What's new? Sexing up family transport has been a pre-occupation for car makers for a well over a decade. Perhaps a few Autocar readers will remember the ads for the Montego GTi estate in the early 1990s: ‘Dad’s got a GTi,’ said the tag line. So maybe he’ll feel better about driving a boring wagon. Or maybe he won’t. So when Ford set to replacing the Mondeo and Galaxy, it says it identified a new market, an emerging niche between both models. Ford says that customers were looking for a ‘sporty activity vehicle’ with what it calls ‘5+2’ seating: ‘The S-Max is a unique blend of sporty driver’s car and activity vehicle that has the ability of taking up to seven people on board… it’s strongly tuned towards being a driver’s car.’ Which roughly means it can be used as a school bus but it won’t depress you when you see it sitting on the drive at the weekend. A bit like the slightly smaller Vauxhall Zafira VXR, then. What's it like? Approaching it from the front, it does look like a conventional shovelled-nosed MPV, neat driving lights notwithstanding. However, from the side and rear there’s something much more intriguing about the car’s styling. It looks lower-roofed (in fact, it’s a full 83mm lower than a Galaxy) and more compact than the generous interior space would suggest. It’s a pity Ford didn’t give the S-Max a more car-like nose; the result would have dispelled any lingering MPV-ness. The interior, largely shared with the new Galaxy, is nicely designed. It’s dominated by three Ferrari-esque circular air vents and the entire centre console is given a silver effect. The only departure from well turned convention is the hooped handbrake, activated by being pulled upwards. The steering wheel is a sporty, nicely dished design loaded with very neat fingertip controls. Only a few shiny mouldings spoil the effect. The seats are nicely bolstered, too, with a very wide range of adjustment, although I still had trouble getting comfortable. Rear legroom is very generous, which is more than can be said for the third-row ‘jump seats’ which, as billed, are only useful for children on the school run. With the five rear seats folded flat into the floor, the load bay is an impressive two metres long. Only the omission of a fold-forward front passenger seat prevents the S-Max from accommodating the ultimate 2.4m IKEA flat pack. The lack of external badging meant I had to lift the bonnet to discover that this test car was the range-topping 2.5 Titanium, which uses a 217bhp five-cylinder turbocharged engine driving a six-speed manual gearbox. My test route took in town centres, the M25 at rush hour and sweeping Sussex back roads. There’s no doubt this is an impressive car. Although you are aware of its weight and size, it can be hustled with some alacrity on fast roads, with plenty of urge from the motor once it gets into its stride above 2500rpm. Pushed hard into bends, there’s a background whiff of understeer – and the body heels over a touch – but the S-Max can be threaded along most gratifyingly, easily keeping up with briskly driven cars. The steering is nicely weighted and accurate, and the six-speed gearbox has a satisfyingly precise action. Ford has managed to really get the controls of the S-Max into harmony: the weighting of the pedals, steering, gearshift are very well matched. The S-Max rides well – even on the standard chunky 17in alloys – although its biggest failing is the transmission of vibration up the steering column on particularly gritty road surfaces. But overall refinement is impressive, all roads I travelled on failing to cloud the background hum of Radio 4. Should I buy one? The only thing that really reminded me that I was in an MPV was the obstructive double A-pillar and the higher driving position. Otherwise it came very close to feeling more like a powerful estate car. Could I really use the S-Max on a day-to-day basis, instead of a conventional estate? As a serial load-lugger, I reckon so. In this top-end guise, this is an impressive machine.