Ford C-Max

This Ford has a winning combination – fun for drivers, comfort and convenience for passengers

Fine car, the outgoing Ford Focus C-Max.

One of the nicest compact MPVs to drive. But it has one snag. It does look boxily, terminally dull. No, make that two snags. It has "only" five seats, when many people expect an MPV, even a compact one, to seat seven.

One way to fix this when the new model beckons is to make the new one a seven-seater. Job done? Not necessarily. Toyota did this with the Verso, achieving more people space but compromising the car's airiness and wieldiness. Better to make the new car in both sizes, as Renault and Citroë* both do.

And as, now, does Ford. The five-seater version of the new C-Max, unofficially known within Ford as "Compact", has the same clever arrangement of rear seats as before. The three separate chairs can slide, fold or be removed completely, and there's an optional Comfort feature in which the two outer seats can be slid further back and towards each other to give huge leg and shoulder room while the narrow centre seat is folded out of the way. The Compact has a racier roofline than the old C-Max possessed, giving it the look of an upwardly-extended hatchback rather than a regular MPV.

Thus is it further distanced from the Grand C-Max, which has an entirely different rear half and a wheelbase extended by 130mm. Uniquely in its size class, the Grand has sliding rear side doors. All five rear seats fold flat, and the middle-row seats again slide and recline. The central seat in the middle row can be folded into the right-hand seat and made to disappear, so creating a "walk-through" path to the rearmost seats. Clever stuff.

Both C-Maxes (from £16,745) mark the debut of Ford's 1.6-litre, turbocharged Ecoboost engine, here in 150bhp form although there is also a 180bhp version which will power, among other cars, the future Fiesta ST. Other C-Max engines are a non-turbo 1.6 with either 105 or 125hp, and a pair of turbodiesels either of 1.6 litres and 115bhp or 2.0 litres and 140bhp. Hybrids, both normal and plug-in, will follow in 2013.

Inside the new C-Max the aura is as dramatic as the old one's was dull. In place of straight lines and dourness is a dashboard with hooded displays, flourishes of mock-aluminium and glossy black, a racy four-spoke steering wheel and a central control panel for everything media-related. Designed in conjunction with Sony, it's easy and logical to use. The impression is of a higher-quality cabin. And, of course, the high driving position gives a fine view of the road.

So far, so excellent. The best bit now awaits. Drive off in a C-Max and instantly it proves smooth, quiet and very adept at soaking up bumps. It does this while steering with a precision and progression you wouldn't expect in a compact MPV. This is a remarkably poised, agile car, always keen, never flustered. To handle so precisely while riding with such suppleness is an impressive achievement.

The steering's power assistance is electric, as is usual in new cars for energy-saving reasons, but it feels quite similar to a good hydraulic system. It all helps to make the Compact as engaging to drive as a good hot hatchback and a lot more comfortable, while even the heavier, longer Grand is deft in its movements.

The new Ecoboost engine is similarly impressive. It has almost no delay in its response to the accelerator, it pulls with the muscularity of a good diesel out of tight corners, it has lots of energy at high revs. And its CO2 output is no greater than that of the non-turbo 1.6s. The new six-speed manual gearbox has a sweet, precise shift, and its conventional handbrake has a Z-shaped lever so it encroaches minimally into the centre console.

As you would expect, there's all sorts of optional electronic cleverness including a powered tailgate and the ability to self-steer into parking spaces. The C-Max, in either guise, combines fun for the driver with comfort and convenience for the passengers like no other MPV on sale today. Full marks.

The Rivals

Citroën C4 Grand Picasso 1.6 THP 150: from £20,608

Roomy, unusual panoramic windscreen, good turbo engine, indifferent CO2. Comfortable for passengers, dull for the driver.

Renault Grand Scénic 1.4TCe 130: from £18,920

Even smaller turbo engine, but worse CO2 than C-Max. Low trim level. Popular and versatile but not much fun.

Toyota Verso 1.6 seven-seat: from £17,240

No turbo petrol engine for Verso, just this 130bhp unit with C-Max-matching CO2. Striking looks, futuristic cabin, quiet and comfortable.

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