FORD CHALLENGES PRIUS: Ford’s C-Max looks much like a Focus hatchback.The all-new vehicle is the company’s alternative toToyota’s highly successful Prius family.
FORD CHALLENGES PRIUS: Ford’s C-Max looks much like a Focus hatchback.The all-new vehicle is the company’s alternative toToyota’s highly successful Prius family.
: BILL GRIFFITH

Ford’s C-Max Hybrid. Great car. Terrible name. Let me explain.

At dinner recently, the question arose,“Does Ford still make the Escape hybrid?”

The answer is “No. They replaced it with the C-Max.”

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“The what…?”

It’s understandable when automakers switch to global alphanumeric naming conventions for models, but it works better the way Audi and BMW do it—using the same letters and larger numbers sequentially as vehicle size increases.

C-Max, however, doesn’t instantly evoke any brand awareness.

In fact, it’s made two unfortunate media impressions. The first came when the car was launched to claims that it would get 47 miles per gallon—highway, city, and combined—and battle Prius for mileage supremacy.

 FORD CHALLENGES PRIUS: Ford’s C-Max looks much like a Focus hatchback.The all-new vehicle is the company’s alternative toToyota’s highly successful Prius family.
FORD CHALLENGES PRIUS: Ford’s C-Max looks much like a Focus hatchback.The all-new vehicle is the company’s alternative toToyota’s highly successful Prius family.
: BILL GRIFFITH

The second came when owners sued Ford, saying that they weren’t getting 47 mpg.

Neither did I. I came close, according to the car’s on-board computer, when I was in the 44-plus mpg range while driving around town as if I had the proverbial raw egg between my foot and the accelerator.

However, the C-Max is much more than a car to be driven for such hypermiling. It’s a European-like hatchback with wonderful handling and responsive steering. Our driving included more than 100 miles on the hilly country roads of northern Connecticut last weekend.The C-Max loved it, and so did we.

When you can get about 40 mpg and have this driving experience, what’s not to like? On the big downhills, it switched to EV (electric mode); on the big uphills, it used its combination of gas and electric power (188 horsepower total) to climb with ease.

Any time there was a slow vehicle lane to the right, the C-Max eased to the left and passed easily.The same was true on the highway. Passing and merging was a snap.

Overall, we averaged 39.8 mpg, and that was without trying for economy.

With a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the power went down smoothly. The only shifting feel came when the gas engine cut in as the C-Max went from EV to gas or combined power. Then there was feedback similar to a transmission shift.

Our C-Max test car had a MSRP of $25,995 (including destination). It was well equipped with standard dual-zone automatic climate control, my-key parental control, cruise control, and blind-spot mirrors. An equipment group package ($2,290 before a $295 discount) added a power liftgate and rear park assist, ambient lighting, and MyFord Touch with navigation and satellite radio. Bottom line price was $27,990.

The C-Max also is available in a more upscale SEL trim.There’s also the plug-in Energy version that will cost in the $33,000 range.

Inside, the cloth seats and hard surfaces were of good quality.They were set off nicely with a leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob and ambient lighting. Adult rear-seat passengers were impressed with the legroom and headroom—a big plus.

The instrument panel features a hybrid gauge that gives instant mpg and also has a braking coach function that encourages gradual stops to increase the amount of energy recovered by the regenerative braking system. Braking can be jerky if you’re not smooth in engaging the pedal.

Getting into and out of the car was easy as the C-Max sits only 5.5 inches off the ground. Despite that, the driving position is raised—a command seat as opposed to a cockpit cocoon.

Mrs. G found the C-Max “comfortable, and I could feel it grip on the corners. When you start it, or should I say turn it on, it’s so quiet that I couldn’t hear it so you have to be extra careful around pedestrians.”

The MyFord Touch system has all the infotainment bells and whistles. I’ve made peace with the system enough to pair a smartphone, play music either through Pandora or Bluetooth, and program a destination into the navigation system.

While it’s still not an intuitive system, technophiles will get used to it.Technophobes will likely avoid using it.

Ford’s blind-spot mirrors (a convex insert in the top outside corner on both driver’s and passenger’s side mirror) are a terrific alternative to the electronic blind-spot warning systems.They’re inexpensive and effective. Needless to say, you must have your mirrors correctly adjusted.

Cargo space was tight. Heading out for the weekend, there was just enough space behind the second seat for our weekend luggage: two small suitcases, camera bag, laptop, miscellaneous grocery-sized bags. The tight space partly is a function of the hybrid system’s lithium-ion batteries being located under the cargo area and partly to give good rear seat room.

Coming home at the end of the weekend, I added a set of 14-inch wheels to the cargo. That meant we had to fold the 60/40 rear seats. Fortunately, that’s an easy task.The seats fold at the pull of a lever, and the headrests fold down and out of the way with the push of a button.

Even then, the four tires would only fit by standing them vertically and they totally filled the normal cargo area.The space gained by folding the rear seats accommodated everything else.

There also is a pair of small storage areas under the rear floor mats sized to hold wallets, smartphones, and perhaps an iPad well out of sight.

Instead of a spare tire, there is a can of sealant in an inflation kit that’s stored under the passenger’s seat, another trade-off for battery storage space.

Still, the bottom line is that this is a terrific car for a small family: It’s economical and fun to drive with just enough cargo room.

Given the reliability hybrids have shown, the C-Max should give years of service. If this is the new face of where the industry is heading, it’s encouraging.