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2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid review: Ford's Prius-beater boasts better handling, power

With fuel economy around 40 mpg and a roomy interior, the 2013 C-Max Hybrid looks equivalent to the Toyota Prius, until you get behind the wheel and tap the extra power.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
8 min read

Editor's note: Ford revised its EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid. The new numbers show 42 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. This review has been updated to reflect the new numbers.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

The Good

The <b>2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid</b>'s gasoline-electric power train delivers excellent fuel economy and decent power. The suspension leads to a comfortable, engaged driving experience. Voice command works wonders with music selection and phone calls, while automatic parking is the icing on the cake.

The Bad

The navigation system's maps refresh slowly, and destination entry can be exceedingly frustrating.

The Bottom Line

Offering all the fuel economy and practical interior space of a Toyota Prius v, the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid adds significant power and a more engaged driving experience.

Wagon, hatchback, or mini minivan? First impressions of the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid make it difficult to classify, and it doesn't get any easier with the second look. Despite refusing to fit into a simple slot, the C-Max offers immensely practical interior space and fuel economy.

Ford started selling the C-Max, built on the Focus platform, in Europe in 2003. Offered with a multitude of engines there, in the U.S. it only comes as a hybrid. That move may seem a little stingy on Ford's part, but it does gives the company a dedicated hybrid vehicle, similar to Toyota's Prius model.

Comparisons with the Toyota Prius are inevitable, and Ford itself takes aim at the iconic hybrid car in its literature. However, Ford sets the C-Max Hybrid up against the Prius v due to comparable interior space, and how well Ford's hybrid stacks up in the specifications.

Where the Prius v gets its best fuel economy in the city, at 44 mpg, the C-Max only gets 42 mpg both, and 37 mpg in highway driving. However, Ford gives its car 182 net horsepower from its hybrid drive system, versus the somewhat anemic 134 horsepower of the Prius v. The Prius v takes the lead in cargo space, at about 30 percent more than the C-Max Hybrid.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid works to overthrow Prius (pictures)

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The C-Max Hybrid's driver's seat takes a little getting used to. Its position feels higher than it should, and a long field of plastic extends from the top of the dashboard to the lower edge of the windshield. The deep dashboard is not so different from the Prius v's, but the steering on the C-Max Hybrid feels more precise, with the electric power-steering unit tuned for responsive and easy turning with minimal play.

The superior handling of the C-Max Hybrid can be chalked up to the European-designed Focus platform on which it sits. The multilink suspension gets stabilizer bars in both front and rear, resulting in generally comfortable ride quality and a vehicle that doesn't wallow in the turns. However, the ride height made me reluctant to push it hard through corners, and the typical hybrid buyer will be more interested in maximizing fuel economy than playing RallyCross driver.

Using a 141-horsepower, 2-liter gasoline engine and 118 horsepower electric motor, the same combination as the new Ford Fusion Hybrid, the C-Max Hybrid can drive under electric power at speeds up to 62 mph. During a long freeway trip, I found the engine remained on most of the time, resulting in fuel economy on the trip computer hovering around 42 mpg, even as I tried to be gentle with the throttle. Arriving in a city, the trip computer's fuel economy rose quickly as I was able to take advantage of the C-Max Hybrid's electric-drive capabilities.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

After one trip, the Smartgauge showed 152.2 miles covered and 3.39 gallons consumed.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

CNET's overall fuel economy for the C-Max Hybrid came in at 45.1 mpg, with an ample amount of freeway and city driving.

As is typical with a full hybrid, going easy on the accelerator from a stop led to quiet, electric propulsion, but it was difficult to maintain EV mode without pissing off the line of cars behind me. Quicker acceleration caused the engine to fire up, and when I floored it for passing or freeway merging, the engine wound up to high rpms with a less-than-pleasing grinding noise. That minor cacophony may be Ford's way of discouraging heavy gasoline usage.

Despite the roughness, I was pleased with how well the C-Max Hybrid was willing to get up and go. The electronic continuously variable transmission lacks rev drops for gearshifts, leading to smooth acceleration. Braking smoothly transitioned from regeneration to friction when coming to a stop.

You won't find Sport or Eco buttons in the C-Max Hybrid, and I'm quite happy with that. Eco modes in other cars usually make the accelerator frustratingly unresponsive, and the word Sport really has no business with a hybrid focused on fuel economy.

Smarter gauges
The instrument cluster, a combination of the MyFord and SmartGauge displays, offered almost too much information. The display to the left of the speedometer shows a variety of running data, which I could customize with the left steering-wheel controls. Along with trip data screens, Ford includes a set of screens that show the operation of the hybrid power train, including engine speed and when the car is operating under EV mode.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

This driving-coach screen can train you to accelerate and brake more efficiently.

James Martin/CNET

These small screens will delight data-happy types who want to closely monitor the C-Max Hybrid's performance. Others will probably ignore this side of the instrument cluster, or merely stick with a single screen. However, there is a driving-coach screen, which can turn efficient driving into contest.

