Because the Ford C-Max Hybrid was delivered to me just before Thanksgiving, I got to spend 10 days in it, simulating better than most test rides what the ownership experience might be like. Despite some difficulties climbing the tech mountain that is MyFord Touch, the C-Max and I got along very well.

 

Ford’s new hybrid, which offers a combined 47 mpg, is a worthy competitor to the Prius V, a stretched version of the world’s gas-electric bestseller. It’s slightly cheaper than the V and bests it a bit in fuel economy, though when accessories are ordered and real-world performance measured they probably come out about even. The C-Max is the better-looking car, since the V’s stretch upsets the Prius’ styling balance.

 

The $25,995 C-Max (left) is built on the Focus platform, but it’s not a subcompact — more of a small utility wagon. It doesn’t look like a crossover SUV, but it has some of that popular format’s advantages, including great storage. The Europeans get the seven-seat version, and non-hybrid options. For American buyers, the choice is between this hybrid and the forthcoming C-Max Energi, an even more fuel-sipping plug — in hybrid. Chevrolet Volt, look out.

 

The C-Max is a foot shorter than the Prius V, and I don’t think I can stretch out my six-foot frame in the way-back, as I did in the Prius, but there’s great rear leg and headroom. I also got three young relatives into the back seat without complaint.

 

I like the clean techie look of the cabin. Wow, those seat heaters — cranked to five, I was burning my back. This is a commuter special, not a barn burner, and there’s a modest 141-horsepower engine under the hood, operating on the fuel-saving Atkinson cycle. The electric motor adds another 44 horsepower. The car can top 60 mph on its relatively small 1.4-kilowatt-hour battery pack, but I didn’t experience much zero-emission driving (probably because I had the heater cranked).

 

I'd like to say that driving the C-Max was a revelation, but instead it was fine and not unlike a Prius, with an 8-second zero-to-60 time. Its quiet and efficient, with almost imperceptible shifts between gas and electric modes. It's a great highway cruiser, though Porsches will soon be distant blips on the horizon. Here's a look at the car on video:

 

 

My test car had the options package that included the upmarket Sony version of MyFord Touch, which I find easier to use than the base Ford system. The system is vastly capable — it offers voice-activated navigation and song selection, satellite radio, the ability to play music off hard drives and iPods, as well as Bluetooth connectivity to stream Pandora and other services.

 

According to Alan Hall, a Ford technology specialist, the C-Max has an embedded cellular modem, but no Internet access as featured in the Audi S8 I recently drove. “There are a lot of advantages to having a connection, but because we want people to use it in a safe way, there are no onboard capabilities that the driver uses,” Hall said.

 

With nine speakers, the system sounds great, but lacking a tutor in using the voice commands (my bad) I found it somewhat distracting to navigate. I know there’s a better way to get around than hitting the “Source” button until the CD player or FM band appears, but I’m a novice user.

 

Unlike other automakers, Ford said no to Siri, but I hope it develops something equally intuitive. I tried out a few tentative voice commands, but the C-Max and I weren’t speaking the same language.

 

It's interesting to note that Ford will unveil a new and improved version of Sync and MyFord Touch in the 2014 Fiesta, with a smaller screen, more natural voice commands and simplified Bluetooth pairing. The company will also make it easier to input a navigation address — a really good fix. Most of those improvements can be downloaded free by owners of older cars.

 

I would definitely consider a C-Max, but probably the Energi instead of a conventional hybrid. The Energi, on sale this fall in 19 markets, and nationwide early in 2013, adds about $8,000 to the price, but $3,500 of that goes away thanks to a federal income tax credit. The big benefit is 21 miles of all-electric range, more than competitors such as the Prius Plug-In Hybrid. In place of the 47 mpg combined, expect 100 miles per gallon equivalent.

 

The C-Max appears off to a good start. Ford sold 3,182 of them in the first full month of October, with a quarter going to hybrid-friendly California. The Energi should be even more popular there, because plug-in hybrids can ride single-passenger in the HOV lanes. And another boost: General Electric announced it is buying 2,000 Energis to complement the 12,000 Chevrolet Volts already in its motor pool. The company makes the WattStation charger, so why wouldn’t it be plugging in?

 

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