The Ford was and is the supreme seven-seater statement – a dysmorphic anti-hero, made imperiously roomy by an inherited reverence to cargo space utterly regardless of its effect on appearance.
Such unashamed and unimpeachable practicality made it rightly popular in the office. But it isn’t the focus of this group test. It couldn’t be, not least because even Ford views it as a niche prospect.
At the end of the day, most people simply don’t want a van in a cheap frock. Increasingly, they want an SUV in short trousers.
The crossover now represents a serious alternative for mainstream seven-seat buyers. It has done for a while, but as the reason for this mustering of family troop carriers is the new Nissan X-Trail, it seems all the more official now.
This is, after all, the manufacturer responsible for introducing the concept to people who previously thought themselves happy with a supermini or hatchback.
As the crossover’s structural asset is nominally one of greater height – the rearmost seats fitting more conveniently under a vaulted ceiling than they would in an otherwise similarly proportioned estate – the range-topping X-Trail ought to find itself well placed to make similar inroads into MPV territory.
Moreover, it takes but one look to see that no additional marketing budget will be required to convince customers which is the more stylish option.
Compared with the Ford S-Max, Seat Alhambra and Peugeot 5008 – familiar and very decent MPVs all – the Nissan is visually striking in a way that simply isn’t achievable when you’re maximising interior space. Where the MPVs sprout embarrassed half-noses beneath their vast windscreens, the X-Trail has a proper bonnet – and a thrusting, frowning one at that.
As if to prove a point, it’s even more chiselled than the Hyundai Santa Fe brought along to provide direct competition. The Korean contestant has a hefty, almost American presence in the metal, and although it conveys the same pumped-up ruggedness so obviously denied to the frumpy MPVs, it’s not nearly as athletic as the younger X-Trail.
But the halo model must do much more than simply walk the walk here; buyers of big MPVs are still fulfilling an obvious practical requirement, so the X-Trail’s ability to seat, satisfy and absorb a large family’s punishment is as fundamental to its appeal as making the Qashqai handle like a hatchback was.
As there are no Autocar-branded wife and offspring to deploy in such circumstances, we unboxed the next best thing – six grumpy, infantile and mostly overweight staffers – and subjected the assembled metal to some undignified real-world abuse.
First up, innards. The basic seven-seat formula is shared across all five vehicles: two up front, three in an adjustable second row and two behind, pulled up from the boot floor.
There are, however, notable differences in the user experience. It’s immediately apparent, after a quick round of jostling and knuckle scraping, that the Alhambra sets the bar here.