Ford C-Max: Up Close

The redesigned Ford C-Max has been available in Europe for some three months now, but it’s just now making its way to American shores. I had a chance to check out Ford’s compact minivan at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit this morning, and its impressive quality and decent utility present a compelling alternative to the Mazda5s of the world. In America, that segment means … the Mazda5.

More details and photos of the new Ford C-Max

With its prominent roof rails and front detailing — the air dam and fog light portals are both trimmed in glossy black — the C-Max SEL on the show floor looked sharp, at least until the rear.

There are only so many ways you can style the tail end of a minivan; Ford did what it could, but I wish the automaker had tried to harder conceal the thick sliding-door rails, which streak inelegantly toward the taillights. They’re clearly noticeable, especially given the C-Max’s not-so-max size.

With the driver’s seat at maximum height, the C-Max offers a crossover-like driving position. It lacks the kitchen-chair-like upright seating of a minivan, but you certainly sit higher than in a sedan or a hatchback. Adults will find headroom to spare, and the seats as well as the tilt/telescoping steering wheel both have ample adjustment range. Pre-production auto-show cars are a tough gauge for cabin materials, but from the looks of it, the C-Max could stand out — at least up front. The C-Max has a consistency to its materials that’s rare below the luxury field: There’s padding where actual owners (not just car geeks) will rest their elbows and wrists, and the woven headliner beats the heck out of the roughshod stuff in so many affordable cars. Like in the new Focus, the center controls have upscale piano-black surroundings. There are also physical climate and heated-seat controls, which should prove far more usable than the touch-sensitive buttons in several other Ford redesigns.

The second row has decent legroom and sits high enough off the ground for adult passengers; it’s nice to see that Ford didn’t do this at the expense of headroom, which is still plentiful. (I should add that there was no panoramic moonroof, which Ford says will be optional, in the show car. With the feature, headroom, no doubt, will suffer.) Ford’s trick middle seat, which folds into a compartment in the outboard-seating well, works easily. Folding down the second and third row is an involved process, but the resulting load floor is unbroken and relatively flat.

Speaking of the third row, it's for kids only. Getting into it is easy enough: Stowing the middle seat in the second row leaves a narrow aisle, or both sides of the C-Max have a walk-in feature that leaves enough room for kids to climb in. Much of the time, I suspect, families will keep the third row down. Like in the Mazda5, cargo space behind the third row is minimal with a small amount of under-floor cargo.

With the optional 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder and six-speed automatic, Ford's chief program engineer John Davis told me he expects highway mileage to be in the “strong 30s or better.” Fact is, provided this thing can get highway mileage of 36 or 37 mpg — in an accessible configuration, not some just-for-advertising configuration that’s impossible to find on dealer lots — you can bet small families will give the C-Max a serious look.

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