Test-drive: Ford C-MAX Hybrid vs. Toyota Prius V [Updated]

© Toyota/Ford

One thing I know about Prius owners, they are a loyal, passionate group. And they should be, Prius is a great family of vehicles. But if you are a loyal, passionate Prius owner, I will warn you now, you are not going to like this review.

That's because I had the chance to not only test drive the Ford C-MAX Hybrid, but to pit it, head-to-head, against a Prius V. And (spoiler alert), the results fell decidedly in favor of the C-MAX—in just about every category. I didn't want to like the C-MAX as much as I did, especially knowing I'd incur the Wrath of the Prii Owners, but the engineers at Ford made it awfully hard not to smile broadly behind the wheel of this fuel-sipping vehicle. Here's how the two stacked up:

Fuel Economy

The C-MAX is EPA-rated at 47 mpg in city, 47 highway and 47 combined. The Prius v is rated at 44 mpg city, 40 highway and 42 combined. That not only beats the v in each category, it gives the C-MAX a single tank range of a whopping 570 miles, letting it travel 120 miles further than the v before refueling.

UPDATE: We heard from some readers who questioned the actual mileage for the C-MAX, stating that owners have been reporting grossly reduced fuel economy from what Ford claims. We've even posted on this ourselves. So let me clarify my experience and why I posted those numbers:

I was only able to test the C-MAX over 2 days—not nearly long enough to test for an actual mileage. And sometimes the cars we are testing are pre-production models, and haven't been tweaked and tuned to production standards. In these cases, I use the EPA numbers in my reports. Are they always accurate? No. That's apparent. But those numbers are the only info I have at hand, and it's assumed (again, not always correctly) that the manufacturer will provide the most accurate numbers, so those are the ones that I post.

In my experience, actual mileage varies widely based on driving habits. Understand, when I'm testing a car for a short term, I drive it like the cops are on my tail and I'm facing a third strike. I want to push it as far as I can, test its limits, as well as testing normal, real world driving. So the mileage I experience is always bad. As mine was with the C-MAX. HOWEVER, during the test drive, two other testers decided to hypermile, and they were able to get over 40mpg in city traffic. Did they drive like the gas pedal was delivering electrical shocks every time they touched it? Yes. Of course. Was it real world? Maybe not, but it's hard to say. People's driving habits are all over the board, and some people do drive very, very conservatively.

To get more accurate numbers I am working right now to arrange a long term C-MAX tester to track my actual mileage over a longer period of time. So stay tuned for a report on that. In the meantime, I am changing my Advantage award to…

Advantage: Prius v (Until Ford can prove their numbers.)

© Eric Rogell

Powerplant

Ford didn't want to sacrifice power for the sake of economy, and the C-MAX gets a peppy, responsive, 188 horsepower from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. That's 50 more horses than the v gets, and you can feel every one of them when you drive them side by side. Especially when you need to climb a hill (more on that in a bit). Like the Prius, the C-MAX comes with an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission that keeps the shifting smooth and optimized for fuel economy.

© Ford

I understand you don't buy a vehicle like the C-MAX or the Prius v for its speed or off-the-line ability, (where 0-60 times are measured in minutes, not seconds), but for sake of comparison: the Prius v tops out at 103 mph while the C-MAX can go racing up to 115 mph. Not that I checked this on either vehicle, officer… I read it off the spec sheets.

Advantage: C-MAX

© Toyota

Drive

This is where the two vehicles really separate, and where personal opinions come into play. Me? I like a hybrid that drives like a car, feels substantial and grounded, and has some response when I mash the throttle down. Along with the throaty (or in the case of the C-MAX, throat-ish) note of the engine in my ears as I head on down the road, or up a winding mountain pass.

Others have told me, vocally, that they prefer their hybrids to feel "light" and "floaty," with one fellow reviewer telling me, very vocally, that he wants a hybrid to feel like it's "made of air and floating along the road." Which the Prius v definitely does. And when it comes to the soft whine of the Prius' engine, to some it sounds like the sweet sound of eco-living at its best. To me it's an annoying reminder of how hard the engine is working to get me up a hill.

So, from my decidedly skewed point of view on the ride of the two vehicles, the C-MAX performs like a non-hybrid in every sense. Not surprising, since it's built on the Focus platform and shares some of its DNA. The C-MAX handles well in both city traffic and on the highway when you need passing power. And when climbing hills—and I put both vehicles to the test up twisty mountain roads—the C-MAX handles them like a champ. The Prius v? Well, it got up there. It just took a while. And a whole lot of whining.

The C-MAX also features Torque Vectoring Control, Advance Trac with Roll Stability Control and Curve Stability Control. You don't buy hybrids to take corners at max speed, but it's nice to know that Ford understands that even though we want the highest fuel economy possible with the smallest possible carbon footprint, we still love to drive.

Advantage: C-MAX

© Toyota Prius V interior

Interior

Again, personal preference will make the ultimate decision for you, but for me I've never been a fan of the Prius interiors. Especially the confusing transmission shifter. (Maybe the fact that the fist time I ever drove one, it took me a full 17 frustrated minutes to figure out how to put the thing into Park. A push-button? Really Toyota?) I get the whole, futuristic vibe, but staring at a blank dashboard because all the gauges are in the center stack is just unnatural. But again, some people love this. © Ford C-Max interior

The C-MAX has a more "standard" interior, designed for comfort and economy. The seats are packed with foam made from soy, and they're heated for cold weather driving. It also has a SmartGauge with EcoGuide that shows you, by the use of a vine that grows more and more leaves, how efficiently you're driving. BrakeCoach helps you optimize the regenerative braking to help improve your economy even further by telling you how hard and when to begin braking for optimal energy capture. These are excellent tools, but I found them a little too distracting. I was focusing on how well I was braking and watching leaves pop up when I should be focused on avoiding the tween in front of me, texting her BFFs.

Advantage: C-MAX (Unless you're a big fan of the Prius styling, then it's a tie.)

© Eric Rogell

Other Things to Consider

The C-MAX comes with 15 class-exclusive technologies, including an available hand's free liftgate that opens with a swipe of your foot under the bumper for times when your arms are full of packages or kids, and Active Park Assist that's a godsend for those white-knuckle parallel parkers who never seem to be able to get into the spot on the first, or 4th, try.

The C-MAX has seating for five adults with a high, 63.9-inch roofline that accommodates the tallest passengers, giving it 99.7 cubic feet of passenger space compared to the Prius v's 97 cubic feet. But be aware that the C-MAX's lithium-ion battery pack is located under the rear cargo area, oddly raising the deck from the bumper line a few inches. And there's no spare tire—the C-MAX comes with a "tire mobility kit" that amounts to a can of sealer and Ford Roadside Assistance.

Advantage: C-MAX

© Eric Rogell

Pricing

For the 2013 models, the C-MAX starts at $25,200. The Prius v Two starts at $26,650, up to $30,295 for the base v Five.

Advantage: C-MAX

Overall


Ford wanted to take aim at the king of the hybrid hill, and it looks like they scored a direct hit. While I don't take anything away from the Prius family for including all the things their fans love, if you're in the market for a car that gets incredible fuel economy, that feels and drives like a traditionally powered vehicle, with some cutting-edge technologies at a great value, you can't beat the C-MAX.

See also: GM working on electric car with 200 miles range, says CEO

Tags: Hybrid Cars