What should you do when your better half wants to buy a car that you just can’t love? You can suggest better alternatives, but if you’re like me, you may just end up with a C-Max instead of a Passat TDI.
Ford wanted me to drive a 2013 C-Max so much that when I tried to convince my wife to buy anything else in the world, she insisted that this was the right thing for her. So we didn’t buy a completely perfect Passat TDI and bought a C-Max instead.
Why Would Anyone Buy A C-Max?
Yes, good question. Why would anyone choose a Ford C-Max over a Passat TDI that had been tarted out with every possible option? I am still grieving, but here is how the stars aligned to pollute my garage:
My wife needed a new car. She had a 2007 Mazda3 hatchback and we’re thankfully out of the phase of our lives where we hang on to cars for a long time until they die. So while it was perfectly OK, we decided it was time to get something new for her to drive. Since we have a toddler now, she also wanted something that would be nicer for towing the kid behind (this is cleaner and quieter – give it a try). At the same time, efficiency is really important to her. Her job involves sustaining the environment and embracing nature’s golden halo of warmth and nourishment or whatever, so she needs to walk the walk when it comes to driving. I, on the other hand, fly 100,000 miles a year for work and all I want is for fire to come out of the back of my wagon when I punch the gas pedal. I could give two shits about efficiency. We have a 2 mile commute to work. It doesn’t matter.
Her criteria included (in order of importance):
- Efficiency - Needs to be a Diesel or a Hybrid.
- Practicality - Should easily hold a gigantic stroller and 14 tons of baby crap. Loading a toddler into a car seat should not require physical therapy.
- Size - Must be relatively small so it’s easy to park.
- Cost - Topping out around $30k.
You’ll note that Style, Handling, Performance, Braking, etc… all of that standard Jalopnik review stuff plays no role here. I was doomed.
We drove a lot of different cars. Ultimately we ended up trying the Mazda CX-5 (yes, not a diesel or a hybrid, but she calls the shots, man), TDI Jetta, Jetta Hybrid, TDI Jetta Wagon, and TDI Passat, along with the blob of extreme slowness C-Max. The Mazda dealer guy was a complete idiot jackass and the CX-5 wasn’t nearly as fun to drive as it should be. They should bring over the diesel version ASAP.
The TDI Jetta was too small, she said. The Jetta Hybrid was even worse because of the battery eating up some of the trunk space (where will we put our Fiat 500-sized stroller?). However, the Jetta Hybrid was really fun to drive and it’s the only hybrid to even consider if you value handling and acceleration, in my opinion. I would be perfectly happy with that car even though I have no desire to drive a hybrid unless it means the car has a V8 and KERS working together to get me to 60mph in 3 seconds.
The Jetta TDI wagon was a nice fit and a major contender, but the old outgoing body style (which is actually a Golf) looks pretty dated and you can’t tart it up inside to a significant degree.
The Passat TDI was great. I loved it, and she loved it. Even though it has a puny diesel engine for its size (140hp), it’s got plenty of torque and I was surprised to find it completely satisfying to drive. It’s huge – bigger than my A4 Avant, which is funny since one of my wife’s top criteria was “not gigantic like your car.” The major dealbreaker here though was…the fake burl wood that comes plastered all over the inside of the Passat TDI in its highest trim level. You can get aluminum trim, as long as you don’t get all the gadgets and goodies, which is dumb. I would have lived with it. My wife would not live with that. She is a strong woman, and I love her for that.
This left the C-Max. We drove it right after driving the Passat, which meant that all of the differences were painfully evident to me. Those differences seemed overwhelmingly negative to me, but they had the opposite effect on my better half. A few days after the C-Max test drive we sold her Mazda3 and she decided that the C-Max was definitely the one without the fake burl wood that she wanted to own.
Exterior 2 / 10
I think the C-Max looks like a Yaris had a baby with a first-generation Prius and fed it generic formula in BPA-soaked bottles. I think every car deserves 1 point for having a corporeal form. This particular C-Max gets an additional point for having very nice pearl white paint, which looks good when the sun starts to set in the evening, signaling the end of this car’s visibility to our neighbors. The side profile of this car makes me weep. I would describe its aesthetic as “crestfallen” and suggest that its designers were doing everything possible to make sure that people saw this car and knew instantly that it had to be a hybrid because it looks so terrible. The spindly wheels just add insult to injury - the rotting cherry on top of a baby poop sundae.
Interior 8 / 10
This is one aspect of the car that I think is actually exceptionally good. The interior for the C-Max shares a lot in common with the Escape, and at the highest trim level (which we bought), it’s a very nice place to be. Only a few spots here and there have inelegant hard plastics or rough edges. Everything you’d normally touch feels nice. The seats are very comfortable, and the MyFord Touch system works well if you take 5 minutes to learn how to use it. My wife loves that the cushions are made with soybeans. Since I need to sit in the seats a lot more than I need to eat them, this is not a feature that compels me. The seats are comfortable, though, even if the cushions are made from what could have been delicious edamame.
