Early in 2012, Ford is expected to introduce the 2013 C-Max, a seven-passenger compact.
We see it as a quart-size, feature-laden people mover with the solid driving character of a compact sedan. But you might think of it as a mini minivan, even if Ford might not be terribly fond of that description.
The Ford C-Max seats seven in a vehicle that fills the same floor space as a Toyota Corolla. Access to the back seats is through sliding doors, which suggests minivan. Vehicles like C-Max are popular in Europe (where it's built), but its only current competitor in the United States is the six-passenger Mazda 5.
Length and width of the C-Max are nearly identical to small cars like the Corolla, Honda Civic and Mazda 3, but its wheelbase is several inches longer. It's also taller than the typical compact sedan, so interior space is maximized in the fashion of a more conventional minivan. That allows C-Max to accommodate three rows of seats in a 2-3-2 configuration.
We'd call the C-Max handsome, too, and perhaps less frumpy than the typical minivan. The lower edge of the side windows slopes downward rear to front, creating a nice, tidy wedge shape, with expansive glass for great outward visibility. The front end is nicely sculpted, with big headlight clusters and a big, almost sneering lower grille in the shape of an Aston-Martin's.
Inside, the dashboard looks and works great. Most of the switches sit in a slightly protruding center pod, clustered around a big, central knob that controls multiple functions. The hip point for front passengers, or basically the front seat bottom, is higher than that in the typical compact sedan. That makes for a higher seating position, though maybe not as high as that in a small SUV like the Honda CRV or the current Ford Escape. It all provides a nice balance between a good view ahead and a planted, secure handling feel in the driver's seat.
From the passenger- and cargo-moving perspective, the C-Max's sliding rear doors allow extra-big openings and easy access to the rear cabin. The second- and third-row seats are cleverly designed, with simple folding and storage and a number of easily adjusted configurations. There are airline-style dropdown tables on the front seatbacks. Full-grown adults can be comfortable in the second row, though the age limit for the third row might be 12.
Cargo capacity behind the third row of seats is miniscule, less than 4 cubic feet. But the space for stuff expands to 25 cubic feet with the third row stowed, and to a maximum 60 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded. That's on par with the capacity of a small SUV.
Ford C-Max will likely be available with two engines in the United States. A 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder will come standard, delivering 150-160 horsepower. The upgrade will be a turbocharged 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, producing 160-170 hp, with direct fuel injection and better fuel efficiency. Both will come with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Suspension is fully independent front and rear, and the European version has advanced stability control and other electronic chassis systems that rival what we expect on more expensive cars in the States. The body uses high-strength boron steel in strategic locations. Full-length head-protection curtain airbags with rollover protection will be standard. Ford engineers say they expect the highest crash-protection ratings for North American models.
For drivers who like sharp, solid braking and quick lateral movement, the C-Max is more fun to drive than a minivan. Its electric power steering is particularly pleasing, and it feels light and responsive by people-mover standards. The ride is comfortable, and C-Max is quiet and impressively solid. In total, the C-Max drives more like a Corolla than a Sienna.
In Europe, the C-Max is available with an array of up-market features, including blind-spot warning, the self-parking system offered on U.S. Lincolns and two different navigation systems. It's also available with performance tires on 18-inch wheels. It remains to be seen how many of those features make it North America.
Ford seems to be targeting a price of roughly $25,000 for a loaded C-Max with the upgrade engine, so the equipment U.S. buyers get will likely be determined by that which leaves a profit margin at the mid-20s price. That $25,000 represents the low end of current minivan prices, with 25 percent of the sales falling at or below that level.