It’s easy to start feeling spoiled after spending a week with a tech-filled car like the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid (I tested the SEL model, with a $31,605 MSRP).
Fresh off my time with the C-Max Hybrid, I went back to my own car (which is a perfectly nice car that shall remain nameless so I don’t embarrass it). I wanted to hook up my phone to the display and use it with voice commands, but my car has no display and no voice controls. I wanted to know how much gas I was saving, but since my car isn't a hybrid, I’m not saving any gas. I almost missed the beeping that the C-Max Hybrid would emit when I got too close to anything while backing up. Almost.
What my week with the C-Max Hybrid shows is how the increasingly interactive driving experience can be addicting—and, if you’re not careful, distracting.
Three displays provide plenty of information
The C-Max Hybrid has three color displays inside: two 4.2-inch displays in the instrument cluster in front of the steering wheel, and an 8-inch touchscreen in the center of the dashboard. The center console has connections for AV input, USB input, and a USB broadband modem. You can get Internet connectivity by going through a modem or by tethering your Bluetooth-connected phone.
The left-hand display shows vehicle information such as the gas gauge, trip data, and fuel economy data. The right-hand display shows infotainment items, including the climate-control settings, which radio station is playing, or who’s on the phone with you.
Each of the instrument-cluster displays has its own set of five-way buttons on the steering wheel. You can toggle through all the different views—you get several ways to view the car's fuel economy, for instance—and also set some options. I wouldn’t recommend doing much of this while driving; although the displays are directly in front of you, they're still taking your eyes a little ways from the road.
How green was my driving? ‘Efficiency Leaves’ will tell you
The right-hand display also shows Ford’s Efficiency Leaves graphic, which visually expresses how well you’re using the car’s hybrid technology to minimize gas usage. According to Ford, the factors that affect efficiency include your driving style, including speed, braking, and acceleration, as well as uncontrollable factors, such as the outside temperature. The more efficiently the car runs, the more plump, green leaves grow on the sinuous branches shown on the display. If the car runs less efficiently, leaves start to fall off the branches.
I confess that I started to get a little emotionally involved in watching the leaves grow and feeling great about my car's efficiency. Then I'd watch the leaves drop at other times, and feel kind of sad about defoliating a bush.
Central display controls navigation, phone, infotainment, and more
Ford Sync is the blanket name for all of the infotainment tech the automaker provides. The offerings vary by car model. In the C-Max Hybrid, the central touchscreen display is where most of the tech interaction occurs. Using the MyFord Touch interface, you touch one of the four corners to reach the four major functions: phone, navigation, entertainment, or climate control. Aiming for one of these corners is easy even when you’re driving, though the touch response seems sluggish.
What I don’t recommend is trying to drill down deeper into the functions while the car is moving. Ford does a good job of making a lot of the controls big and bright, so theoretically you could glance over and touch something. Even so, trying to adjust the climate controls, for instance, while driving is still too distracting. It remains much easier to feel for a physical button while driving than to find the right place on a screen to touch.
Voice control works if you tell it what it wants to hear
That’s where the voice controls can come in handy. You activate the voice-recognition function by pushing a paddle on the steering wheel. Voice commands, unfortunately, are not anywhere near natural language yet. I flummoxed the C-Max Hybrid's voice system easily by saying something I thought would work, such as “AM radio,” and having it think I meant “Family radio” or not understand me at all. You can ask, “What can I say?” and the voice system will walk you through the commands it can recognize. This process, while tedious, will get you on the right track.
I especially enjoyed the voice controls when it came to using my phone. You can use your phone in the car by setting up a MyFord Sync account. You then connect your phone via Bluetooth, download your phone book, and use the car’s voice controls to call people while you’re driving. I would say “Call” along with a name as entered in the phone book, and it would very reliably find that person. It even asked me which phone number I wanted, if more than one was listed. The speakerphone’s sound was great when a called a landline, but sometimes not so great when I called a cell phone.
One thing to watch for on the central display is the clock function. During my week of use, the clock couldn’t retain the time between driving sessions. I had to keep resetting it or ignoring it. Ford says that this is a known issue with MyFord Touch in some cars, and that it has issued a software update to fix the problem.
Sync Services enhances navigation and other functions
Navigation has been around for a long time on a lot of cars. On the C-Max Hybrid, I added Sync Services, which adds a variety of features, including customizable news, weather, and navigation. I liked the navigation extras, such as audible turn-by-turn directions and enhanced graphics of upcoming intersections.
I especially loved how the service could find things for me along the way and adjust my route. One time I needed to find an ATM on my way somewhere else. I asked the car to find the nearest ATMs, and after I chose the one I wanted, it readjusted the route to take me there. I stopped to do this part, although I didn’t have to since it works while the vehicle is moving. I just found it too distracting to try to do while driving.
Sync Services can also look for upcoming traffic problems and offer to reroute you. It was extremely proactive, spotting traffic problems way ahead of me just in case I was going to drive that far. It’s overkill if you’re just tooling around locally and not going anywhere near where it anticipates, but on a longer road trip the advance warning would be useful.
The entertainment includes Sirius XM radio as well as AM/FM and CD, all usable through voice command. You can also connect an MP3 player via Bluetooth and rock your own tunes through the car’s Sony sound system.
Central display can be an impromptu movie theater
My favorite use of the car’s Sync functions was the Sync Video Player, which turns the central display into a mini movie theater. I hooked up a video camera to the AV inputs and played back a movie on the center console. This feature does not work while the car is moving, but I could see it filling some downtime while on a car ferry, say, around Seattle (though I would just as well watch the water go by). Or if you’re using the car on a camping trip and you just can’t take the peace and quiet anymore, you could watch a movie.
Parking and packing conveniences
Two bits of tech are more about safety and convenience. When you shift the C-Max Hybrid into reverse, a rear camera turns on and a sensing system activates to show you what’s behind you. The system beeps faster as you get closer. The beeping can become annoying when you’re trying to park in a tight spot, which is basically all the time in San Francisco. And once, when I was in a packed garage, it was going bonkers because I was close to everything. Nevertheless, the high back window of the C-Max Hybrid does make it hard to see behind you, so this is a feature I grew to appreciate. You can disable the beeping if it drives you crazy.
I loved, loved, loved the hands-free liftgate. You kick underneath the bumper, and the door lifts by itself. You can kick again to lower it, or use a big, soft button on the rim of the liftgate. Anyone who buys a hatchback like this is probably hauling a lot of something, and having this feature makes loading and unloading the car a lot easier.
Higher tech means easier driving
I took the C-Max Hybrid to the country one day and passed a place where they give pony rides. I saw line of riders following a trail, while someone on a Segway scooter rolled alongside and took everyone’s photo. I had to smile at this interaction of very old and very new forms of individual transportation, as well as at the likelihood that these photos would inevitably show up on Facebook pages. Even something as old-timey as a horse ride is being enhanced (sort of) by new technology.
The benefits of new technology are more tangible on a car like the Ford C-Max Hybrid. It has plenty of tech to keep you connected and informed while you drive. Although you do have to be cautious about distractions, overall the tech made my drive more enjoyable and convenient.
This story, "Ford C-Max Hybrid talks, plays movies, and nags you while you're parking" was originally published by TechHive.