Ford Focus C-Max

At last, Ford plays its trump car
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Model: Ford Focus C-MAX Ghia TDCi;
Price: £18,000 approx. On sale September;
Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, common-rail turbodiesel, 136bhp at 4,000rpm;
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive;
Performance: 125mph, 0-60 in 9.4sec, 50.4mpg official average, CO2 148g/km.

The Scene: an impossibly beautiful piece of twisting Austrian tarmacadam, framed by mountains and chocolate-box houses. Any moment, Julie Andrews will come tripping down a flowery hillside celebrating the mountains' musical vitality; students of automotive TV ads may also expect a Renault Scenic shortly to follow, sans driver. The image would be appropriate, because the windscreen that frames the vista is that of Ford's new compact MPV, the Focus C-MAX.

But a compact MPV is not the sort of car normally expected to feel the way this one is feeling. Plenty of such cars prove remarkably agile nowadays, but none has felt as keen as this. This is fun. It is also quiet, smooth and well able to absorb the few bumps Austrians have to suffer on their roads. Ford, Britain's best-selling carmaker, has come late to the compact MPV party, but it has made quite an entrance.

Why the delay, given that the compact MPV idea, pioneered by the Scenic, has proved such a success? Because it took time for carmakers to get a feel for what buyers really wanted from such a car. Ford eyed Vauxhall's Zafira and its cleverly configured seven-seat cabin, and decided that was the way to go.

Then, when the Focus seven-seater was nearly ready, Ford got cold feet and canned it. Why? Too van-like. Too literal in being a scaled-down Galaxy. Too many seats, actually. Research into the by-then maturing market showed few buyers wanted seven seats. Half of them did not even have children. Time for a re-think.

Thoughts came from Ford's corporate brain: "Let us make an MPV that is as fun to drive as a regular Focus, widely acknowledged as the best drive in its class", said one part. "Let us make an upmarket MPV, well-finished, quiet, comfortable and with lots of gadgets", said another. "Let us try to make an MPV which does not look like a styled-up delivery van", said yet another. The result is this Ford Focus C-MAX, shown as a concept car at last year's Paris Show and now in production. It is based on the underpinnings of the next- generation Focus, due next year. On those hidden structural and mechanical parts will also be based the new Mazda3 and Volvo's planned premium hatchback.

And of course, like the Scenic (itself replaced, test coming soon), Citroën's Xsara Picasso, Toyota's Corolla Verso and others, the C-MAX is a five-seater. Except it can be a four-seater if you prefer, thanks to the trickery of the comfort seat system (optional on low-specification LX versions, standard on sportier Zetec and posh Ghia).

Pulling a handle lifts the centre section of the rear seat, and lets you hinge it down and back into the boot space. You can then pull another handle in each full-size, outer rear seat and slide it diagonally backwards and inwards to create extra legroom and shoulder space: business-class travel, its creators like to call it.Or you can fold the seats forward or take them out in usual MPV fashion.

Another option for the Zetec, standard in the leather-trimmed Ghia, is an electronic parking brake - manually switched on, automatically released - which frees space between the seats for a storage box big enough to swallow six drink cans and a 1.5-litre water bottle. Ford may make this refrigerated. There is plenty of storage space, too: under the rear footwells, in a wide but shallow box on top of the dashboard, in various slots, cupholders and boot compartments.

The interior design has lost the radical diagonal dashboard sweeps of the existing Focus, but the quality of the plastics and textiles has edged up to complement the C-MAX's impressive quietness and solidity.

Engineers apparently spent six months perfecting the way the doors closed against their thick, wind-proof seals, but the doors of the cars I drove still did a secondary bounce as the catches engaged. This, I am assured, will be fixed by the time cars reach customers.

Like the cabin, the external style is neat but cautious. The rounded, sloping roof gives it looks uncannily like an expanded Fiesta. There is one little hint of upmarket aspiration; the door mirrors contain the side indicators, as with a Mercedes-Benz.

Back to the driving. As a 2.0-litre turbodiesel, the C-MAX must surely give the most pleasing drive of all compact MPVs (or MFVs, Modern Family Vehicles, as Ford would have it), as well as one of the most rapid. Its deep reservoir of pulling power and ultra-long-legged sixth gear (over 35mph per 1,000rpm of engine speed) make for effortless cruising, and the gears slot neatly into place via the dashboard lever.

Pity, then, the poor 1.8 petrol C-MAX, which is smooth and quiet but worryingly lethargic; it is best avoided. There is a 1.6-litre turbodiesel, too, its engine similarly derived from an existing Peugeot unit via the two companies' joint venture.

The C-MAX is an excellent MFV. Not only that, it suggests that the next normal-shape Focus will be as impressive as the present one. But where did the radicalism go?

THE RIVALS

Citroen Xsara Picasso 2.0 HDi Exclusive: £16,700
At this price it's good value, and the capsule-shaped Picasso is deservedly popular, but it certainly feels flimsy next to the much-vaunted C-MAX.

Renault Scenic 1.9 dCi: from about £16,000
This one also goes on sale in September. But the new, roomier and radical Scenic, pioneer of the MFV, has the looks of a somewhat shrunken Espace.

Vauxhall Zafira 2.0 DTi Elegance: £17,720.
This was the idea Ford first worked on, then got cold feet and canned. The Zafira seats seven, with clever, disappearing rearmost chairs, but tends to look like a bus.

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