Not a true crossover, Ford's compact C-Max can best be described as a tall four-door wagon. It is available only as a hybrid or plug-in hybrid and competes most directly with the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius family. Models dubbed C-Max Energi have a larger hybrid battery that gives them an electric-only range of about 20 miles, hence the plug-in moniker. On a plug-in hybrid, once the battery drops below a certain charge, the gas engine kicks and it operates as a normal hybrid.
The C-Max Energi is only available in SEL trim. Power comes from a 2.0-liter engine/electric motor combo that makes 188 horsepower and drives the front wheels through a special continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. In the C-Max Energi the electric motor is paired with a 7.6 kWh lithium-ion battery.
C-Max Energi is priced at $32,920 with an $825 destination charge. Features include navigation system, keyless ignition, dual-zone climate control, heated seats, rear-view camera, power rear liftgate, MyFord Touch infotainment system and SYNC voice-control system. Also offered is a Parking Technology Package that includes front parking sensors that allow for automated parallel parking.
Get Up and Go C-Max Energi feels spritely (for a hybrid) and will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about eight seconds. That's pretty quick for the class, certainly better than a Prius and on par with the Volt. Like other vehicles with a CVT automatic, there's no shift sensation, the engine or electric motor just smoothly and seamlessly provide power to the front wheels while the transmission automatically adjusts ratios as speed increases.
Charging the C-Max Energi is as simple as plugging into a wall outlet. That's going to take some time, though, as a full charge it likely to take about six or seven hours. You can also plug in to a 240-volt charging station and drop the charge time to about 2.5 hours.
Like the Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-In, the C-Max Energi switches to hybrid mode when the battery charge drops below a predetermined threshold. For a well-trained driver in optimum climate conditions, that can be after about 25 miles when starting with a full charge. But for most, it will likely between 15-18 miles. Once in hybrid mode, the C-Max Energy works like a regular hybrid, with the gas engine and electric motor working in tandem to provide acceleration and maintain battery charge for electric assist.
Three driving modes are available: Auto, EV Now, EV Later. Auto mode acts much like you'd expect, a computer automatically decides the most efficient way to utilize the remaining charge in the battery in conjunction with normal hybrid drivetrain. EV Now makes C-Max Energi operate as an electric vehicle --assuming there is enough charge in the battery. EV Later saves remaining battery power for electric-only use later. This is a great option for those with a mixed commute. Using it wisely, you can operate in electric mode on surface streets, then in hybrid mode on the highway, and then back to electric mode as you drop back onto surface streets to complete your commute.
Ford was forced to reduce EPA fuel-economy ratings for the C-Max and C-Max Energi after customers complained that the vehicle wasn't meeting original numbers. Still, the C-Max Energi gets an 88 MPGe rating and a 38 MPG combined rating. Total range when starting with a full charge and gas tank is about 550 miles.
Like all hybrid models, real-world fuel economy is greatly affected by weather. In mild weather and driven with a light throttle foot at conservative speeds, the battery will provide a range of about 20 miles. Once the gas engine kicks in, it's easy to average about 40-45 mpg. In extreme heat or cold, a fair amount of electricity is used to cool or heat the cabin. This will reduce electric-only range and does affect hybrid economy a bit.
On the Road C-Max Energi is tuned to deliver a European-flavored ride. Bumps and minor impacts are softened rather than smothered and there's little bouncing and bounding on badly broken roads. That means occupants will feel a bit more impact harshness and road vibration than in a typical compact sedan.
When pushed around fast corners, the C-Max' suspension compresses and the tires lean over to provide safe but uninspiring understeer. Despite electric boost, the steering has a natural feel with good highway on-center tracking. Brakes are a mixed bag. They provide plenty of stopping power, but the pedal is difficult to modulate and you feel a bit of a pulse as they switch from regenerative breaking to friction braking.
Interior noise levels are appreciably low with little wind rush or engine noise when cruising on the highway. Tire roar can be annoying on rough concrete expressways -- a trait that's very common on today's hybrids.
Behind the Wheel C-Max' highly stylized interior boasts high-grade materials and first-rate fit and finish. The design can seem somewhat cluttered, but thankfully most controls are well placed. Driver's face an instrument cluster that's customizable, providing entertainment, navigation and fuel-economy information. Most importantly, the speedometer is easy to read at a glance and the display is not overly busy or complicated. Center stack features plenty of buttons and knobs, but the layout is good and operation or the radio and climate systems are fairly straightforward. The available navigation and MyTouch system lend some complication, but the interface has come a long way and is actually fun to use.
Elevated front seats provide a commanding view of the road (compared to most compact sedans) and are supportive and firm. Leg and head room are quite good. Rear seat occupants aren't quite as lucky with rear-seat room being just class competitive. Large adults will want a bit more knee and foot space. Getting in and out is easy through wide and tall doors.
Cargo space is disappointing, partly because the Energi's extra battery capacity eats into trunk space. However, C-Max is narrow and that also limits bulky-item storage. There's just 19.2 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats and a total of just 42.8 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded. That's less than a Prius V or small crossover SUV. Compounding things is an uneven load floor. Interior storage is quite good with lots of small cubbies and bins throughout the cabin.
Bottom Line Ford's C-Max is a worthy competitor to the Prius family. It neatly splits the size difference between the regular Prius and Prius V. It's also a bit more fun to drive and well equipped than a Prius. The C-Max Energi does provide a nice boost of EV only operation but at the expense of a higher price and reduced cargo space, something some buyers just can't afford to give up. Those looking for a green commuter would be wise to cross-shop C-Max, Prius and Volt and find the vehicle that best fits their personality and driving needs.