As Ford took aim at the Toyota Prius, a brand now synonymous with green motoring, it needed a car that looked the part.
So rather than convert an existing model, it imported a dowdy hatchback from Europe — tall greenhouse, short hood — and dropped in a hybrid power plant, resulting in the 2013 C-Max.
Thankfully, it doesn't drive the way it looks.
Pushed from a dead stop, the five-door Ford eagerly chirps its tires as it launches on a zero-to-60-mph run of just 8.2 seconds, according to Motor Trend. That's almost two seconds quicker than the lumbering Prius v and comparable to many non-hybrid small cars.
Yet the C-Max outpaces the Toyota at the gas pump too. The Ford is rated at 47 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving. The Prius v five-door, the model that Ford identifies as direct competition, is rated at 44 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. During 260 miles of testing the Ford, I averaged 37.5 mpg.
The car's powertrain comes in two forms. The Hybrid SE I tested starts at $25,995. Not green enough? You can opt for the $33,745 C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid that uses the same gas-and-electric drivetrain but has a larger battery that's rechargeable through a 120-volt or 240-volt outlet. It will go about 21 miles under electric-only power before switching to gas.
The gas engine is a 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder, while the electric motor is powered by a 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery (7.6 kWh on the Energi). Total horsepower between the two comes out at 188 — or 54 horsepower more than the lighter Prius v. Power is routed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Besides being quick and efficient, the C-Max hustles through turns with predictable body roll. Handling faults are few; the electric-power steering system has a bit too much fake resistance built in, and the regenerative brakes, which recharge the electric motor, are touchy and unevenly modulated.
The C-Max's stout construction keeps road and wind noise minimal, while the huge windshield gives drivers a panoramic view. Unfortunately, the view comes at the expense of the car's overall shape. Because the shell was sourced from across the pond, it has proportions more common in Europe than in the U.S. On American roads, and certainly parked next to the sleeker Prius v, the upright C-Max looks a bit like a goober. Blame the tall cabin, small wheel wells and short rear overhang.
But the upright profile lends itself to cavernous interior space, especially headroom. Occupants can comfortably take in the aforementioned visibility from nicely padded seats.
Despite being half a foot shorter than the Prius v, Ford brags that the C-Max has more passenger space than the Toyota. But the Ford is conspicuously short on cargo room because the load floor sits high, pushed up by the batteries stored below. The rear seats do fold flat to maximize hauling space.
The C-Max's dashboard design and layout will look familiar to anyone who's spent time in other Ford offerings such as the Escape or Focus. The conventional interior should help attract more traditional buyers who want a fuel-efficient conveyance without a spaceship cockpit.
That's not to say the C-Max has no tech goodies. The instrument panel features a pair of color digital screens on either side of the speedometer, controlled by buttons on the steering wheel. The screen on the right controls such features as the stereo and phone; the one on the left shows you one of several gauges designed to help you drive at maximum efficiency.
My test car also came with Ford's much-maligned Sync infotainment system, a touch screen at the top of the dashboard through which you control the navigation system, stereo, phone and climate control. It performed admirably during my week of testing.
The system was part of a $1,995 package that also added a power liftgate, backup sensors and Sirius satellite radio. Other options such as heated seats and mirrors and some loud candy-blue paint brought the total sticker to $28,680. Although Ford says the C-Max base price is $1,500 lower than the Prius v, once you add similar options to both cars, the prices differ by only a few hundred dollars.
All C-Max models have seven air bags, including a driver's knee air bag, stability control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, anti-lock brakes and a crash-alert system.
Although the C-Max is priced competitively with the Prius v, consumers should consider that both cars command a healthy premium over gas-powered models that are getting increasingly impressive fuel economy. Ford's better-looking Focus five-door hatchback, for instance, starts at $20,000 and offers the same mid-level build quality as the C-Max, a slightly smaller interior and fuel economy rated at 27 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.
But if you're really looking for something to deliver an eco-beat down to the Toyota Prius v, the C-Max offers a drivetrain that's both faster and greener.