The verdict is in: At last, the fabled Toyota Prius hybrid has a viable competitor.
If you're in the market for a five-door hybrid hatchback with very high fuel economy--an EPA rating of 47 mpg combined--you should drive a C-Max Hybrid before you trot down to your local Toyota dealer and sign the papers for a Prius.
Two weeks ago, we drove the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid for half a day through a mix of Los Angeles stop-and-go traffic and the winding, hilly curves of the Pacific Coast Highway.
It's Ford's first-ever "dedicated" hybrid--no gasoline-only version is sold in the States--and at a starting price under $26,000, Ford has priced it more aggressively than past hybrid models.
While the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid is less visually distinctive than the well-known Prius Liftback, its interior is nicer, with a more conventional dash design and much higher quality plastics and trim.
One little example that caught our eye: Most cars with 12-Volt "cigarette lighter" power sockets have rubber plugs on floppy rubber lanyards. The 2013 C-Max has a hinged plastic lid "12V" printed on top, surrounded by a small, tasteful chrome ring.
The front seats are comfortable, and the tall body gives plenty of headroom for four 6-foot-plus adults. And the interior is filled with useful cubbies, bins, and other storage areas, including small hidden compartments in the rear footwells. The load bay has a family-friendly storage net and grocery-bag hooks.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
Most importantly for drivers, the performance of the hybrid C-Max simply feels better than that of the Prius.
Its 141-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric drive motor combine to put out a maximum of 188 hp, or 54 hp more than the Prius powertrain can manage.
That means the C-Max feels far less stressed and desperate under maximum power than the Prius--despite almost 600 pounds of extra weight compared to the Prius Liftback, and about 300 lbs more than the Prius V wagon.
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid, Los Angeles, August 2012
With the 60/40 split rear seats down--they fold and lower with a single pull on one lever--the C-Max Hybrid offers 52 cubic feet of load space. With the rear seat up, cargo volume is 25 cubic feet.
Those numbers exceed the capacities of the Prius Liftback (which has only 21 cubic feet with the rear seat up), but are less than the comparable specs for the Prius V wagon. It offers 34 to 40 cubic feet with the sliding rear seat up, and a whopping 67 cubic feet when it's down.
So Ford has neatly positioned the C-Max Hybrid between the Prius Liftback and the larger, slower Prius V wagon (which we felt was underpowered when fully loaded).
It's slightly cheaper than the most popular Prius Three Liftback trim level, so it competes head-to-head--but offers more room and a nicer interior.
And it's significantly cheaper than, and almost as roomy as, the Prius V wagon. Not to mention more confidence-inducing under hard acceleration.
We can't comment yet on the C-Max Hybrid's real-world fuel efficiency, though we have some questions about whether it will live up to its EPA ratings as reliably as the Prius does.
The shorter, more urban portion of our test route--about 20 miles--gave us a reading of 44 mpg.
Overall, for the whole test drive--which mixed city stop-and-go and freeway mileage--the C-Max Hybrid gave us 37 mpg over a total distance of about 50 miles. That included lots of energetic mountain driving.
One major C-Max Hybrid drawback is the lack of all-wheel drive. The C-Max Hybrid effectively replaces the now-gone Escape Hybrid, of which fully half were delivered with all-wheel drive.
The C-Max is front-wheel-drive only, and we think that's a mistake--drivers in snowy and mountainous regions want hybrids too.
The 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid goes on sale this fall, and will be available nationwide.
The base price with delivery is $25,995--$1,200 higher than the most basic Prius Liftback, but $1,300 lower than the lowest-line Prius V wagon.
We did not drive the upcoming C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid version of the car. That will be launched later in the year, starting at a price of $33,745 with delivery.
Ford provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person drive report.