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Matt’s Gadgets: Ford C-Max Hybrid A Fine Car, But EPA MPG Claim Is A Joke

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The C-Max Hybrid. Matt Roush photo.

The C-Max Hybrid. Matt Roush photo.

(credit: istock) Technology Report
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SOUTHFIELD — The sticker says 47 mpg city, 47 mpg highway.

Your mileage may vary, as they say. Mine sure did.

I spent a very happy weekend test drive with Ford’s newest entry in the “big small car” hybrid sweepstakes, the C-Max Hybrid. The car was a pleasure to drive — quiet, comfortable, nimble, responsive, boasting a ride far larger than its compact size would suggest.

But boy, I sure didn’t get anywhere the claimed mileage number in about 400 miles of driving, mostly on freeways and major Detroit-area boulevards.

Now let it be known that I drive with a bit of a lead foot. And especially when you’re driving a partially electric car, it’s a lot of fun to take advantage of the low-end electric torque that’s available, zipping quickly off the line.

The C-Max advertises that you can accelerate in all-electric mode up to 60 mph. But even when I accelerated so slowly I’d probably get flipped off in a Del Webb community, the gasoline engine always seemed to kick on, and the instantaneous mileage display didn’t budge above 40 mpg.

And with the cruise control at 76 mph on gently rolling of I-94 in central and West Michigan, the mileage never got above 35 mpg.

I know, I know, the EPA’s number isn’t reliable anyway. It’s measured at a lower speed than most people drive on the freeway, in a complicated cycle that according to one article I read takes up 200 pages of the Federal Register. But still, this kind of discrepancy seems ridiculous.

Still, the question becomes: Would I buy one?

And the answer is: Yup. As a matter of fact I’m hoping to get one of these to replace my wife’s gas-hog Fusion Sport AWD when it comes off lease in late March. This car is simply too comfortable, modern, sleek, technologically advanced and fun to dislike, even if it is lying to you when it bats that 47 mpg sticker at you.

It is hard, though, to figure out just what this car is. A modern take on the station wagon? The world’s smallest SUV? A (shriek. scream.) crossover? The answers: Yes, I guess and whatever.

Outside, the car is all aerodynamics, with the now-trademark gaping Ford maw up front and a sculpted hatchback in the rear. The snout is tiny due to the gently sloping windshield.

The front of the cabin boasted two very comfortable heated leather bucket seats, the driver’s with about a bajillion possible adjustments. The driving position is high — I was up higher off the road than people in full-size cars, and almost as high as people in small trucks and minivans — offering a commanding view of the road through the huge windshield. (The car itself is tall, at almost 5-foot-4.) The driver’s seat goes back far enough to accommodate NBA players — way too far for me, at six feet. The dashboard has very nearly an overload of information about the hybrid and regenerative braking systems.

In the back is a darn near full-size-car-worthy back seat with three seat belts, and according to my five-foot-11 son, tolerable leg room even with the front seat all the way back, and copious leg room with the front seats put forward even a little.

The drawback is cargo room, which is a little tight with the back seat in use, a full 10 cubic feet less than the Toyota Prius V. But fold down the back seat? It’s cavernous back there. It’s like a minivan for two people.

As I said, the car’s 188 combined horsepower provides plenty of power off the line, for freeway merges and passing, despite the car’s 3,600-pound bulk. There’s even a fun vroom up front when you stomp the gas.

Ford’s Sync with My Ford Touch control and navigation system screen dominates the simple center stack controls. My Ford Touch has been raked by some critics for being too complicated, but after three test vehicles with it I’ve gotten used to it. In the model I tested, a Sony sound system provides enough thump to make an old man’s ears bleed. Namely mine.

The car I tested stickered at $30,600, and included option group 302A, which included premium audio and navigation, hands-free technology, a power liftgate, a rear view camera and keyless entry. Standard at the SEL level are dual-zone automatic temperature control, leather heated seats, 17-inch aluminum wheels with fat Michelin tires, basic cruise control, advanced traction control, a reverse sensing system, air bags all around and more.

How’s this car stack up against a Chevy Volt? Well, I’m betting in the real world the C-Max Hybrid will get about 10 mpg less than the 44 mpg I got in gasoline-assisted highway driving in a week with a Volt last year. But you’ve got that fifth seat belt in the C-Max, a crucial deal for many families. And the Ford C-Max Hybrid is about $10,000 less than the Volt.

Still to come? The C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, the Volt’s true competition, and significantly closer in price.

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