2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

It's a van; it's a hatchback; it's a wagon? It's the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid and its tall, liftback design is not exactly any of those things. Ford's betting that this blend of small-car parkability, wagon flexibility, and crossover visibility will be a hit with urban drivers looking for a do-everything runabout. Helping to seal the deal for these city dwellers is the C-Max's hybrid power train, which offers Prius-battling levels of power and efficiency.

Design
In pictures and when isolated on a platform at a car show, the C-Max looks like a little minivan. I imagined something about the size of the Mazda5. However, when approaching the C-Max at ground level in a parking lot, I was surprised to find that Ford's little multipassenger vehicle (MPV) isn't that much larger than the Ford Focus with which it shares its Ford Global C Platform. The C-Max also shares Ford's Kinetic design language styling cues with the Focus and Escape. Take those two vehicles, toss them into a blender, and the resulting car will resemble the C-Max in both size and style. The Escape is already a fairly small crossover, so the C-Max's proximity to it in size possibly explains why the automaker dropped the Escape Hybrid for this generation. The C-Max Hybrid's dimensions also fall between two of Toyota's dedicated hybrid vehicles, offering more passenger volume than the Prius, but with a smaller footprint than the Prius v.

The C-Max is a tall five-seater that places more emphasis on passenger space than cargo room behind the rear bench. By doing this, Ford was able to create a smallish vehicle that is easy to park in cramped city conditions, but with enough room for four over-6-foot-tall adults to sit comfortably. Fold the rear seat-backs flat and the C-Max's cargo space opens up with plenty of space for bulky items. Ford tells me that you could fit two mountain bikes (presumably with their front wheels removed) back there.

Convenience through technology
The C-Max Hybrid's cabin is filled with technology that is common to many of Ford's current generation of vehicles.

First, there's the Ford Sync by Microsoft voice command suite. This system puts hands-free dialing of contacts, access to music stored on a connected portable media player, and a number of other vehicle systems just a tap of a button and a voice command away. So drivers can say, "Call Brian Tong's mobile" or "Play Artist: John Legend."

Built on top of that is the MyFord Touch in-dash infotainment system that adds touch-screen access to audio sources, climate controls, and turn-by-turn navigation. While this system has received a number of updates since I last spent time with it, CNET's Wayne Cunningham found that the system wasn't ready for prime time when he recently tested it from behind the wheel of the Ford Focus Electric.

The SmartGauge instrument cluster presents a lot of data in a way that's not very distracting. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Ford's SmartGauge instrument cluster, which I've loved since its debut in the Ford Fusion Hybrid, makes a return appearance as a standard feature on the C-Max Hybrid. This three-part instrument cluster features a physical speedometer that is flanked by a pair of user-configurable color LCDs that are controlled by a pair of directional pads on the steering wheel. The right LCD allows the user to view turn-by-turn directions from the navigation system, the currently playing media source, or information about the current hands-free call. There's also an option to display one of those eco-gauges that tells you how "greenly" you're driving by generating little virtual vines with virtual leaves. Meanwhile, the left gauge shows trip computer information or any of four driving monitors (Inform, Empower, Engage, and Enlighten) that allow the driver to monitor everything from the current state of the hybrid system to the current fuel economy to the relationship between the accelerator pedal and the gas-electric switch of the hybrid system.

There are also a few deceptively simple convenience options that aim to make life easier for the C-Max owner. For example, the foot-activated liftgate. When approaching the vehicle with full hands and the smart-key transponder in pocket, the C-Max user can simply hold one foot momentarily under the C-Max's rear bumper to activate the power liftgate. Ford tells me that sensors beneath the car are programmed to look for a living object in the shape of a human foot, so a cat sneaking beneath the bumper shouldn't accidentally trigger the liftgate.

The C-Max's power liftgate can be activated by kicking a foot under the rear bumper. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The C-Max is also available with Ford's outstanding automatic parallel-parking system, one of the best and easiest-to-use systems that we've ever tested thanks to its one-button activation and automatic parking-space finder. We've tested this system already from behind the wheel of the Ford Focus Titanium and a few Lincoln vehicles.

Ford's hybrid power train
Under the C-Max Hybrid's short hood is a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine. Power is rated at 141 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque. However, that gasoline engine is not alone in the engine bay. It's joined by an electric motor that bumps the output to a combined 188 horsepower and can power the vehicle under pure electric goodness to up to 62 mph, if you can massage the speedometer that high with a light right foot. Power exits the hybrid engine through the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (eCVT). Juice for the electric motor comes from a 1.4kWh lithium ion battery pack.

Fuel economy for the 2013 C-Max Hybrid has been rated at 47 mpg across the board -- city, highway, and combined. I wasn't able to confirm that claim during my short drive, but if the average driver can match it, then the C-Max will have bested the Toyota Prius v's 134 combined horsepower and 42 combined mpg.

The C-Max's 2.0-liter hybrid system offers more power and better fuel economy than the Prius v. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

My short drive in the C-Max took place on the crowded roads surrounding San Francisco's Embarcadero district. With the SmartGauge set to its Empower mode (displaying the fuel economy, power output of the hybrid system, and cutoff point where accelerator pressure would cause the C-Max to switch out of EV mode), I found it easy to keep the hybrid in its EV mode for the first few miles as I dodged tourists on bicycles and overly aggressive pedestrians.

I found the C-Max Hybrid's cabin to be fantastically quiet during this first leg of the trip, thanks in part to the lack of combustion noise from the dormant gasoline engine and the vehicle's sealed and insulated cabin. Potholes and imperfections in the road were soaked up without drama or protests from the chassis.

When traffic opened up, I was able to give the accelerator a good squeeze and found that it wasn't lacking in the power department. Now, 188 combined horsepower isn't a ton, but it's more than enough to get the little MPV up to speed. Bringing the vehicle to a stop caused the Empower display to be replaced, momentarily, by a brake-regen meter that showed how effectively I was making use of the regenerative braking system.

Is it better than the Prius v? That's difficult to tell right now. The brief drive in the preproduction tester didn't include any highway speed driving and was not long enough to make a full assessment of the C-Max's fuel economy claims, but I was pleased with the hybrid's around-town manners. We're expecting to revisit the C-Max soon for a longer evaluation period, so stay tuned.

Pricing and availability
When it debuts at Ford dealerships in September, the C-Max will be Ford's first hybrid-only marquee for the U.S. market. There will not be a standard nonhybrid model -- although such a vehicle is available outside of the U.S. -- but there will be a plug-in hybrid C-Max Energi that will debut in late 2012.

The C-Max Hybrid will start at $25,200 for the base SE model and will max out at around $30,695 for a fully loaded SEL model with the hands-free liftgate, automatic parking, premium audio, and navigation.

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