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.

REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

    £40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

    C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

    Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

    £55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

    Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?