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Click to view picture gallery“MPVs aren’t really
  famed for their stylish
  looks. But Ford’s new
  S-Max has changed
  all that.
Majoring on
  sporty design and
  some clever and
  flexible packaging,
  it looks sure of a top-
  slot on a lot of family’s
  wish lists...”

MOST MPV'S (multi-purpose vehicles) whether they are big, medium or small, are by their very nature not the most stylish of vehicles. Renault's Grand Espace is the exception.

Designers naturally see their task as getting the maximum amount of seats and load space from a given length. Consequently, the resulting MPVs tend to be tall, unsporting in looks and barges to drive — as well difficult to get into height-restricted car parks and the typical modern house's garage.

On the plus side, most are very well equipped to meet the needs of up to seven passengers, but the driveability of them is biased towards 'efficiency' rather than 'sporty'. The only other option for customers has been to buy a seven seat 4x4 or even a large estate instead of an MPV. But there again the driveability is always compromised.

The Mercedes R-Class six-seater launched earlier was the first example of a totally new type of multi-seat sports vehicle that really looks 'the business' and drives as well as any passenger car. However, it is very expensive and unlikely to be a volume seller in the mass market.

Ford's clever answer was to launch the S-Max and to create an all-new and much larger Galaxy MPV. In the main, the new Galaxy will con-tinue to be used by companies and hotels as executive business trans-port as well as by the hire and reward industry. Until the Galaxy comes back onto the market as a used vehicle in a few years time, this too is also expensive and still probably too large to be considered for every-day family transport.

All of which is very good news for Ford's new five-door S-Max. This is
a slightly smaller version of the Galaxy, with a lower roof and a sleeker design with sporty front and rear styling. Fitting neatly into the much improved Ford range between the Mondeo and Galaxy, it is an optional choice MPV model from the smaller Focus based C-Max, and can be ordered in either five- or seven seat configuration.

The S-Max is being used by Ford to improve the overall image of their brand, suggesting that Ford can now really make stylish vehicles rather than just functional mass production models. As a rule I do not usually re-visit a new model so soon after its launch, but the S-Max intrigued me. Is it really as good and desirable as my brief initial test drive suggested it was? I had to find out.

Many people, even those without the need for seven-seats, find an MPV a useful vehicle. It's all about transporting what you need to carry, whether at work or play. It's fair to say that many people are put off from owning an MPV by its looks: they want something more stylish and trendy, and that is where the S-Max comes in.

Although the main-selling models have seven seats, most people will only need to use five of them. This allows them to leave the two smaller rear seats folded into the floor for a large load area. The good thing about the S-Max, unlike many other large MPVs, is that the middle and rear rows of seats can be folded away as opposed to being physically taken out and stored in your garage. This gives up to 32 possible seating combinations. The other advantage is that they're with you all the time just in case you need them. Not quite so well thought out is the carpet covering to the rear seat backs that needs to be unclipped and folded out in panels to create a flat load floor. Hardly a simple task or a neat finish.

Worth mentioning is that each of the three individual second-row passenger seats can be adjusted independently. For an even more relaxed posture during long trips, the second-row seats feature a refined recline system with a lower pivot point. When reclining the backrest of the seat, the cushion will adjust by automatically inclining down, providing a more natural resting position similar to a Business Class aircraft seat.

The S-Max is definitely stylish and no potential owner would be put off having one of them sitting on their driveway. It looks a much classier and more expensive vehicle that its 16,995 to 21,495 price range would suggest. True, not all models are that well equipped and some will call for the extra cost options to bring them up to luxury levels, but overall it looks a smart, user-friendly vehicle rather than a luxury van with windows.

The S-Max range is available with a choice of five powerplants: two petrol and three turbocharged diesel. Petrol fans can chose a 143bhp 2.0-litre unit or a 2.5-litre turbocharged 217bhp engine. Diesel customers have the choice of a 1.8-litre with 124bhp and two 2.0-litre units offering 129 or 139bhp. The most powerful diesel is the choice unit for me, as it gives performance to match the sporting looks. Transmissions are either five- or six-speed manual gearboxes depending on the model chosen.

Each engine option is available in LX, Zetec or Titanium trim and specification levels, and probably the mid Zetec level will be the most popular. All models have air conditioning. The LX has electric front windows, Zetec and Titanium have rear electric windows as well, together with alloy road wheels. Titanium models add a CD changer, automatic lights and wipers and the all-important front and rear parking sensors. All models are well specified with numerous airbags.

My test car was the S-Max 2.0 TDCi, with 139bhp and the top-of-the-range Titanium trim along with a six-speed gearbox. And priced, I thought, at a pretty competitive 21,495. You can easily pay that for a well-equipped saloon or estate that doesn't have the style or versatility of the S-Max. It is the same price as similarly 'specced' VW Touran and Toyota Verso MPVs, but the Ford is much bigger. However, my vehicle had numerous extra cost options, including the excellent and user-friendly Ford navigation system plus a panoramic glass sunroof, which brought the test car's total price to a steepish 25,895.

Dynamically, the S-Max is an MPV for people who enjoy driving. It offers good feedback from the precise steering, and it gives good grip during cornering. However it's loaded — with just one or two passengers or all the family and their luggage — the suspension performs very well: not too hard, not too soft.

The driving position, although slightly elevated, is not as high as in other MPVs so you feel part of the vehicle. This feels more involving, and is complemented by the flow-through console and sports seats. Soft-touch material has been used extensively throughout the cabin
to emphasise the feeling of quality and to reduce rattles from items placed in the multitude of storage spaces within the S-MAX interior. For the record, there are 26 different stowage compartments, including drawers under the driver's and front passenger's seats.

The quality feel extends to the operation of all controls. The handbrake lever, for example, is shaped like a lever used on a ship's bridge. Placed in the middle of the centre console, it can be pulled easily for applying the brake and pushed forward for releasing it — and it gives sound-engineered acoustic feedback to confirm its operation. An Electronic Parking Brake is also available.

Visibility is generally good, but the front A-pillars do compromise vision at the front quarters. With the sloping front bonnet and the overall length, parking sensors are a must.

The all important load space ranges from 285 litres (with three rows of seats in place) to 854 litres (with the rear seats folded and five seats still useable) and up to a massive 2,000 litres (loaded to the roof) with the second and third rows folded down. Just as important is the fact that the load length with just the front two seats being used is two metres — long enough to sleep in, should the need arise.

Ford's 2.0-litre, direct-injection turbodiesel engine is well known as a strong and flexible performer, and it delivers the right blend of relaxed high speed driving and good acceleration when needed. With 236lb ft of torque from 2,000rpm, it's responsive and flexible around town. And it's also pretty frugal: 38.5mpg during my extended test period with
the car.

All together that adds up to a lot of pluses. And there is the sporty non-MPV styling, sharp handling, a flexible roomy interior and in addition, the S-Max is refined and generally well-priced. The only annoyance is the somewhat clumsy fold-out carpeting arrangement needed to create a flat and protected floor for the load area, and
that third row of seats is cramped for adults. Heigh-ho. We can't
have everything. — David Miles

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Ford S-Max 2.0 TDCi Titanium
| 21,495
Maximum speed: 120mph | 0-62mph: 10.2 seconds
Overall test MPG: 38.5mpg | Power: 139bhp
| Torque: 236lb ft
Visit Ford's website Click to go there now

-------------------------------------------------------------------------- Ford S-Max