Max Hybrid: Driving the anti-Prius

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“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” – Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words

Through 14 years and three generations, Toyota’s all-conquering Prius has set the standard for mainstream gasoline-electric hybrids. So it might seem that the surest path to success for an automaker looking to steal some of Toyota’s hybrid momentum would be to hew as closely to the Prius formula as possible.

And yet, with the C-Max Hybrid, Ford chose a distinct path.

“I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him.” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II

The gasoline-electric C-Max states its intentions at every opportunity. It aims to out-hybrid the Prius (particularly the Prius V wagon) in every way. The C-Max strives, and largely succeeds, to present a more cohesive design than the Toyota, with more assured proportions and stance than its Japanese rival. Inside, the surroundings would be familiar to anyone with seat time Ford’s current Focus. The dashboard, with its myriad buttons and multi-level architecture, is more driver-centric than the Prius’ futuristic instrument panel, which foregoes traditional gauges for a centre-mounted stack of electronic displays. The Ford’s supportive seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel communicate an innate sense of quality and – a rare commodity in this segment – driving engagement.

Mind, the C-Max Hybrid is not a kinder, gentler 252hp Focus ST hot hatchback. There is, after all, only so much fun to be wrung from a 141-horsepower, 2-litre Atkinson four-cylinder gasoline engine matched to a continuously variable transmission and a permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor. But the five-seater is a far more engaging driver than the Prius V, accelerating with verve (thanks to a 54hp advantage in overall system horsepower) cornering ably despite weighing some 300lbs more than the V, and stopping without drama. The sprint to 60mph takes a very acceptable eight seconds, Ford estimates – a full two seconds quicker than the Toyota.

All of it adds up to an extremely impressive vehicle. But is it impressive enough?

“When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As good as the gasoline-electric C-Max is, it is likely not the car that will end the Prius’ segment dominance. Its base price is nearly $1,000 lower than the Prius V, but the car surrenders about 10cu-ft of cargo room behind the rear seats to the Prius. The C-Max also wields better electric-only capabilities than the Prius (a top speed of 62mph and longer EV-only range), and it handily wins the fuel economy ratings war, with an EPA estimate of 47mpg city, 47mpg highway and 47mpg combined. The Prius V claims 44 city, 40 highway and 42 combined. Yet while the Prius V makes good on its EPA economy figures, the C-Max, it would seem, does not.

In more than 500 miles of street and highway driving over the course of a week, the tested vehicle could manage no better than 37mpg. Yes, the C-Max pilot is more entertained, but much of the attraction to this kind of car, as the Prius continues to demonstrate, is tied not to driver engagement but to absolute efficiency. C-Max customers have been quick to note as much, going so far as to file lawsuits against Ford alleging the automaker overstated average mileage.

While by no means a failure, and by many measures the better vehicle, the C-Max Hybrid cannot hope to run with, let alone conquer, the Prius until it can reliably replicate the fuel-economy figures printed on its window sticker.

Vital stats: 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid SEL

  • Base price: $29,160, inclusive of $795 destination charge
  • As tested: $31,175
  • EPA fuel economy: 47mpg city, 47mpg highway
  • Powertrain: 141hp 2-litre Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder engine, 47-horsepower permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: 17in alloy wheels, fog lamps, SmartGauge with EcoGuide, dual-zone electronic automatic climate control, leather-trimmed heated 16-way power driver’s seat, Homelink, keyless ignition, power locks and  windows, Sync with MyFord Touch, reverse sensing system, alarm and anti-theft immobiliser
  • Major options: Equipment Group 302A (including premium audio and navigation group, hands-free technology group, power liftgate, rear-view camera, keyless entry/remote start/tailgate remote) $2,215; white platinum metallic tri-coat paint,  $495
All of it adds up to an extremely impressive vehicle. But is it impressive enough?