First the bad news. During a week of mixed driving, the 2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid did not get its EPA-estimated 47 miles per gallon.
Now the good news. It got over 38 miles per gallon and was fun to drive, too.
The C-Max is Ford's first stand-alone hybrid. As such, it competes squarely against the Toyota Prius, the car that defines hybrid to most people.
Ford caught plenty of heat over the mileage difference when it released the all-new C-Max late last year. Consumer Reports ran a test and declared the EPA estimate was unrealistically high.
The news didn't catch any automotive writers by surprise cars rarely, if ever, achieve their EPA figures in the real world. But the story became big news and reflected badly on Ford, even though the EPA came up with the 47 mile per gallon figure.
Forbes wrote about the controversy in a January article titled, "Ford makes a great car and gets slammed anyway."
Fortunately, the controversy hasn't seemed to have hurt C-Max sales. More and more of the vehicles are popping up on the road every day. Looking like small, contemporary-styled crossovers, they are easy to spot. Ford's current split grill design is very eye-catching.
The C-Max is styled along the lines of Ford's smaller current lineup. The angular vehicles run from the subcompact Fiesta car to the compact Focus car and compact Escape crossover. When it comes to size and appearance, the C-Max slots in between the Focus and Escape, and looks more like a crossover than a car. However, unlike the Escape, the C-Max is not available with all-wheel-drive drive.
Like all hybrids, the C-Max shifts power between a gas engine and an electric motor to maximize mileage. Both work together when the most power is needed.
It's easy to understand why the C-Max is proving so popular. With a combined 188 horsepower, it drives better than any other pure hybrid on the market and better than some hybrid based on conventional cars. The C-Max accelerates briskly, rides smoothly and corners well more like a European sedan than a penny-pinching economy car.
The C-Max is more upright than other hybrids, much more like a minivan or crossover than a conventional sedan or hatchback car. This gives the driver a better view of the road than other hybrids that are not based on crossovers.
The interior is also a surprise. Unlike the Prius, which is styled differently than other Toyotas, the interior of the C-Max looks like other Fords. As much as anything, it could be a slightly smaller version of the Escape, with the same dash and center console arrangement. The fit and finish is equally refined, giving the C-Max an upscale feel, especially when equipped with the leather interior, like our fully-loaded test model.
Only the gauge cluster betrayed the hybrid nature of the C-Max. It has a center speedometer but no tachometer. The two panels on each side of the speedometer can be configured to provide information on how the hybrid drive train is performing The left side one can show when it is running on electric power only, while the right side one displays green leaves that multiply as mileage increases.
On the road, the C-Max was both the same and different from other hybrids. Nothing seems to happen when the driver presses the start button. That's because hybrid use their quiet motor engines at low speeds. A slight shudder is felt when the gas engine starts up a little later.
After that, it was all but impossible to tell when the power was being passed back and forth. The transfer happens so smoothly, it's hardly even noticeable. Some luxury hybrids are not so refined.
Ford is also bringing out a plug-in version of the C-Max called the C-Max Energi. It comes with additional battery capacity that when fully charged will supposedly drive the vehicle up to 21 miles on electricity alone before switching over to its conventional hybrid mode.
If the C-Max Energi performs as good as the C-Max Hybrid, it could pave the way for more plug-in hybrids on the road.
Facts and figures (all models)
Model tested: 2013 C-Max Hybrid.
Class: Compact hatchback.
Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.
Styles: Five-door car.
Engines: 2.0-liter inline 4 cyclinder engine and electric motor (188 hp).
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission.
EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 47/47.
Price: Beginning at approximately $25,200 ($30,000 as tested).