After a few minutes of staring out my hotel window onto Sunset Boulevard, it looks like every fifth car on the road ? between the Maseratis and Bentleys, of course ? is a Toyota Prius.
Ford wants to change that.
Its weapon of choice is the 2013 C-Max Hybrid, an all-new compact wagon/crossover that goes on sale this fall, intended to do battle with the similarly-configured Toyota Prius V.
Following its introduction, Ford will then release the C-Max Energi, a plug-in version that will run for about 32 kilometres on a stored charge and then automatically default to regular hybrid operation. It?s similar to the Prius Plug-In, which goes about 22 km on each charge.
The C-Max comes in two trim lines, the SE at $27,199, and the SEL at $30,199. (By comparison, the Prius V runs $27,200 to $36,875.) The Energi will come only in top-line SEL trim, at $36,999, but, by virtue of its plug-in capability, will qualify for a $5,808 rebate in Ontario. The C-Max is strictly a hybrid for now, but Ford hasn?t ruled out the possibility of a conventional gasoline-only version at some time in the future.
It?s built on Ford?s global C platform, which also underpins the Focus and Escape. The C-Max substitutes for the now-discontinued Escape Hybrid, which cost $38,599 to $45,999 for the 2012 editions.
If you saw the C-Max that debuted at the Toronto auto show in 2011, you may be wondering what happened. We were originally supposed to get a seven-seat compact minivan with sliding doors, sold overseas as the Grand C-Max. But when research suggested North American buyers weren?t all that interested, this hybrid version of the Grand?s five-seat little brother was substituted.
Under the hood is a 2.0 L four-cylinder engine, mated to an electric motor and continuously variable transmission. A lithium-ion battery, charged by regenerative braking and the gas engine, handles the electricity needs. Under the right conditions, the C-Max can run on the battery alone at speeds of up to 100 km/h.
The gasoline engine makes 141 horsepower by itself, and the combined gas/electric system produces 188. The Prius V has a combined rating of 134 hp and poorer fuel economy, although the difference is small enough ? 4.0 L/100 km in combined city/highway driving for C-Max, versus 4.4 for Prius V ? that it really comes down to bragging rights.
The real difference is in the driving experience, as a short comparison test drive proved. The C-Max is considerably quieter and has stronger acceleration when needed, its handsome interior is far more attractive than the Prius V?s plastic jumble, and it has a real gearshift lever to the Prius? annoyingly odd tap-shifter.
It also has far more steering feel than the Prius. Although it is heavy for its size, it doesn?t feel cumbersome, and handles curves very well. Both Toyota and Ford make equally good hybrid systems, smoothly transitioning between gasoline and electricity, and maximizing battery-only driving whenever possible.
The C-Max?s ride is smooth and stable, and it?s a nice driver on the highway. Unless you?re looking at the configurable instrument cluster ? which does everything from grow leaves when you drive efficiently to coaching you on how to brake for maximum battery charge ? you might not even realize you?re in a hybrid.
Instead, it?s a pleasant little wagon that feels like a regular car, but with far better fuel economy.
The Prius V wins for cargo, boasting an additional 277 litres of space behind its second-row seat, thanks to its longer length. Almost devoid of front-row cubbies, the C-Max definitely falls short in small-item storage, too.
There?s more at the back, with bins hidden under the cargo floor, and shallow tubs in the floor ahead of the rear seats. The 60/40 rear seat folds completely flat, and in one motion once you pull a handle.
The foot-operated liftgate introduced on the new Escape is optional on the SEL trim, bundled with a rearview camera. If the proximity key is in your pocket, kicking your foot under the bumper opens or closes the power liftgate. It?s a nice feature when your hands are full, and the sensors are ?leg-specific? so a pet walking under won?t set it off.
The base trim line is decently kitted out, including alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, driver?s knee airbag, USB port, capless fuel fill, and SYNC voice activation.
The top-line SEL adds several goodies including heated leather seats, satellite radio, rain-sensing wipers, parking sensors, auto-dimming mirror, and MyFord Touch, a too-fiddly touch-screen for the entertainment, climate, and phone functions.
Available options include navigation, premium stereo, and Ford?s self-parking feature, which scouts out spots and then controls the steering wheel to parallel-park the car.
In the battle with the Prius V, the C-Max is the clear winner for its performance, handling, and interior appointments.
But hybrids are still only a tiny sliver of the market overall and that isn?t likely to change anytime soon. If you?re willing to spend extra to get a gas/electric vehicle, be sure to check this one out.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
PRICE: $27,199 to $30,199
ENGINE: 2.0 L with electric motor
POWER/TORQUE: 141 hp, 129 lb.-ft., 188 hp gas/electric combined
FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: 4.0 city, 4.1 hwy.
COMPETITION: Toyota Prius V
WHAT?S BEST: Lovely interior, drives like a conventional car.
WHAT?S WORST: Needs more front-row storage space, and less MyFord Touch.
WHAT?S INTERESTING: Ford says it can go 917 km on one tank of gas.