Good grief, another MPV! Why should I care?
I'll set the scene. We're just north of Seville on some of the best, most challenging and downright scary roads Europe can offer. The latest Porsche 911 was launched here, and the BMW M6. Ford has chosen these roads to debut the sporty S-Max, a 5+2-seat people carrier hidden beneath sleek and swoopy styling. Did the launch planners have their map upside down or do they have a pathological disregard for personal safety? Neither, as it turns out; this is no glorified minibus. The S-Max is quite possibly the most appealing people mover ever.
A bold claim. Go on, justify it…
Happily. On a mix of tightening bends, bum clenching crests and brief, fast straights, the S-Max turns, goes and stops with more conviction than an MPV has any right to. Of course, performance MPVs are nothing new: Vauxhall has given us two generations of quick Zafiras culminating in the faintly absurd 240bhp VXR. Where the S-Max differs is in its dynamics. The ride isn't rock hard, it's supple. This means it mops up imperfections in the road rather than skipping over them, improving responses and making the S-Max feel more alert and less intimidating to drive enthusiastically.
Hot engine, I take it…?
The flagship version runs the same punchy five-cylinder engine fitted to the Focus ST. Which means 220bhp, 62mph in 7.9secs and 142mph delivered with a fruity five-pot Quattro-style soundtrack. If that sounds a bit extreme for taking the kids to school, then pick from a 143bhp 2.0-litre petrol or a pair of 1.8-litre TDCi and 2.0-litre TDCi diesel units delivering 123bhp and 138bhp respectively. They might lack the same visceral punch but the excellent chassis and steering mean the lower powered variants are still plenty of fun to drive.
Above average MPV dynamics, below average practicality, presumably?
In reality the S-Max can only carry five full-size adults plus two very small children in the third row. If you’re looking for a proper, big seven seater, consider the Galaxy. But the S-Max is more stylish and still pretty versatile. Both rows of seats can fold flat into the floor while the middle row reclines and moves back and forth on a set of runners to increase legroom. Around you 26 separate cubbies swallow family paraphernalia and the wide, flat boot (at 854 litres) is huge. Fold down all the seats and fill it to the roof and you have a 2000-litre load space. Up front the dashboard is stylish without being overdone. It’s all screwed together well too. Visibility is good thanks to that tall glasshouse and the twin strips of glass running the length of the roof which enliven the interior.
The S-Max and Galaxy are built on the same assembly line and use the same chassis, which will also underpin the next Mondeo. That’s due on sale in spring 2007. The novel S-Max is part of Ford’s attempt to reverse its declining sales of big family cars, and it could afford to do it by spinning three Blue Oval cars (not to mention Volvos) off the same components set.
The S-Max could turn the tables on the posh German brands, and lure back some Audi A4 Avant and BMW 3-series Touring owners. After all, it's a fun-to-drive people mover that’s more practical than those lifestyle estates. And when fitted with the lairy optional orange grille, its concept car-inspired 20in wheels and eye-catching front wing vents, it looks terrific and feels desirable. I like it a lot - and I haven't even got children yet.