2013 Ford C-Max

Ford's excellent answer to the Toyota Prius

Here comes the 2013 Ford C-Max hybrid, the first serious challenger to the Toyota Prius parallel hybrid (gas engine and electric motor blending torque for optimum efficiency) that has reigned as undisputed hybrid king - the U.S. market's best known, best selling, pace-setting hybrid - since its 2000 U.S. introduction.

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Ford C-Max Hybrid Aims At Prius Market

Toyota has parlayed its Prius success into a strong corporate image of hybridness, which equates in many minds with "greenness," despite the fact that its expanding portfolio of "Synergy Drive" hybrid sedans and CUVs (tall-wagon "crossovers") have sold modestly, at best. Meanwhile, Ford has developed its own gas/electric parallel hybrid system, similar to but apparently better than Toyota's, which sold fairly well in its previous-generation Ford Escape CUV and Ford Fusion sedan.

Escape and Fusion were all-new and improved for 2013, but only the Fusion gets a hybrid model. Why? Because Ford is importing its European compact C-Max CUV (which offers a choice of gas or diesel power across the pond) as - like Prius - a hybrid-only line.

The 2013 Ford C-Max comes in two variations: standard hybrid and plug-in hybrid, the latter creatively called the C-Max Energi. Meanwhile the Prius - available only as a five-door hatchback for 12 of its 13 years here - has recently expanded its family last year to include a Prius V tall wagon, a Prius c subcompact and a plug-in version of the original. The point of a plug-in hybrid, remember, is to enable some electric-only driving before the battery is depleted to where the gas engine kicks in. This requires a larger, more expensive battery but lets you drive the first few miles on electric grid power.

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Trumping Prius

So the 2013 C-Max takes on Prius -- especially the taller, more cargo-capable Prius V - while the plug-in Energi version competes with the Prius plug-in. Both trump their Toyota rivals in a number of ways, including performance, dynamics, EV range, efficiency and (vs. the Prius plug-in) price. They offer 188 gas engine/electric motor combined horsepower vs. the Prius' 134, and the plug-in Energi version delivers 100 combined MPGe (equivalent) EPA economy vs. the Prius plug-in's 95 MPGe. And Ford says the Energi can deliver up to 620 miles total range on a tank of gas and a fully-charged battery, topping the Prius plug-in's claimed 540.

Ford also claims an electric-only range of "up to" 21 miles for the Energi vs. the Prius plug-in's 15 miles. But both plug-ins fall well short of those numbers in real-life driving. We found the C-Max Energi starting its engine at 12 or 13 miles, the Prius plug-in at six or seven.

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Powertrain and Features

Both 2013 Ford C-Max versions are powered by a 2.0-liter high-efficiency Atkinson Cycle 4-cylinder engine, with dual independent variable valve timing coupled to an electric traction motor. An electronically-controlled, automatic CVT transmission works through the gears. As in Toyota's Synergy Drive, this combo drives the front wheels through a "powersplit" transaxle, with the engine and motor sharing the workload to optimize fuel efficiency as driving conditions change. And, like every hybrid and electric vehicle, its motor becomes a generator to recapture energy and return it to the battery during coasting and braking. This "regenerative" braking also effectively slows the vehicle and extends the life of the friction brakes.

Ford says that the 2013 Ford C-Max boasts 15 class-exclusive features. Our favorites are the available hands-free liftgate - just kick your foot under it to swing it open, again to close it - and Active Park Assist, which can choose a suitable parallel spot and steer you into it while you work the pedals. AdvanceTrac stability control with RSC (Roll Stability Control), Curve Control (more on that later) and seven airbags are standard. The plug-in Energi also offers a choice of three EV modes: "EV Now" (electric only), "EV Later" (saves battery energy for when you prefer to use it) and "EV Auto" (normal gas/electric blend).

The standard C-Max's Li-ion (propulsion) battery holds a modest 1.4 kilowatt hours (kWh) of juice, while the Energi's much larger pack is good for 7.6 kWh. The downside of the latter is that it substantially raises the rear load floor and reduces cargo capacity from 24.5 to 19.2 cu. ft. To provide full air conditioning performance with the engine off, the A/C compressor is high-efficiency electric, as are the power steering, power braking and cooling water pumps.

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Driving Impressions

To our eyes, the C-Max is an attractive compact crossover, a clear cousin to Ford's 2013 Escape and the Focus on which both are based, that drives as nicely as it looks while effectively hiding its hybridness and delivering impressive efficiency for its size. Its performance is ample, its ride smooth, its steering crisp and its handling surprisingly agile, bordering on fun. Inside, its cabin is pleasantly quiet, comfortable and roomy for its compact size, with well-laid-out controls and soft-touch materials where you most appreciate them.

We found the aforementioned Curve Control effective at automatically, and gently, reducing speed if you inadvertently enter a curve a bit too quickly - though we wouldn't recommend testing its limits on public roads. Another useful feature is Torque Vectoring Control, which helps you accelerate safely and smoothly through and out of the turn.

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Our C-Max delivered 34.2 real-world mpg - not bad but nearly 13 mpg less than its 47-mpg "combined" EPA rating (Ed. Note: We are not the only ones to experience this issue). A later week with a C-Max Energi (in colder weather) returned an average 32.4 mpg, even with the pack fully charged and the first few miles driven on battery energy. The C-Max starts at $25,200, the bigger-battery Energi at $33,745 ($29,995 after a $3,750 federal tax credit), making it the U.S. market's most affordable plug-in EV or hybrid.

We definitely recommend checking out and test driving Ford's C-Max and C-Max Energi before investing in a rival Toyota Prius or any other hybrid. You may or may not like it better and/or see it as a better value, but better to find out before, instead of after, you buy or lease.

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