As Toyota Recalls Prius, Ford Delivers C-Max

Perhaps aside from the national election results, it has been a tough month for Prius lovers in the U.S. First, Toyota announced yesterday that 670,000 2004-2009 Prius models are among the roughly 2.8 million vehicles that it is recalling worldwide, as Christopher Jensen reports in the New York Times’ “Wheels (The Nuts and Bolts of Whatever Moves You)” blog. Then the Los Angeles Times’ David Undercoffler tells us this morning that the new Ford C-Max delivers “an eco-beat down to the Toyota Prius v” with  “a drivetrain that's both faster and greener.” 

The Prius recall is for two unrelated reasons: a water pump problem and a steering issue. The water pump “could cause the hybrid system to stop while the vehicle is being driven,” coherently reports Anita Lienert at Edmunds.com, “while the steering intermediate extension shaft could be damaged at slow speed.”

That’s probably all you want to know unless you have qualifications as an advanced gearhead. Toyota’s explanation for the latter problem in its statement is: “Due to insufficient hardness treatment of some of the extension shafts, the splines that connect the extension shaft to the steering gear box may deform if the steering wheel is frequently and forcefully turned to the full left or full right position while driving at slow speeds. This deformation may create increased internal clearance and the splines may eventually, over time, wear out."

When you read that, doesn’t your brain envision something akin to a Rube Goldberg device at work under the hood?  

“There have been no crashes or injuries reported” for either of the conditions,” Toyota clearly states, we should note.

According to the L.A. Times’ Undercoffler, if Ford was going to take on the Prius, “it needed a car that looked the part. So, rather than convert an existing model, it imported a dowdy hatchback from Europe -- tall greenhouse, short hood -- and dropped in a hybrid power plant, resulting in the 2013 C-Max.”

And that’s not the end of the back-handed compliments. The C-Max’ “stout construction keeps road and wind noise minimal,” he writes. And “certainly parked next to the sleeker Prius v, the upright C-Max looks a bit like a goober” although its “upright profile lends itself to cavernous interior space.”

You probably suspected that there’s a phrase for wearing your ecological leanings on your sleeve but, like me, may not have known what it is. It’s “conspicuous conservation,” a play on Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” Stephen J. Dubner tells us in his post to the Freakonomics blog last year carrying the hed, “Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?”

“Conspicuous consumption has hardly gone away — what do you think bling is? -- but now it’s got a right-minded cousin: conspicuous conservation,” Dubner writes. “Whereas conspicuous consumption is meant to signal how much green you’ve got, conspicuous conservation signals how green you are. Like carrying that “I’m not a plastic bag” bag, or installing solar panels on the side of your house facing the street -- even if that happens to be the shady side.”

If looks are so important, the Ford C-Max seems to have an edge on the Prius in that it even manages to look dowdier than the Prius, which itself screams out “this is a hybrid vehicle,” as analyst John Wolkonowicz tells Bloomberg’s Alan Ohnsman in a recent article about Toyota mulling a new design direction for Prius. The current look is “frankly a little too whimsical,” according to Wolkonowicz. 

“I could call them ‘dweeb-mobiles’ -- a design that’s off-putting to a lot of people,” he says. “The Prius could be described in some ways as overly cute. I think it needs a little snarl, a little muscle.” 

Ohnsman also informs us that “Ford sold 3,182 C-Max in the U.S. last month compared with 2,769 for the Prius V.” That’s the sort of beauty, of course, that folks at Ford really appreciate.

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