2009 Ford C-Max 1.6i Style+ (D)

A new C-Max will be the star of Ford’s stand at the forthcoming Frankfurt IAA Motor Show, but as it does not go on sale for nearly a further 12 months, assessment of the current model would seem still be relevant So, I took the opportunity (not that Hertz at Frankfurt airport exactly overwhelmed me with choice!) to renew my acquaintance with this long-running model, and it is some years since I last drove one. This is a hotly contested segment of the market, and there have been new versions of a couple of the main competitors this year, with new Scenic and Verso ready to take on the established Zafira, Touran and C-Max, not forgetting a host of other rivals from Mazda, Kia, Citroen, Fiat and Honda (though the FR-V is being phased out and it is unclear whether the Multipla is actually still on sale in the UK). Most of these cars are included in the sales figures for the hatches on which they are based, so it is not quite so easy to see how well they are doing, but it is fair to say that you do see plenty of C-Max on the road, so it has clearly sold well since its inception at the end of 2003.

The test car came with the 1.6 litre 99bhp engine, which is the entry level offering for the C-Max. It is not an impressive engine. Unsurprisingly, an engine of that power is not really up to the job of hauling a relatively heavy car like the C-Max, even with just a driver on-board. Even so, I was surprised at just how much it struggled. The worst problem was in the mountains, where it laboured up the hills, generally in second gear, and often with my foot pretty hard on the floor. It struggled when moving away from rest, too. Acceleration could best be described as “challenging”, with little out and out power to help get some speed up, and insufficient torque to help out once you were underway. To make matters worse, the C-Max is never other than noisy. On the autobahn, even at 120 – 130 km/h, noise levels were far higher than you would expect in a car of this class, which made for quite wearing progress.

Luckily, most of the other dynamic attributes are far better. The lever for the standard 5 speed manual transmission is mounted up high on a pedestal protruding from the centre of the dash. The lever comes readily to hand, and the gearchange quality is good, although there was an annoying sounding “click click” as you slotted the lever from second to third. Finding reverse – down and to the right, where sixth would be were the one present, was not always that easy. It is the steering and handling prowess of the C-Max which really impress. Whilst not perhaps quite hitting the standards set by the Focus, the C-Max is not far off,which would make the car fun to drive, were the engine not so miserable. The brakes had a good testing, too, as the C-Max went up and down several Alpine passes, and there were no issues. This model comes with a centrally mounted pull-up handbrake, which is set down low between the seats, and on the test car at least, had very little travel, so I thought the car had been left with the brake off, or so it appeared. The ride is pretty compliant, perhaps helped by the fact that the test car was on 16″ wheels. Larger wheels are available with more upscale trim levels or from the extensive options list. The trip computer currently shows 8.1 l/100 km, which translates as 35mpg. Not too bad a result, I suppose, considering how hard I had to drive it, with marginally better results shown for the day in the mountains than the day slogging down the autobahn from Frankfurt to Zurich.

Inside the cabin and it is not all good news, either. The dashboard has many of the characteristic trademarks of Ford. Unfortunately, that extended, in the test car, which would appear to be in the German market “Style+” trim, to the use of horrid fake-uminium trim. Whilst not as brash as it can be in the Focus or Mondeo, it is still not nice to look at. It is too bright and so obviously fake. This trim surrounds the gear lever area, and there is a thin strip of it above the glovebox, but the particularly nasty bit is saved for a moulding round the very small fuel and temperature gauges. I recently read that Ford are now admitting that they have some way to go to make their cabins looks a bit more upmarket, so perhaps this is the last generation of model where we will see this sort of tackiness. The rest of the cabin is well constructed from reasonable quality materials. The dash feels harder than the equivalent plastics in the Focus. The main binnacle contains two large dials, for speedo and rev counter and the two tiny gauges for fuel and water temperature. A paddle switch on the chunky indicator stalk allows you to cycle through the info screens of the trip computer. This model had a display screen in the centre of the dash, which presented sat nav info as well as the radio tuning. Something was wrong with the radio, as when you scanned for stations, it would not lock on any, with just the odd unexpected burst of noise when clearly a signal became strong enough. There is a standard Ford unit mounted low on the left of the dash for fiddling with the stereo system. A climate control system is mounted underneath this display unit, and the system was effective but rather noisy on a day when it did not have too much work to do, as outside was not a lot warmer than inside the car.

Much was made at launch time of the fact that the C-Max is limited to 5 seats. Bowing to pressure, the new model will come both as a 5 seater and a 7 seater, but for now, it is as a pure 5 seater that the car must be assessed. There is plenty of room in the passenger cabin for the 5 people, and as the C-Max is taller than a standard hatchback (as I found out when I tried to screw the centre roof mounted radio aerial back in – having found it sitting on top of the dash) so headroom is more than generous. The driving seat will still adjust nice and low (unlike the early Scenic, where it was too high), but there is a problem that with the wheel set as high as it will go, I could not read the bottom part of the info display where the trip computer reading is presented. I drove nearly 500 km on each of the first two days that I had the car, and the seat comfort was never an issue. I am less than sold on the rather nasty scratchy material from which the seats are covered, but this seems to be the standard issue for most family hatches these days. The inner part of the seats had a restrained few splashes of colour to liven up what would otherwise be a rather dark cabin trim.

The boot of the C-Max is noticeably larger than that in the Focus hatchback. It is a regular shape, both deep and decently long from front to back, with 2 small compartments high up on each side, which were big enough to hold the emergency jacket and first aid kit that you have to carry in Germany. Just as well, as under the loadspace floor, there is a space saver tyre and space for nothing else at all. The luggage area can be extended, of course. The backrests, split into three separate parts, fold down onto the seat cushion, after pulling a simple lever on the side of each backrest, leaving the extended load area considerably higher than the original boot floor area, and with no protection for objects to run into the back of the front seats. There is a 12V socket in the boot and a couple of hooks that could be used to secure objects to prevent them from rolling around.

Inside the cabin, there is plenty of oddment space. There is a partially covered deep cubby area on the top of the dash. which is actually quite difficult to reach. Door pockets and a reasonable glove box are complemented by a central cup-holder come cubby and there is a small lipped area on the lower left of the dash below the lights switch. Rear seat passengers are equipped, in this model, with folding rear seat trays. Other practical features on the test car were the heated front screen, the heavily tinted privacy glass for rear windows, and – an optional extra, as far as I could tell – front and rear parking sensors.

I would struggle to recommend the test car. That is largely down to its hateful engine that is simply outclassed and too puny for the car. Otherwise, it’s not bad, but I have to pose a question which has been asked many times before: why bother with a car like this when it offers no more seating capacity and not much more luggage space than a regular hatchback? I really struggle to see the point. Clearly, though, plenty of people have disagreed with me, and have bought a car from this niche of the market. Would I buy a C-Max, even with a decent engine? Possibly. I liked it more than the last generation Scenic and Verso. The only Kia I have driven was a US spec Rondo, with a 2.7 V6 engine and automatic, so that is not strictly comparable. One of the competitors did rather impress me, though. The Mazda 5. Nearly as good to drive, but with more practicality in it, that’s the one I would put at the top of the list.

2009-09-15 06:33:06

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