Ford S-Max

Can a seven-seat load carrier ever be truly sporty? If it has the style of coupé and an engine to match, says John Simister. To cap this, Ford has put magic into its basic people mover too

Model: Ford S-Max 2.5 Titanium
Price: £21,995 (range starts at £16,995)
Engine: 2,522cc, five cylinders, 20 valves, turbo, 220bhp at 5,000rpm, 236lb ft at 1,500-4,800rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 143mph, 0-60 in 7.8sec, 30.1mpg official average, CO2 224g/km

What is it? I'll tell you what it is. A Ford Galaxy coupé. People think that coupés are sportier and more stylish than saloons, so if they buy them, they feel better about themselves. A coupé is a car to covet, not just to use. Claudio Messale, who designed the car you see here, puts it thus: "It's a car you want to have, not need to have."

If you didn't know otherwise, however, you might think that the Ford S-Max is an MPV. You know, a people-carrier, and a seven-seater one at that. But no, it's actually an SAV, or Sports Activity Vehicle, and it was previewed as such in concept form at last year's Geneva show.

Besides, there's also a new Galaxy, which really is an MPV. The S-Max has a lower, sportier roof-line, a sportier front end, a slim grille and a bigger, trapezoidal, lower air intake, and sporty vents behind the front wheels. And if you think that's a lot of uses of the sporty word, you should read Ford's publicity pack.

Those side vents, and the air "gills" either side of that trapezoid, look as if they will keep racy brakes cool very well, but I'm afraid they are fakes. Nor am I convinced by Ford's assertion that the S-Max has a lower, cockpit-like driving position, whereas the Galaxy has a "high command" perch. In reality there's little difference, and even in the S-Max, the front edge of the seat is too high in relation to the pedals. Those with short legs might find the driving position rather awkward.

As you will have gathered by now, the bottom half of these two cars is broadly the same. Their platform will also underpin the next-generation Mondeo, and, like that car, the two MPVs are built at Genk in Belgium. Ford's collaboration with Volkswagen, which brought us the Galaxy/Sharan/Seat Alhambra clones, is no more. The S-Max, though, is intended to appeal to those buyers trading out of a "normal" car-shaped car rather than to those already wedded to the MPV idea, with its connotations of fecundity and practicality.

That sloping roof, and the edgier interpretation of what Ford is calling "kinetic design", means that the S-Max will never have a role as an airport taxi. Its rearmost seats are set low, so people long in the leg will be knees-up. The seats are the same as the Galaxy's, though, and share the ingenious fold-flat mechanism. This is where both cars score over most rivals; usually you have to take the seats right out to create a large, flat load space, but here the centre and rear rows fold flat on double hinges that ensure the seats lie very low. The rearmost seats have hinged flaps to fill in the gaps left by the folding process; they fold neatly away when not needed, held by magnets.

As standard, both cars have those seven seats (and a surprising amount of boot space behind the third row). You can delete the third row in the S-Max, and have a slide-out platform strong enough to sit on. There's also an optional load-securing system of bars and rails, useful for bikes and other adjuncts to the active life.

The new cars work as people- and load-carriers, then. Part of their success is a floor lower than the MPV norm, using the space otherwise wasted between floor and ground. If you think that sounds like a shift back to an estate car, you'd be right. It's all a matter of degree - Mitsubishi's Grandis does something similar; the Renault Espace coupé (aka the ill-fated Avantime) memorably did not, so while its rear passengers luxuriated in leather and gazed up through the panoramic roof, their knees were almost level with their chins.

But do they work as lean, mean, driving machines? That's vital for the S-Max, the car to keep its driver amused while the family is transported. The SAV concept car emphasised the notion of dynamics and, well, sportiness with its exaggerated valances and monstrous wheels, and the production car has a bodykit option to create your own SAV replica even down to the orange surround for the frontal trapezoid. Maybe Ford should call it the S-Max BRM; those Formula One cars of the 1960s had just such nasal decoration.

But I digress. I'm sitting in the S-Max's driving seat, feeling pleased with the tactile quality of the many padded surfaces, and looking at the latest in electronic systems ergonomics. Ford calls it the HMI, or Human-Machine Interface, and it's controlled by a pair of toggle-and-press switches like those found on many mobile phones. It works well.

Down on the centre tunnel is an electric handbrake switch; it's the sort of system that releases as soon as you move off, and it's optional. Standard fare is a cool-looking transverse lever, designed to free up console storage space.

The sportiest (sorry) S-Max has almost the same engine as the fastest Focus, a five-cylinder, Volvo-made turbo unit with 220bhp(5bhp less than the Focus). As you might expect, it goes very well: from a standstill to 60mph takes just 7.8 seconds - quite something for a seven-seat MPV, however sleek. The five-cylinder sound is deep and smooth.

But there's something odd about the way the S-Max moves along the road. Despite the promise of fabulous dynamics, it feels loose and floaty at first, and the steering is too light. It's hard to feel at one with it until you've learnt to trust it.

This was not expected. Fords are usually among the best in class for a natural, rewarding driving feel. So I tried the Sport suspension option: a little lower, a little firmer, on bigger wheels with lower-profile tyres. I expected jitters and thuds, as is common in cars with a "sport" suspension option, but no. Here is the S-Max as it is supposed to be, taut and responsive with a change in steering weight to match that of cornering force, yet still riding bumps with surprising suppleness.

In this Sport form, the S-Max is sensationally good for an MPV. It leaves its bulk far behind and feels like a good, driver-pleasing saloon that just happens to offer an unusually good view out. Mission accomplished.

And the Galaxy? It's taller, more family-flavoured, and therefore a bit of a pudding, yes? Not at all. I drove it with the 2.0-litre, 140bhp turbodiesel engine (the range also has a 1.8 diesel and a 2.0 petrol), and it flowed along roads, strung together bends and soaked up bumps in a magical way. It's extraordinarily capable, and surely the best-driving full MPV currently available.

I'd go for the S-Max, though. Must be that I'm sporty. If so, then it's the first time I've ever attracted that particular label.

The rivals

Mitsubishi Grandis 2.4 Elegance: £21,999

Closest conceptual rival for the S-Max has a clever reversible rearmost bench seat, ideal for picnics and watching sports. It's good to drive, well-equipped and deserves more sales.

Renault Grand Scenic 2.0T Privilège: £20,315

Extended seven-seat Scenic is still too compact for decent luggage space, but looks neat and turbo engine is smooth and relaxed. Well finished, but restless ride over bumps.

Vauxhall Zafira VXR: £21,895

Much power (240bhp) from Astra VXR engine, with seven cleverly folding seats, but spoiled by over-firm ride, anaesthetised steering and bad manners under acceleration.

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