Ford Focus C-Max 1.8 Zetec 2004 model 54 plate.
I will begin with a bold statement. Anyone who says a Ford Focus C-Max is a great car, is either mad, blinkered, or has never driven a good car to make an accurate comparison. I have owned a C-Max for the past 18 months, and in my educated opinion, it is not just a bad car, it is positively dangerous. Ford needs to get its act together quickly and sort out this mess before someone gets killed. Happily, I have now parted with this piece of junk, and bought a brand new Mazda 3 Sport which blows the C-Max out of sight in every conceivable way except for the tailgate, but as my eldest two kids now have cars of their own, I am able to get back to decent, enjoyable motoring once again.
During the summer of 2004, my original intention was to find a replacement for my ultra-reliable Nissan Primera 2.0 litre SRi. That car was a lot quicker than many people imagine, and it held the road like an ink stain to a piece of blotting paper. It was roomy, and surprisingly comfortable given its sports suspension. The car would do nearly 40 MPG if driven carefully, and the only occasion it never started first time, was when my fingers accidentally slipped off the ignition key. The Primera was going to be a hard act to follow, but with three growing kids, I needed something with yet more space.
I looked around at other hatchbacks, but none really seemed to have the space I needed, so reluctantly, I began to consider an MPV as a direct replacement although this route meant I would have to compromise - especially on performance. Vauxhalls were disappointing with very poor levels of trim for the money, and frankly, I have seen better-looking Bully Beef tins. The far-eastern manufacturers fared little better and some marques were not represented locally making servicing difficult. The voluminous Renault Espace had scored badly in some of the test results based on customer satisfaction, and the German jobs were expensive. Nothing in the Nissan stable attracted my attention either. The new Primera’s designers took a retrograde step even if some of the new model’s features are innovative. The X-Trail was over qualified for my purposes.
Ford seemed to have the balance about right with their recently launched C-Max MPV. In shining Stardust Silver, it looked sleek and classy, and although it never would match my beloved Primera for speed and handling, it had that that all-important space in abundance. As the design was relatively new, it meant there was very little in the way of owner feed-back to go on, so in purchasing my C-Max, its acquisition was something of a calculated risk. I had to trust the published figures, and rely upon the honesty and candid views of motoring journalists who had actually driven the car.
A brief road test of my own saw me agreeing to buy a 1.8 Zetec model in the above mentioned colour which accentuated its clean lines very well. Brief road tests are one thing, but a protracted period of ownership is something else entirely. From a short run on a dry road, I doubt if Mystic Meg could have foreseen what a dog this car would turn out to be - I certainly had no inkling at all.
Access via the large doors is unquestionably good, and the seating position can be closely tailored to suit the individual. The steering column is adjustable too, and that is a welcome feature, but the rim of the steering wheel always obscures the combined heated rear switch and warning light. Those big ‘A’ posts are obtrusive, and in both cases, the driver has to physically move around in their seat to see properly. Reasonable bloke that I am, I was prepared to live with this inconvenience just as long as body strength and integrity had been enhanced because of them. Not much fun though, having to constantly move around in the seat if the driver’s mobility is in any way impaired.
The cabin is unrefined and in some respects is just plain quirky, although a vast improvement upon the Vauxhalls I had seen. Those pitiful Spam-cans had been devoid of such basic amenities as a decent CD player and aircon. Contrastingly, the CD player in the C-Max was made by Sony, and sounded pretty good, but it isn’t that easy to use. After 18 months, I still didn’t know how to find all of the functions without taking my eyes off the road and fumbling about. The aircon was a plus, but that too would prove troublesome later on.
The C-Max’s plastic interior panels are misaligned and ill-fitting, but I had resigned myself to the belief they are all like that these days. Not so. My new Mazda 3 Sport is very tidy by comparison and once again a Japanese manufacturer can teach Ford a thing or two about building cars.
The C-Max has a useless letterbox contraption above the drivers head in which to hold sunglasses. To use it, the driver has to take their hands off the steering wheel for longer than necessary, and feel around for the abomination. Very often, whilst doing so, my sunglasses simply fell out onto the floor, so this feature is now redundant.
