First Drive: 2012 Ford C-Max
Dearborn Returns to the Minivan Game...With a Twist
In the Old World, the multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) is huge, with Ford's C-Max being one of the more popular offerings in the segment. But here in the land where SUVs roam free, the MPV genus barely exists, consisting almost exclusively of the Mazda5 mini-minivan. Ford is planning to change that next year when it brings the 2012 Ford C-Max to the U.S. market for the first time.
The new C-Max, which shares its architecture with the Focus, goes on sale in Europe in a few days in five- and seven-passenger flavors. Powering both will be the usual buffet of diesel and gasoline engines European car shoppers expect. Five-passenger models get standard rear doors, while seven-passenger versions get minivan-style sliders similar to those of the Mazda5. Internally, they're known as the C-Max and Grand C-Max, respectively, but that distinction will be lost on the customer. Both are adorned with C-Max badges alone, with the word "Grand" nowhere to be found on the bigger model.
For the time being, Ford plans to ship only the seven-passenger C-Max across the Atlantic. That's right, ship, as even North American variants will be built in Valencia, Spain -- at least for now. Should the C-Max become a runaway hit, Ford could easily begin production alongside the Focus in Wayne, Michigan, thanks to the C-platform's flexibility.
Dimensionally, the Grand C-Max is about the same size as the Mazda5 and only slightly bigger than the current Focus sedan, making it a small vehicle by American standards. Appropriately, the five-seat C-Max is even tinier, its overall length being slightly less than that of a Fiesta sedan, though it's considerably taller and wider.
The C-Max is aimed at young families looking for a versatile and feature-rich vehicle but who don't want to spend a king's ransom buying one. Presently, aside from the Mazda5, their choices are limited to compact crossovers and de-contented base-model minivans. Ford thinks family car buyers especially will continue to trend toward downsizing but at the same time up-contenting -- witness the average transaction price on a Fiesta. A well-equipped Grand C-Max will run less than $25,000, we're told, though exact pricing is a long way from being decided.
We got the chance to hustle both versions in the south of France around the Provencal countryside shortly after the 2010 Paris auto show, and they proved to be surprisingly fun vehicles.
First, the Grand C-Max. The version we drove was powered by a 161-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder mated to Ford's PowerShift dual-clutch transmission. We're getting neither part of that powertrain (more on that later), which is unfortunate since it's a great combination for this sort of vehicle. The torquey diesel has more than enough grunt to move the MPV briskly and the PowerShift gearbox is a thing of smooth, quick-shifting beauty.
On the road, the Grand C-Max felt quite comfortable, though part of this was surely due to the smooth French roads over which we were driving it. Its brakes felt good, but without loading one up to the brim, it's hard to tell how they would respond with extra weight. Ford designed some fun-to-drive characteristics into the chassis, so the suspension is stiffer than one might expect from such a vehicle, but it's not too sporty. Additionally, the bigger C-Max feels somewhat top-heavy, so dads wishing to put their wee ones on the car guy/girl path early will want to make sure the kids aren't prone to motion sickness first.
Speaking of backseat passengers, for longer trips, the third row is for kids only. A full-size adult can fit back there, but 15-20 minutes is going to be the comfort limit due to the shortage of legroom. The second row is a much better fit for grownups, with slightly more leg space than in a coach seat on an airliner. There are even tray tables in the seatbacks in front. Dads will want to avoid the temptation to make "airline announcements" -- your kids will thank you by not groaning and rolling their eyes.
There are some clever packaging innovations to the Grand C-Max's interior. One concern addressed by engineers is third row access. Because the presence of child seats makes the usual "fold and slide forward" method of getting the second row out of the way useless, a trick solution had to be devised. In the case of the Grand C-Max, it's the foldable center seat, which neatly hides under the right-side seat pad when not needed, creating a pass-through big enough for a human between the two second-row seats. Just be sure to stash the center seat before you put a kid seat on the right.
The five-seat C-Max we drove had the 148-horsepower variant of the 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbo four mated to a six-speed manual transmission. This is the same engine that American seven-seaters will get, though the U.S. version will be more powerful. Ford hasn't determined just how much more power it will have, but we're told it'll be more than 148 but less than the 178 in Europe's range-topping model. Output aside, it's a solid engine with the same linear torque curve and punchy low-end as the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 we've seen in the likes of numerous U.S. Fords. It's a fuel miser too, achieving 35 mpg combined on the European cycle.
Unfortunately, the six-speed manual won't be making the trip overseas. American C-Maxes will come only with a traditional six-speed automatic. Why not the PowerShift? We're told it's because the Valencia plant isn't set up to combine the two (which is true, since the 1.6 in Europe can only be had with the shift-it-yourself box). This is unfortunate, given that the PowerShift is a better, more modern transmission, but Ford's torque-converter automatics aren't exactly slouches, so the fuel economy and performance hit shouldn't be too substantial.
The shorter C-Max is about 200 pounds lighter, and the difference in weight is definitely noticeable. It's nimbler than the Grand C-Max, more agile through the curves. The 148-horse turbo four is good enough for this one, but the extra power bound for the U.S. seven-seater will be more than welcome.
There's a trick to the second row of the five-seater as well. With the center console stowed, both seats will slide in and back to give rear occupants more leg and shoulder room.
Other than their seating differences, both variants have the same spacious, feature-rich interior. The European-spec navigation system leaves something to be desired, with a cumbersome and un-intuitive interface, but U.S-market Fords don't have any of these problems, so this shouldn't be a concern.
In the end, however, the fate of the Grand C-Max in the U.S. may rest in the hands of the gas-price gods. Should the price of gas inexplicably plummet, Americans have shown that they will return to their large car buying ways, possibly dooming the small MPV market. But if they continue to rise, as is commonly expected, Ford may have problems making enough to satisfy demand. And even if they do fall, this is a car that may find a market on its merits alone.
|2012 Ford Grand C-Max|
|Base price||$20,000 (est)|
|Vehicle layout||Front-engine, FWD, 7-pass , 4-door minivan|
|Engine||1.6L/160-hp (est)/177-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|Length x width x height||178.0 x 72.0 x 66.3 in|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||N/A|
|On sale in U.S.||Fall 2011|