Ford's S-Max sits somewhere between the compact C-Max and full-size Galaxy MPVs. Longer than a C-Max and lower than the Galaxy this mid-sized model tries to offer the best of both worlds -- decent driving dynamics coupled with genuine family flexibility.
The result is a car that fulfills its promise. It is the best MPV to drive bar none and has a user friendly interior that is more than a match for rivals. We loaded the £25,950 2.0-litre TDCi Titanium up with children and flat pack furniture to find out just how good a compromise it is.
Lower and sleeker than the Seat Alhambra or Peugeot 5008, the S-Max could actually be considered the sexy MPV -- a phrase not often expected in the segment. It's still quite conventional in its silhouette, with a typical one box profile, but the modern Ford detailing keeps it looking sharp.
The trademarks are all there, from clever use of bling around the windows to the gaping trapezoidal intake below the familiar Ford grille. And despite its advancing years (it was launched in 2006), and the plethora of more modern rivals launched since, it remains one of the most contemporary designs on the market.
Sexy or not, if the S-max wasn't practical it wouldn't sell. So seven seats are fitted as standard and the firms Fold Flat System allows the rearmost to tumble into the floor. The middle row can be slid fore and aft or reclined individually and accessory kits allow for items such as mountain bikes to be strapped securely to special anchors in the interior. There's plenty of space up front, but like all mid-size MPVs the rearmost seats are really only suitable for youngsters, and while they are in use luggage space is limited.
Performance & handling
Considering this car was built to transport seven people or large loads, the way it drives is exemplary -- it's more like a conventional saloon car from behind the wheel than any of its direct rivals. The balance between ride and handling is perfectly judged, allowing the supple suspension to cope with the lumps and bumps while keeping bodyroll to an acceptable minimum. Feelsome steering, positive brakes and a slick six-speed manual gearshift only add to the experience.
Straight line performance is equally impressive, though the S-Max has a rather limited engine range; petrol units are limited to the 1.6 and 2.0-litre EcoBoost while diesel users must choose between the 2.0-litre and 2.2-litre DuraTorq TDCi. The petrol units are sprightly, the 237bhp 2.0-litre springing from 0-60mph in 7.9 seconds. However, it's the 161bhp 2.0-litre diesel that offers the best compromise between performance and economy with the benchmark sprint finished in 9.5 seconds.
Economy & environment
Choose a petrol powered S-Max at your peril. Despite using the incredibly efficient EcoBoost range of engines, the 1.6 only just manages a claimed 40+mpg, and the 2.0-litre 35mpg. In reality, these figures are even worse. All of the diesels are much better, the 1.6-litre unit offering up to 54.3mpg, while emitting only 139g/km. Even the 2.2-litre is quite economical at 42.8mpg, though the 2.0-litre achieves nearly 8mpg more than that and emits less than 150g/km in its most powerful form. Compared to rivals like the SEAT Alhambra, which is almost 40bhp down that makes for pretty good reading.
Equipment & value
There's three trims to choose from with the S-Max, starting with Zetec and moving through Titanium and then Titanium X Sport, though not all engines are available across all trims. Even the basic Zetec receives a pretty comprehensive equipment list including 16inch alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, climate control, and Bluetooth connectivity as well as seven seats with Ford's Fold Flat System. Titanium X is much more luxurious, possibly more so than is needed, and the range starts at £22,600.
A total of seven airbags look after the occupants of the S-Max; even the driver's knees get one. And on top of the usual ESP, the S-Max has the option of adaptive cruise control with forward alert, which could help keep you in once piece on long, boring motorway journeys.
There probably are more practical people carriers out there -- the bigger Ford Galaxy for one -- but frankly the S-Max really does seem to offer a perfect compromise. It'll seat seven relatively comfortably, but is compact enough to be easily driven in urban areas, while the clever Fold Flat System ensures it's multifunctional enough for anything families throw at it. And unlike some larger competitors the S-Max doesn't demand you drive it like a loaded minibus; be in no doubt this is the sportscar of the MPV segment and if you value driving enjoyment alongside people carrying it is worthy of your attention.
Model tested: Ford S-Max 2.0 TDCi 140 Zetec
Engine: 2.0-litre diesel
Acceleration: 0-62 in 10.2 seconds
Top speed: 121mph
Emissions: 143g/km CO2