I circled the San Francisco Bay and drove to the coast, but the fuel gauge in the 2017 Ford C-Max hybrid barely budged. It moved as slow as the wall clock in calculus class.
As I felt the well-tuned driving dynamics from behind the wheel, and surveyed the large cargo area in back, I thought how it's a shame Ford couldn't sell more than 20,000 last year, less than a fifth of Toyota Prius sales.
Then again, the odd body style of the C-Max makes it a challenge to focus on, like the Somebody Else's Problem field described by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Maybe Ford needs to take a page from Toyota's design book and give the C-Max outrageous styling to force people to look.
Ford launched the US version of the C-Max in 2012, basing it on a European model that had been on the market for years. The five passenger C-Max boasts a large hatchback, boasting 52.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats down. That's almost twice the capacity of the Prius, but smaller than the larger Prius V. The more similar Kia Niro beats the C-Max's cargo space by almost 2 cubic feet.
Under the hood, the C-Max comes with a gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain, consisting of a 2.0-liter four cylinder engine and electric motor, driving the front wheels with a combined 188 horsepower. That output is pretty strong for vehicles of this size, coming in well over the Kia Niro's 139 horsepower or the Toyota Prius V's 134 horsepower.
Fuel economy, the litmus test for any hybrid, comes in at an EPA-rated 42 mpg city and 38 mpg city for the C-Max, although my average hit 42.7 mpg. Those numbers match the Toyota Prius V, but fall about 5 mpg short of the Kia Niro.
Calling the Ford C-Max a driver's car may stretch that term, but it does have a better behind-the-wheel feel than its brethren. It doesn't feel sloppy when those inevitable turns in the road come up, likely thanks to its European heritage. In fact, a good driving feel has been a common theme among Roadshow's recent Ford model reviews, such as the Fusion Hybrid and Escape.
A relatively stiff ride leaves the C-Max feeling connected to the pavement, and its power output lets it take off from a stop with authority. That said, this hybrid is certainly not a hot hatch. On a twisty road it exhibits definite understeer. And oddly for what is essentially an urban vehicle, its wide turning radius left me making many three point turns.
Being a hybrid, the dashboard lit up but the engine didn't crank when I turned the key. Using a type of continuously variable transmission unique to hybrids, there are no abrupt gear changes. Taking off with light pressure on the throttle, the C-Max moved forward under electric power. Stepping up the acceleration, the engine cranks up with a not very pleasant sound, but that noise subsides at steady speeds.
Generally, I found the C-Max an easy driver for urban errands, only somewhat hampered by the poor turning radius. Its excellent fuel economy means fewer stops at the gas station.
Ford offers the C-Max in SE and Titanium trims. I had the former, with almost no options, keeping the price low but distilling this car down to the basics. I had been looking forward to using Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system, which works very well and includes both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, yet I was stuck with a tiny LCD embedded in the center dashboard.
The C-Max's basic LCD shows the rear camera view, surprisingly sophisticated with trajectory lines, along with music and phone options. Despite the tiny screen, I could view the music library from my iPhone, plugged into the car's single USB port, and make selections using buttons on the dashboard. Ford also offers good voice command, which let me request specific artists or make phone calls by saying a contact's name. This base system also integrates over 30 third-party apps, such as Spotify and Pandora.
However, I still would have preferred Sync 3 with its 8-inch touchscreen in the C-Max
Likewise, this SE trim C-Max was painfully short on driver assistance features. Ford offers a Driver Assist package at the SE trim, but that means a power liftgate rather than adaptive cruise control. On the Titanium trim, Ford's 301A package includes a blind spot monitor system and automated parallel parking, but still no adaptive cruise control.
Where the C-Max really falls behind is in its lack of a forward collision prevention system, a feature becoming standard in cars from all segments.
The base model 2017 Ford C-Max SE hybrid starts at $24,175, while the Titanium trim goes for $27,175. I would opt for the C-Max Titanium, as it not only comes with Sync 3 standard, but also a robust Sony audio system. If I didn't care as much about stereo quality, I would go with the base SE trim, and add the $1,200 201A Equipment Group, which adds a non-navigation version of Sync 3. That gets me the 8-inch touchscreen along with Apple CarPlay, which I would rely on for navigation and other features, at a cost of $25,375.
Ford also offers the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid, at a base price of $27,120. As a plug-in, it can get significantly better fuel economy than the C-Max hybrid depending on how frequently its battery gets charged.
The C-Max hybrid doesn't easily fit into the hatchback, wagon or crossover segments, making it a little hard to wrap your head around, but that shouldn't take it out of the running for consideration. It shares many similarities with the Kia Niro in size and shape, although Kia's new hybrid boasts better fuel economy but inferior power.
Ford offers some nice features for the C-Max, but its lack of a forward collision prevention system or adaptive cruise control are two big strikes against it, and a sign that this odd little hatchback could use a big update.