Fuel economy is a reason to buy the 2013 Ford C-Max hybrid crossover, but not the only reason. That matters because critics have questioned how close the C-Max's real-world gas mileage comes to its eye-popping EPA rating of 47 mpg in the city, 47 on the highway and 47 in combined driving.
The first thing to remember is that the EPA rating is not a prediction. It's a comparison. It means the C-Max should get better fuel economy than a Toyota Prius V minivan -- 42 mpg combined rating -- but worse than the 50-mpg-rated Prius hatchback. The C-Max also beat the Honda Insight and Volkswagen Jetta hybrids.
The EPA rating is generated in a lab, not on the road. That's why you can compare one vehicle to another: they were all tested under identical conditions. If automakers apply the test honestly -- I'm talking to you, Hyundai-Kia -- it's the best way to compare vehicles' fuel consumption and cost.
We'll get back to fuel economy, and how seriously to take anecdotal complaints, but let's talk about the actual vehicle.
The C-Max is a sleek and roomy compact minivan -- crossover, depending on how much you don't want to admit to liking a minivan. It's based on the same architecture as the Ford Focus.
In Europe, Ford sells the C-Max in two sizes and with a range of gasoline and diesel engines. The U.S. version, built alongside the Focus in Wayne, Mich., comes in one size and with two gasoline-electric hybrid powerplants.
I tested the simple hybrid, for want of a better term. It can travel short distances on electric power alone at up to 62 mph. Prices start at $25,200. It has lithium-ion batteries, 188 horsepower and a continuously variable automatic transmission. The C-Max's base price is higher than the Prius and Insight, but less than the Jetta hybrid and Prius V.
For this review, I tested a well-equipped SE hybrid that stickered at $28,180. All prices exclude destination charges. The other kind of C-Max is the Energi plug-in hybrid, which costs more and has bigger batteries. I expect to evaluate one later.
Despite being 4.9 inches shorter than a Ford Focus compact sedan, the C-Max offers plentiful passenger room. The attractive and space-efficient exterior design packs 99.7 cubic feet into a passenger compartment with a roomy front seat and loads of rear headroom.
The batteries raise the hatchback's load floor a couple of inches above the rear bumper, reducing cargo capacity significantly versus the non-hybrid C-Max Ford sells in Europe. Nonetheless, the C-Max hybrid has more cargo capacity than the Insight, Prius hatchback and Jetta sedan. The big Prius V wagon has more cargo capacity but less passenger space.
Wind and road noise are very noticeable at highway speed, but the interior features attractive, soft-touch materials and handsome gauges. The voice-recognition system works well with navigation commands, but still falters on some basic instructions, like "Call home."
The C-Max's steering is responsive with good feedback. The sporty little crossover accelerates with smooth confidence. The hybrid system functioned flawlessly in my test. The engine shut itself off smoothly when stopped and restarted immediately. The car slipped smoothly into electric drive at highway speed and on surface streets. While some hybrids frequently shift out of electric mode in response to slight moves of the accelerator, I found it easy to keep the C-Max in battery mode.
That's one reason I'm skeptical of complaints about the C-Max's efficiency. The big fuel savings come when the engine's not running. That will never happen if you set the cruise control to 76 mph, as one critic admitted to doing before noting that his fuel economy while intentionally speeding fell short of the EPA estimate.
How you drive affects your fuel economy, Ford engineering chief Raj Nair noted recently. Driving at 75 mph knocks 7 mpg off vs. 65 mph, he said. An outside temperature of 40 degrees reduces fuel economy 5 mpg vs. 70 degrees. An engine that's not broken in -- a process that takes 6,000 miles or so -- can fall an additional 5 mpg short.
The EPA fuel economy ratings aren't perfect, but they're the only game in town. If hybrid technology outstrips the current test, the EPA and Department of Energy have plenty of doctorates to fix it. Until that happens, though, the 2013 Ford C-Max stands out for its combination of room, performance, fuel economy and affordability. It's one of the most efficient and appealing vehicles to go on sale in 2012.