Ford expects its share of the growing c-segment, or compact category, in the United States to reach 200,000 units per year in the next couple of years. Yes, it's well on its way even with the current, outdated North American Focus. However, One Ford, which makes universal the vast majority of Ford's front-drive models around the world, will soon expand the next-generation Focus into a number of variants and different bodystyles.

With Ford's retooled, uber-flexible c-car factory online now building the 2012 Ford Focus in Wayne, Michigan, it can afford to gamble on sub-segments that haven't done well here before. Ford product chief Derrick Kuzak says the company can shift production from a slow-selling variant to a new, hot variant cheaply and quickly.

So, are we ready to buy small minivans? Mazda sells about 15,000 to 20,000 of its four-cylinder Mazda5 minivans per year in the United States. While that's a very small number, it's done with virtually no marketing effort here.

The '12 Focus launches early in '11 with two bodystyles, the four-door sedan and four-door hatchback. Next up will be the 2012 Ford C-Max, recently introduced in Europe. At 178-inches overall on a 109-inch wheelbase, it's 22.2 inches and 10.3 inches shorter, respectively, than the new Toyota Sienna minivan. For young families who feel compelled to buy a minivan as soon as they have their first child, the Ford C-Max may fit the bill. It seats up to seven people, which means mom or dad can drive her or his kid and five classmates and be a responsible car-pooler.

A competitor for such models as the Opel Zafira, Renault Scenic and Chevrolet Orlando in Europe, the C-Max features American minivan-like sliding rear doors on both sides, complete with visible rail openings between the rear doors and the taillamps. The one-box look is sleeker than most the competition, however, with a rakish a-pillar and header.

Ford calls the three rows of seats a "5+2" arrangement, with two extra seats that fold down and out of the way in the rear cargo compartment. While a first-drive of the North American model is still a ways off, we've driven the European version, and those two extra seats are best suited for kids on their way to and from school or soccer practice, or for a particularly affectionate couple coming along for the short ride to a concert or restaurant.

The center row features a neat feature: the middle seat flips forward and then to its right. Then you flip up the seat-cushion of the passenger-side second row seat, and the middle seat folds neatly underneath, for 2+2 seating. Both outboard second row seats slide and recline.

But that's not all. Ford has added a second "oh, wow" feature in the form of an automatic rear gate opener. If you have the keyless fob in your pocket and your hands are full with groceries or shopping bags, as you approach the rear liftgate, wave your foot under the rear bumper twice, and the liftgate opens ... presumably, not in your face.

Finally, Ford has a new-age answer to its 1965 Country Squire dual tailgate feature.

Other features designed to make the C-Max feel like a premium model include ambient lighting. Standard safety features will include AdvanceTrac and Curve Control. Ford expects five-star safety ratings for the vehicle.

While Europeans will be buying the C-Max with turbodiesel engines, North America of course will have a choice of two gas engines. The bigger four-cylinder will be the base engine, a 2.5-liter preliminarily rated at 168 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque. The optional engine is Ford's new 1.6-liter EcoBoost four, the first Ford to get the 1.6-liter turbo for the American market. The engine is estimated so far by Ford at 168 horsepower (180 when running on premium) and 173 pound-feet. Both engines hook up to a six-speed automatic, for optimal fuel economy.

Ford has declined to announce the North American on-sale date and pricing, and won't say whether it will be built at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, near Dearborn, along with the Focus, though that would be a good bet. We'd expect the C-Max base price to be about $20,000, just north of the Focus, with typically-to-well-equipped models in the $25,000 to $30,000 range. Look for it to go on sale here as early as Fall '11 and probably no later than Spring '12.

Will Americans embrace European-sized minivans? Too early to tell, though if gas prices rise above $4 per gallon again, the C-Max will look like a better buy next to larger, V-6 minivans. And if it is a hit, don't be surprised to see Chevrolet rethink its decision not to sell the Orlando here.


2012 Ford C-Max
Base price $20,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD, 7-pass , 4-door minivan
Engines 2.5L/168-hp (est)/167-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 1.6L/168-hp (est)/173-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 109.8 in
Length x width x height 178.0 x 72.0 x 64.4 in
EPA city/hwy fuel econ N/A
CO2 emissions N/A
On sale in U.S. Fall 2011
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