Hybrid hatchbacks are some of the most fuel-efficient cars on the road today—but when it comes down to buying one, should you opt for green credentials or fun-to-drive qualities?
In other words, which should you buy: the new Toyota Prius, or the latest Ford C-Max?
MORE: Read our 2017 Toyota Prius and 2016 Ford C-Max reviews
First, a disclaimer: it’s not yet a fair fight. The 2017 Toyota Prius has been rated with our new ratings scale, the Ford C-Max hasn’t. We’re crunching the numbers to find a winner in a fair fight, so stay tuned to this space to find out who comes out on top. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
For several years, the Ford C-Max hybrid seemed to be at least an even match, and for some buyers, a better car than the legendary Toyota Prius. That changed for 2016, with a brand-new Prius — replacing the one sold since 2010—that fixes many of its predecessor’s flaws while boosting fuel economy even higher than before.
The Prius and the C-Max are both five-door hatchbacks offered only as dedicated hybrid vehicles—no gasoline-only models—and the C-Max also has a low-volume plug-in hybrid version offering 19 miles of all-electric range from a larger battery before reverting to being a conventional hybrid. A plug-in version of the new Prius won’t arrive until later this year that runs 22 miles on electricity alone.
Ford’s C-Max takes a different approach to using a hybrid powertrain for ultra-high fuel efficiency than Toyota’s Prius. It’s a more conventional and upright design than the lower, more expressive Prius. To many eyes, the C-Max will appear to be a small, tall wagon with a drooping roofline and some bulbous wheel-arch flares.
The new Prius, on the other hand, pulls off the unusual trick of making its predecessor look sedate and conventional. The fourth-generation of the ur-hybrid is no longer tall and slab-sided. It really is “longer, lower, wider,” with a very low nose leading to a wedge-shaped body that has complicated rear-end styling with squiggle-shaped taillights and the characteristic two-window tailgate. We’ll just say that its styling will be a matter of taste, and is likely to be quite polarizing.
The C-Max has a comfortable cabin, especially in its front seats, but the new Prius has made great strides in that area. Its seats are comfortable, supportive, and far better than the last generation’s. Four adults fit comfortably in both, although both cars now have rear seats that sit a bit on the low side, leaving adults in a knees-up position. With the seats down, the C-Max Hybrid offers 52 cubic feet of load space; with the rear seat up, cargo volume is 25 cubic feet. Those numbers are higher than those of the Prius Liftback (which has only 21.6 cubic feet with the rear seat up).
Both cars now come out about equal on creature comforts and interior feel. The Ford has a more conventional dash and interior, with lots of sound deadening and few hard plastic surfaces. But the new Prius has much better materials, with more soft-touch surfaces and a wide sweeping design that blends a pleasant feel—if not exactly premium—with a mix of intuitive and Space Age-y controls. Both cars now have full-color digital instruments, though those of the Prius remain in a low, wide in the center of the dash toward the base of the windshield, while the Ford’s are in the usual binnacle behind the steering wheel. Both cars also have a rectangular display at the top of a conventional console.
The engine and drive unit of the C-Max Hybrid still produce more power combined: 188 horsepower, against 121 hp for the Prius. This gives the much heavier C-Max a bit more get-up-and-go, at the price of lower fuel economy. The C-Max has stronger electric-only acceleration, while in the Prius, anything more than modest power demand—let alone full acceleration into fast traffic on, say, an uphill on-ramp—instantly switches on the engine.
That said, the Prius clearly has the edge on fuel efficiency. For the first time, there are two different EPA ratings for the Prius Liftback: The Prius Two Eco comes in at 56 mpg combined, while all other models are rated at 52 mpg combined. In contrast, the C-Max has an extra burden to carry, in the form of two separate downgrades to its fuel-economy ratings since launch.
The first 2013 C-Max was listed at a combined 47 mpg, which virtually no owners or test drivers could replicate. It was reduced in August 2013 to 43 mpg, and then again—in June 2014, along with other Ford models—to its current rating of 40 mpg combined. We think that’s a more-or-less realistic number, while several road tests of the new Prius all came in at 50 mpg or better.
The new Prius comes closer to the C-Max in drive feel this year. It’s no longer so noisy under high power, and engine noise is better insulated. It’s still present, but the Prius no longer has the desperate, strained howl of former generations, even under maximum acceleration. The C-Max is still quieter, and retains the edge of refinement–but it’s a much closer match. And Toyota has made huge strides in road feel and ride quality; for the first time ever, the Prius drives very much like a regular car. The Ford rides firmly but absorbs bumps well; it’s use of active noise cancellation and lots of sound insulation gives the C-Max on-the-road refinement that even the new Prius can’t quite match.
The Prius Liftback is the ur-hybrid, the one that invented the category. As before, it remains the most fuel-efficient vehicle sold in the U.S. without a plug. But “Prius” is now a family of vehicles encompassing not only the classic Liftback but also the Prius V wagon and the Prius C subcompact hatchback. Every facet of every Prius reflects the car’s designers and engineers striving for maximal efficiency from every drop of fuel; the C-Max is more of a compromise, and its EPA ratings reflect that.
The starting price of a Toyota Prius Liftback stays below $26,000, though high-end models can approach $10,000 more if the buyer chooses options like the feature-rich Technology Package. The Ford C-Max starts in about the same place; it too offers a wide range of packages and a la carte options, including heated side mirrors, a Ford-exclusive power liftgate with foot activation, the MyFord Touch infotainment system, and a Parking Technology package.