Ford designers seem to have a problem with right handed people. The sun visors on the C-Max fit into moulded recesses, but have one small cutaway to insert the fingers in order to pull them down. This happens to be on the left hand side, and is often a nuisance and fiddly to use.
For some obscure reason, the radio controls are duplicated on a dedicated stalk situated on the left hand side of the steering column. To use them, the driver again has to take their hand off the steering wheel, which is absolutely crazy when even a modest hand can bridge the distance between the stalk and the radio itself, and touch both controls at the same time! Far better to fit the buttons to the steering wheel, but I guess that would have taken too much brain-power for the Ford designers to figure out.
Changing gears is nice and has a silky feel, but the knob gets in the way of the heater controls in either 1st, 3rd, or 5th gear. My C-Max also tended to want to jump out of reverse gear when it feels like it.
Seating is firm, but supportive. That is not to say they are comfortable. They are akin to sitting on plywood with an inch of foam padding placed on top. They really do need to be body-hugging sports-type seats in the C-Max which would have helped to prevent the vehicle’s occupants leaning over a-la motorcycle when negotiating bends in the road. The covering material also leaves much to be desired. In service, they stain very easily, and given that the C-Max is aimed at the young family man whose kids are likely to drop all manner of things on to them, this is a poor piece of design.
When the car doors are closed, it can be very difficult to alter the rake of the backrest because of the door panel armrest. This means of course that if the owner gets backache on a long journey, they may need to wait until they can pull over and open the door properly, which is just plain crazy. Someone needs to go back to school.
The load space is very good. The rear seats fold and tumble, or can be removed altogether if necessary. There is a down side. When tumbled forwards, the folded seats are held in position with luggage-type straps which clip around the front seat headrests, and these tended to catch in my daughter’s hair. Again, poorly thought out and very ‘Heath Robinson’.
The car feels very big to drive - certainly bigger than it actually is - and that is perhaps because it is so heavy. Consequently, blistering performance is definitely NOT the C-Max’s forte. The figures looked good on paper with a 0 - 60 MPH figure purported to be around 10.5 seconds, allied to favourable fuel economy. Alas in service, I have cause to question their accuracy. To get a response from the 1.8 petrol engine, it has to be booted, and that does two things. It makes them noisy, and it makes them drink, but zingy performance does not come with the extra noise and the thirst. I was thoroughly ashamed one day when I was beaten away from the lights by one of those rubbishy old Zafira’s I had so readily dismissed, and from that moment, the C-Max’s days were numbered as far as I was concerned. I do not own cars I am ashamed of for very long!
To those who say the C-Max is fast, let us make a comparison based upon power to weight ratios given in terms of horsepower per ton.
My old 1999 Nissan Primera 2.0 Sri 96.29
My son’s Rover 414i 85.45
My daughter’s Renault Clio 1.4 84.75
My new Mazda 2.0 Sport 115.38
My Ford Focus C-Max 1.8 Zetec 65.78.
These figures speak for themselves. Gear ratios naturally play their part, but the C-Max runs out of steam very quickly at motorway speeds. Basically, the car is a dog, so please don’t be tempted to try to overtake another car on a motorway at 70 MPH and hope to get past in the blink of an eye, it will take forever. This is a five door van and should be considered in that context. I knew the C-Max’s gear speeds were going to be slower than my beloved Primera, but not by such a wide margin. 3rd gear is down by almost 40 MPH!
Travelling on a motorway at 70 MPH into a headwind, my 1.8 Zetec was ungainly. It got buffeted around all over the place and did around 29 MPG. The overall MPG figure was equally disappointing at just 27.1 MPG and that is well below those promised in the Ford literature. In moderately moving traffic, the figures were lower still, and much less than my trusty old Primera. The engine also suffered from pre-ignition, and unlike my old car, the C-Max was definitely not a ‘first time, every time’ starter. When it did start, there was always a muffled ‘knock’ from somewhere in the engine bay, but Ford mechanics have checked it out and say there is nothing wrong.
