What is it?
Ford is launching a new version of its Focus-based people-carrier, the C-Max. It uses for the first time the chassis and running gear Ford will employ for all worldwide models of this size, including the all-important new Focus range, due to be shown at this year's Paris Show.
The first C-Max was launched six years ago amid controversy: Ford was late into the sector, and chose a five-seat arrangement despite the fact that rivals like the Vauxhall Zafira were offering ingenious seven-seat arrangements.
The European market for MPVs of this size nowadays displays a 50:50 demand split for five- and seven-seaters, so Ford is launching separate, related models for each buyer: a five-seat C-Max, and 110kg heavier Grand C-Max, which is 140mm bigger in both overall length and wheelbase.
Both models will be on sale in Europe by the year-end – with three trim levels for the UK – and the longer model will hit the US market at the end of next year.
The C-Max will also be the basis of two of the five electric-drive models (a full hybrid and a plug-in hybrid) Ford has promises by 2013. All C-Max models will be made in Valencia, Spain.
The new five-seater C-Max keeps the previous version's clever seating system which allows the centre rear seat to fold under the left-hand seat, and the pair to move diagonally inwards and back, to give four-seat luxury. The seven-seater, which is deceptively spacious, also allows the centre seat of the second row to fold away, leaving a 'walk-through' space. Ford calls the bigger model a 'six-plus-one' rather than a seven seater. It all works nicely, with a VW-like precision.
Five engines (three 1.6 petrols; a 1.6 diesel and a 2.0 diesel) will be offered, each with two power outputs. All have an impressive low fuel consumption story attached, and most can be prepared to meet the next Euro 6 exhaust emissions standard.
The star of the show for us is the 148bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre Ecoboost, a naturally sporty engine which (because of its direct injection, low-inertia turbo and dual variable valve timing) has diesel-like thrust from below 2000rpm. It truly begins a new era of Ford four-cylinder petrol engines.
What's it like?
On the road, brilliant. The underpinnings of this car are those of the outgoing Focus models, with every facet re-thought and with new technology (such as dampers with better valving and a bigger diameter) included. Suspension parts have been judiciously lightened. Suspension mounts have been stiffened. The car has a wider track at both ends. There's a new electric power steering system, now that Ford is happy EPAS can deliver decent 'feel' and the steering rack has been quickened.
Focus and C-Max drivers will find the cars familiar, but they will note improvements. Most of the 1.6 litre models have a new, sweeter-shifting six-speed manual, which is also 30 per cent lighter than its predecessor. The cars are quieter in powertrain, wind and road noise than their predecessors.
They ride more smoothly (though the short model is made deliberately sportier than the US-bound seven-seater) and the excellent steering is sensitive and conveniently high-geared. There's a sense that these Ford products are the first to be tested in every major world market, and their engineering teams have spared no effort to make them ready.