Ford's new B-Max is a clever piece of family-friendly design

Is Ford's B-Max the most family-friendly MPV yet?

Price: £18,195 (range from £12,995)
Engine: 999cc, three cylinders, 12 valves, turbo, 120bhp
Transmission: Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 117mph, 0-62 in 11.2sec, 57.7mpg, CO2 114g/km

Sometimes a clever idea seems so obvious you wonder why no one has thought of it before. All it takes is a little lateral thought and, presto! Every other car manufacturer will kick itself for not having thought of it earlier.

Here, it's the doors that do it. The front ones open normally, the back ones slide open. Nothing unusual about that in the world of people carriers. In Ford's new B-Max, though, opening both doors on the same side exposes an entry vista unobstructed by metalwork and a good metre-and-a-half wide. That's because there is no central pillar, and getting in and out can be no easier in any other car, be your destination front or back seat.

The sense of space and freedom this gives is remarkable, even if once you're installed you find this is just a moderately roomy MPV with high seating positions but nothing particularly clever about the rear seats, which merely fold down flat rather than sliding or being removable.

But surely, you might think, depriving a car of a vital piece of structure will make it wobble like a jelly over every bump. Not so; the B-Max's bodyshell is actually slightly more rigid than that of the Ford Fiesta from which it is derived, thanks to some very strong steel and very substantial sills which – unusually – the doors cover almost completely.

As a clever piece of family-friendly design, then, the B-Max is instantly admirable. It is also the first non-racy Ford to have the large trapezoidal front grille that is the brand's new "face" – although there remains above it an air-slot with a Ford badge incorporated, giving the effect of a car with two faces.

Prices start at a surprisingly low £12,995, which buys you the Studio version with a simple engine for much less than the cheapest example of its obvious rival, the Vauxhall Meriva. Ford predicts that rather than the Studio version, most buyers will opt for the middle Zetec trim level. More's the pity, then, that the two most appealing engines – a 120bhp version of Ford's brilliant little 1.0 litre, three-cylinder turbo engine and a 1.6 litre, 95bhp turbodiesel – are available only with the highest trim level, Titanium, complete with numerous gadgets which I, for one, would rather do without (automatic wipers and headlights, for example).

There's a sense of solid quality in the Titania available for the test drive, which should also be true of the lowlier versions; all, for example, have their front seatbelts anchored to the very stout seat frames, there obviously being no pillar to which to attach them.

As you might expect, the smooth, quiet, very punchy, high-power 1.0 gives a driving experience far richer than the inoffensive but lugubrious 1.6 litre diesel can provide, offering impressive overtaking punch, relaxed cruising and a characterful, musical engine note.

Then there's the remarkable way the B-Max soaks up bumps and ripples in the road while tackling bends in a way guaranteed to delight a keen driver. For a practical MPV to be such a pleasure to drive is unexpected; only the numb, electrically assisted power steering clouds the picture, sometimes making the B-Max harder to place intuitively on the road than it should be.

In the end, you wonder why anyone could reasonably need a car any bigger than the B-Max. It's a fine riposte to the excess size of too many new cars. But I have to tell you that its lack of centre pillar is not such a new idea after all. I've just been looking at buying a 1938 Lancia Aprilia with just that design feature…

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