I am absolutely astonished whenever I read reports penned by motoring journalists which hail the C-Max’s fantastic road holding. My C-Max wallowed around all over the place like some bloated pig, and was not a pleasurable experience for me given the fantastic car I had before. Even with moderate cornering, I had to lean right over in my seat, and the front end was constantly trying to break away - especially when power was applied. At some point in a car‘s ownership, I usually do the magical ton, yet I never so much as attempted 100 MPH in the C-Max because it felt so unsteady. I honestly do not believe it to be safe, yet I have easily achieved the magical three-figures with what would seem on paper at least to be much lesser cars.
My C-Max also had a dangerous tendency to stall when it felt like it, and very often, that was when emerging from a side road. The net result was to have traffic bearing down upon you, and a safe situation was thus turned into unsafe one. To reduce the chances of stalling, I soon learnt to put a few more revs on the dial, but with anything less than a judicious clutch pedal release, the wheels would slip and thrash about all over the place. The end result is much the same - I got nowhere. This thing lost its footing so easily, it was unreal!
Braking too was very fraught and difficult to get right. The emergency brake assist was so fierce, it was the eight wonder of the world someone didn’t come through my rear window because the EBA had stopped the car dead at the slightest provocation. Too little pressure, and nothing happened, a shade too much, and it bit you. The amount of pedal pressure required to activate the EBA also seems to vary with road speed.
One problem is particularly dangerous, and unforgivably, could quite easily have cost me my life. The car had a tendency to mist up in an instant without warning, even when the engine was warm, which is bad enough on a minor road, but it happened to me at 70 MPH on the motorway. I was thus left totally blind, and had somehow, to get to the hard shoulder without hitting anything and wait for the screen to clear. That is just not good enough and should have been dealt with at the development stage. The C-Max has lots of airbags secreted about the cabin to make an accident more survivable, but surely the idea is to make an accident less likely in the first place?
The C-Max is not a very driver or passenger-friendly car in many other ways. The aircon is noisy and growls at you, but again, Ford say they’re all like that and can do nothing to cure it. The car also seems to take ages to warm up inside, yet my son’s little Rover 414i will be blowing warm air from the vents before it has even reached the end of my street. For that matter, the Rover is also much more comfortable and economical to drive, and a damned sight more reliable and safe - at a fraction of the cost. The C-Max is so contrastingly bad, you can’t even rely upon the digital clock to keep accurate time!
During the warmer months, it was almost impossible to enjoy simple, unadulterated fresh air. Open one of the windows at anything over 35 MPH, and the thudding noise will all, but deafen the occupants. It almost sounds as though a Boeing Chinook helicopter is about to land on the vehicle’s roof, so the owner is bound to keep on using the noisy aircon at the expense of good fuel economy.
In essence, the Ford Focus C-Max is not the ‘Up and coming managerial prospect’ it appears to be on the surface. It is a big brother tart of a thing. It is quite simply all image and no substance. Nor is it a car to be aspired to. Could you really imagine anyone saying to their friends, ‘You watch, one day I’ll have a C-Max’?
I regard the acquisition of this vehicle to have been a big mistake on my part, for the compromises I made in its original selection were too far-reaching when added to the shortcomings I discovered since. It’s a personal matter, but I guess I am just not yet ready for my pipe, my carpet slippers, nor indeed the cemetery. I want to be entertained when I drive a car, and for that experience to be pleasurable, relaxing, and fulfilling. Each to their own, but the Ford Focus C-max just doesn’t cut it for me. It is the very first car I have ever owned which has given me a sense of real insecurity, an inferiority complex, and a mid-life crisis all at the same time. The urge to be rid of it was so overwhelming, I had to treat myself to a REAL car, and so far, my Mazda 3 Sport has put a broad smile on my face. The Ford Focus C-Max does not excel at anything. Underneath the clean lines, it is just as grey, bland, and characterless as any other MPV. If you want to feel like ‘King of the road’ instead of ‘Thing of the road’, then this car is not for you!
Any comebacks, please refer them to me, and rest assured, Ford UK are about to learn of my displeasure!
Tad Davison, Cambridge UK.