There are tons of buttons everywhere. The steering wheel has about 400 of them.
The car came with the optional glass roof. It looks like a giant sunroof, but it doesn’t actually open. There’s a retractable shade you can use whenever you don’t want to roast yourself during the summer.
You get instant torque from the electric motor, which is nice, and this car can actually get up and go relatively quick for a hybrid (Edmunds got 0-60 in 8.1 seconds - only .4 slower than the Lexus IS 250). It has a CVT though, and the 2.0L Atkinson Cycle 4-banger features the rubber band effect where engine revs don’t increase while you’re accelerating. I really don’t like that. My wife could care less.
The brakes are regenerative, which means they’re initially very grabby. It takes some time to adapt to this behavior, but once you tune in to the efficiency game that the car urges you to play, it becomes part of the overall ecohippy driving experience. There’s plenty of stopping power here for the ambling, docile driving that 99% of C-Max owners will be doing, but they do behave somewhat differently from normal brakes. The Jetta Hybrid had the same thing going on when we tried it, and those brakes were even touchier than the ones on the C-Max.
The C-Max rides like you’d expect a family car to ride. It’s not as smooth and certain as the Passat, but it’s only marginally less capable. Compared to our old Mazda3, it’s like driving an Audi. The Mazda3 punished you for every highway seam, and while you can still notice stuff like that in the C-Max, it does a good job of soaking up excess energy.
Nobody buys a C-Max because it made a great time around the Nürburgring. It’s designed for people who like light steering and have never made a tire squeal in their lives. It’s OK in normal driving, but it doesn’t have much to give if you push it. The turning radius is surprisingly bad – both my wife and I noticed this when parking it the first couple of times. The steering wheel seems like it should turn half again beyond what it does before you hit the stop. I’m not sure how a compact car like this has such a bad turning circle (Motor Trend says it’s 39 feet – and I believe it).
I give 3 points to this car for having a Gearbox that isn’t broken. It’s a CVT and that’s really all you need to know. It has a “Low Gear” mode that I haven’t tried yet, but I’m sure it’ll come in handy next time we take the C-Max to Moab for some trail action. +1 point to Ford for not including a fake “Sport Shifting” mode that simulates actual shifting.
We opted for the 9-speaker Sony stereo system that is an option on the C-Max. It sounds great. If I rated this criterion on the stereo audio alone, I’d rate it an 8. But since audio also includes the sound that the car makes, I have to point out the fact that the engine noise (when it comes on) isn’t really anything that would excite a car enthusiast. And when you start the car, the electrical system starts with a sound that is best described as The Squirrel Found The Electric Fence. It’s really weird and unpleasant.
Special Feature: Let’s Compare the Sound of a C-Max to an R8 V10
Because I had some video from my recent R8 V10 experience, I figured I’d go ahead and share this comparison for everyone who might be cross-shopping these two options. You can hear the weird start-up sound of the C-Max. And then you can hear the sublime greatness of the R8 V10.
I confess that I enjoy playing the efficiency game when I drive this car. You get immediate feedback from the dash interface about how well you’re doing in terms of regenerative braking and efficient acceleration. So even though you are driving like a centenarian on ketamine, it ends up being kind of fun. Ford has done a really nice job making the efficiency game as engaging as possible, so that you aren’t consumed by persistent self-conscious terror that your friends might see you driving this thing.
Yes, the interior is very nice, and the materials/workmanship seem to be quite good. The doors make a nice thunk when you close them, and the paint finish is excellent. However, you could easily drive a fully-optioned Passat TDI for the same price, which looks fantasic, is fun to drive, and has an excellent interior.
But maybe that’s not a fair comparison (even if it was one that my wife was making). Most people will not be cross-shopping those two cars. A better comparison would be to the Prius V, which is even uglier and much slower. In that case, I think the Ford represents a pretty solid value proposition – the fully-loaded Prius V is about $4k more – and although it features some options not available on the Ford (LED headlights), it also lacks things the Ford has, like a leather interior.
Most importantly, if you consider the key metrics that my wife was evaluating, the C-Max actually makes a lot of sense. You can drop one side of the seats and take a baby around with 15 bags of mulch. No, it’s not the car I wanted, but it’s her car and she didn’t have any trouble at all accepting my fanatical need to buy an expensive German wagon in 2011 when it was my turn for new wheels.
So from now on I need to figure out how to respect the Ford Molar that now parks next to me in the garage. It won’t be easy, but I’ll give it a shot.
2013 Ford C-Max SEL
Engine: 2.0 -liter I4 hybrid
Power: 141 hp at 6,000 RPM, 129 lb-ft at 4,000 RPM, 188 hp (total hybrid system power)
0-60 Time: 8.1 seconds
Top Speed: 115 mph / 62 mph (in electric-only mode)
Drivetrain: Front wheel drive
Curb Weight: 3,607 lbs
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 47 City/47 Highway/47 Combined
MSRP: Base price $25,200 (SE) $28,365 (SEL) / $32,965 (as tested)