The other side of the instrument cluster shows screens for the phone, navigation, and audio system. The right steering-wheel spoke gives some limited control over these applications, letting you choose a phone contact, for example, but not browse a music library.

Voice command is really the way to go when it comes to controlling most of the C-Max Hybrid's infotainment functions. Through Ford's Sync feature, it let me pair an iPhone 5 with the car and make calls by saying a contact's name. Sync also integrates text messaging, but that only works with the handful of phones that implement the Bluetooth Message Access Profile (MAP). This integration makes the car read out incoming text messages, and gives you a list of canned responses as replies.

iOS 6 is supposed to support MAP, but it doesn't seem to work. I could see the functionality on the C-Max Hybrid's phone screen, but when I tried to send one of the canned text messages with my paired iPhone 5, it didn't go through. According to a Ford representative, Apple did not implement MAP according to the specification. Ford is currently looking at making its cars work with Apple's particular Bluetooth implementation for text messages.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

If you have a compatible phone, the C-Max Hybrid can send canned text messages while you drive.

James Martin/CNET

The C-Max Hybrid's stereo supports Bluetooth streaming for audio, and two USB ports in the console allow connection to music libraries on USB drives and iPods. When plugging an iPhone 5 into one of these ports, I had to make sure the Bluetooth pairing was previously engaged, as otherwise no audio would come through the cable. Older-generation iPhones exhibited the same behavior. Ford included satellite radio and HD Radio in this SEL-trim model.

The interface for onboard music sources gets a little deep, so I preferred to use Sync's voice command, which let me request music by artist, album, song, or genre name. However, I like the Similar Music feature on the stereo, which creates a custom mix based on the current track playing.

Navigation frustration
The navigation system, stored on an SD card, comes as an additional option on top of the MyFord Touch interface. I'm familiar with it from previous models, and I find it generally frustrating. As I drove along, the map refreshed slowly, visibly filling in nearby areas in blocks.

Entering a street address through voice command worked well, accurately taking the address string I gave it and finding the location. Route calculation took a bit longer than I would have liked. Much more frustrating was when I tried to find a point of interest through voice command. As the business name I wanted did not seem to be in the car's database, I wanted to start over with street address entry. But after restarting voice command to cancel, it returned me to the list of businesses it had previously found and would not return me to the starting-destination screen. This is the kind of behavior that results in harsh words and a fist through an LCD.

CNET's loaded car also came with the Sony audio system, which I find a worthwhile option. The audio quality isn't exuberant, but music comes through with good clarity, reproducing both delicate and loud sounds clearly. I heard some rattle when playing tracks with heavy bass, but it was minimal.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

With the rear seats down, the C-Max Hybrid's cargo space maxes out.

James Martin/CNET

The C-Max Hybrid brings in a few convenience features that can make life with the car easier. One non-tech item is Ford's capless fuel filler, of which I become more a fan every time I use it. The rear hatch included Ford's new hands-free system, which we first saw in the new Escape. This feature let me wave my foot underneath the rear of the car to activate the power opener.

Ford does not offer its blind-spot monitor for the C-Max Hybrid, instead implementing the low-tech solution of small, wide-view inset mirrors on the side mirrors. However, its rearview camera is very good, showing trajectory lines. And Ford's automatic parallel parking works extremely well.

Using this system, I trolled for a curbside parking space in San Francisco. When the car found one, it notified me on the LCD, with instructions to take my hands off the wheel and reverse slowly. The system neatly put the car in parallel, right next to the curb without scuffing the wheels. I may be an old pro at parallel parking, but the car seemed like it could get it right 100 percent of the time, where I might occasionally fail due to fatigue or stress.

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

The automatic parking system steered the C-Max Hybrid into this parallel parking space.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

All-around star
It took a lot of driving to get the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid's fuel gauge to drop significantly, something that economy-minded owners will certainly appreciate. Add to that the car's large passenger area and versatile cargo space, and it would be difficult to come up with a more practical car for the average family.

The Prius gives the C-Max Hybrid real competition when it comes to fuel economy, but I like the driving quality of Ford's hybrid better. I appreciated the extra 48 horsepower when it came to merging onto a freeway or taking off from a light, and I was more than happy to do without Sport or Eco modes when it came to daily driving.

The stereo and phone functions worked very well in the C-Max Hybrid, especially in conjunction with voice command. However, the navigation system continues to engender violent fantasies involving a baseball bat and the touch screen. The cabin technology comes off as overcomplicated, and crippled by underpowered processing.

Tech specs
Model2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
Power train2-liter gasoline-electric hybrid system, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy42 mpg city/37 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy45.1 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportStandard with contact list integration
Digital audio sourcesSmartphone apps, onboard hard drive, iPod/iPhone, USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio systemSony 9-speaker system
Driver aidsAutomatic parking, rearview camera
Base price$28,200
Price as tested$31,490
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 8Performance tech 9Design 7


See full specs Trim levels SEAvailable Engine HybridBody style Hatchback