NAIAS Preview: Ford C-MAX
By Charles Krome
A particularly interesting vehicle slated to make its North American debut at the Detroit auto show (aka, the North American International Auto Show) is Ford’s “new” C-MAX, a small people mover that’s seen some success in Europe as the Grand C-MAX; in Europe, the plain old C-MAX is an even smaller vehicle. It’s another attempt to kick-start the mini-minivan segment, which, because the Kia Rondo has been cancelled, is now down to the MAZDA5 in the U.S.
To give you an idea of how “mini” we’re talking here, the C-MAX stretches a mere 178 inches, making it only about 6.5 inches longer than the new Focus. But that extra half a foot makes a key difference, as it allows Ford to position the car as offering a “5+2” seating configuration. The translation: It has room for five normal-sized humans, then offers a third row for smaller passengers, i.e., kids. Those dimensions alone would seem to offer a nice package for young buyers, but I thought the same thing about the Rondo and MAZDA5, neither of which have gained much traction among American buyers.
Thus, Ford also is making the C-MAX available with all of its usual tech toys, like SYNC and MyFord Touch, along with some new functionality that makes the vehicle even more family friendly. Getting the most buzz right now is a system that allows a driver to open the C-MAX’s rear liftgate just by sort of passing his/her foot beneath the rear bumper, provided said driver also has the key fob nearby. As anyone who has ever tried to open a vehicle with their hands full of packages could tell you, this is an excellent idea.
There’s also a seating system that transforms the second row from three across to two bucket seats, while creating a pass-through space to get to the back seats. Speaking of which, the third-row setup also can be deleted entirely to make the C-MAX a five-seater.
As for motivation, the standard mill will be Ford’s 2.5-liter I4, a competent powerplant that has been “optimized for small crossover application with plenty of low-end torque.” But bigger news is that the C-MAX’s optional engine will be a 1.6-liter EcoBoost I4. This is a seriously high-tech affair, with high-pressure direct injection, low-inertia turbocharging and twin independent variable camshaft timing. The bottom line is a 20 percent fuel-efficiency advantage over traditional gas engines with the same power rating and what Ford expects to be the best EPA highway ratings in America for a seven-passenger vehicle. Both engines will be mated to a six-speed automatic.
Further, beyond the C-MAX representing Ford’s attempt to plant a flag in a new segment, the vehicle also is significant for behind-the-scenes reasons. It’s built on the same platform as the 2012 Focus, an architecture that Ford plans to use on at least nine other vehicles, representing 2 million sales annually, by 2012. Related to this, it also represents a next step in the Blue Oval’s “One Ford” strategy of integrating its global product lineup so that it’s selling basically the same vehicles in the U.S. as it does in Europe and other markets.
These efforts, if successful, will go a long way toward helping Ford cut costs and achieve improved economies of scale, production-wise, which adds up to more profits for the company.
My take: The C-MAX will face a stiff challenge convincing customers to try a relatively new kind of vehicle, in a relatively new segment, in which the past two entries have seen a paucity of sales. Then, that’s going to be exacerbated by what will undoubtedly be a premium price tag. As always, I’m not going to say the C-MAX won’t be worth a premium price, I’ll just say customers are likely to resist paying one.
Like the Ford Fiesta, this may be another vehicle that’s a bit too good for its own good.