People carriers are not cool.
There’s no nice way to say it but, apart from that time Renault bolted an F1 engine into an Espace, no-one has looked at an MPV and thought “sweet ride”.
But that doesn’t matter. Not every car needs to be a status symbol or some desperate expression of its owner’s self-image. Some just need to be able to do a job well, especially when it comes to family cars.
The Ford S-Max has been doing that job for 16 years now and, despite the MPV segment vanishing almost completely, continues to do so - offering practicality and usability that are hard to rival.
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Once there were loads of MPVs from mainstream brands, now Ford and Citroen (with the Grand C4 Spacetourer) are about the only ones still going. Peugoet and Vauxhall offer the e-Rifter and e-Combo Life but with only electric drivetrains they won’t suit every family’s needs.
Car makers will tell you an SUV is a suitable alternative but years of trying to squeeze a family of five into a parade of Kugas, Qashqais and Grandlands has taught me that they’re wrong. Even a seven-seat SUV, like the Seat Tarraco, Kia Sorento or Skoda Kodiaq, while spacious, doesn’t have the flexibility or family friendliness of something like the S-Max.
For starters, the S-Max has seven proper individual seats that can each be manoeuvred independently. The rear two are smaller and harder to access than the rest but still better in both regards than most seven-seat SUVs. Fold them flat into the floor, and you’ve got 700 litres of boot space to play with. Passengers in the middle row each enjoy their own sliding, reclining pew and legroom, shoulder and headroom that mean even three fully grown adults can get comfortable.
While the seating position isn’t as high as an SUV, the S-Max is taller than a traditional hatch or estate, making it easier to get in and out, especially if you’re trying to wrangle small children into car seats. Aiding that further are rear doors that open to nearly 90 degrees.
The S-Max also features other practical touches that show real thought has gone into the needs of families - from the fold-up picnic tables in the seat backs and three Isofix points in row two, to the generous storage bins and 230V three-pin socket in the rear console.
It’s just a shame that age is catching up with the interior, which looks and feels a little dated compared with newer models. Even the fancy leather dashtop and upholstery of the Vignale model can’t disguise the ageing design.
That Vignale trim is the top of tree in Ford’s range and brings some blingy exterior trim, big alloys and quilted leather upholstery. It also brings heaps of kit, from adaptive LED headlights and a powered tailgate to heated massage seats and active noise cancelling. Of course, that means an asking price of more than £41,000 and even then, the assistance pack with adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, front camera and active park assist is still an extra £1,000.
In the S-Max’s defence, that’s about the same as a Kuga Vignale with the same engine, and the S-Max is substantially more practical than its SUV stablemate.
On the road, the S-Max has always been a slight outlier in the MPV market as, despite appearances, it is half-decent to drive. Ford’s chassis geniuses somehow make this sensible load-lugger fairly responsive and agile. Compared with the tall, cumbersome seven-seat SUVs that claim to be an alternative, the S-Max handles like a hatchback.
It’s by no means a sporty car, an impression reinforced by its hybrid drivetrain and CVT gearbox. Ford has ditched diesel, so the only choice for cars like the S-Max and Kuga are a plug-in hybrid or the full hybrid tested here. With 187bhp and 148lb ft it has sufficient oomph to lug a family and returns mid-40s economy - once the sort of efficiency you would expect from a diesel version. However, it’s hardly a powerhouse, especially if you’re filling all seven seats on a regular basis, so you’re better off just accepting a slower pace of life. That will also offer the smoothest performance from the self-managing hybrid drivetrain.
But that spirit is completely in keeping with the S-Max’s overall feel. It isn’t a car you’ll buy with your heart but it is an eminently sensible choice. It’s boring to look at, good to drive only in the context of the alternatives and hardly cheap. But for larger families there is still no match for its mixture of practicality and usability.
Ford S-Max Vignale
Price: £41,790 (£42,940 as tested); Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder, petrol with hybrid electric motor; Power: 187bhp; Torque: 148lb ft; Transmission: CVT automatic; Top speed: 115mph; 0-62mph: 9.9 seconds; Economy: 43.5mpg; CO2 emissions: 148g/km