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The Ford B-Max people-carrier introduces a novel pillarless door system, accessible space and a strong petrol engine into the supermini class

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Stephen Odell, boss of Ford of Europe, wasn’t in any danger of under-selling the Ford B-Max to the press at the Geneva motor show in 2012, he said that it “does things which other vehicles simply cannot do, and will have a major impact on the market for compact cars."

Bold claims for what you might have taken for a Jody-come-lately entrant in a bit-part segment, which instantly turned this promising little hatchback into something of a hostage to fortune. Citroën's Picasso models continue to dominate European MPV sales charts, after all. Time to investigate what kind of substance Ford’s new downsized family car can use to back them up.

Driving the B-Max is an interesting combination of the familiar and the novel

This is the Blue Oval's smallest MPV - technically, a rival for the Citroen C3 Picasso and Skoda Roomster and now the Yeti. Its calling card is a pair of sliding rear doors - features not unknown to the people-moving segment in general, but not fitted to a car this size before now. And if you’ve seen the TV advert, you'll already have realised that those doors close over something even more unconventional: a body structure that comes entirely free of B-pillars.

That certainly makes the B-Max unique as a utility-oriented hatchback, but how much more practical does it make the car in the real world? And where’s the catch, exactly? Not on the B-pillars, that much is for sure.

The B-Max also becomes the first Ford armed with its turbocharged 1.0-litre, three-cylinder Ecoboost petrol engine to face the Autocar timing gear, the engine having arrived too late in both Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta ranges to power our particular road test examples.

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It's offered in the B-Max in 99- and 123bhp states of tune, alongside 89bhp 1.4- and 104bhp 1.6-litre normally aspirated petrols, and 74- and 94bhp 1.5-litre turbodiesels. And it makes for an unusual feature in any modern model range: a range-topping petrol derivative that isn't a hybrid, and yet that simultaneously offers the most power, performance and the lowest CO2 emissions of any model in the range.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Ford B-Max rear lights
Angular rear lights remind of the Focus and Mondeo

At less than 4.1 metres long, the B-Max certainly qualifies as small. It’s a solitary millimetre shorter than Citroën’s C3 Picasso, but 200mm shorter than Vauxhall’s Meriva.

The Ford's wheelbase is more than 150mm shorter than the Vauxhall’s too – something that promises to make the B-Max more manoeuvrable but at the same time threatens inferior passenger space. Overall height is just over 1.6m, making the B-Max quite low and sleek for an MPV.

Special hinges keep the doors in place in case of a side impact

Based on Ford’s ‘global B-car’ platform, the car’s basics are shared with the smaller Ford Fiesta. This means the engines go in sideways, driving the front wheels, and suspension is via MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear.

The steel body-in-white has been substantially re-engineered to deliver rigidity and crash safety, however, in the absence of those B-pillars. This has been achieved without adding a great deal of weight. On our scales, the B-Max registered 1345kg, only 5kg heavier than the C3 Picasso we tested. Thumbs up.

There are six engines in the line-up. The 1.5-litre diesel engines both record a sub-100g/km CO2 rating. So , if you judge these things simply by the amount of benefit-in-kind company car tax you’ll be liable for, that makes the diesels the fleet car of choice. That doesn't mean ruling out the 1.0-litre Ecoboost, even though they produce more emissions and less torque as a result.

There aren’t many petrol engines that could possibly upstage a diesel , but this Ford triple isn’t any petrol engine. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t particularly light. An iron block, some complicated ancilliaries and numerous balancer weights make it heavier, overall, than Ford’s ‘all-aluminium’ 1.6. But, on paper at least, it is incredibly efficient, producing 123bhp and 147lb ft of torque from less than a litre of displacement – and, fitted with stop-start, produces 114g/km of CO2.

At the cheaper end of the model scale, Ford offers an 89bhp 1.4-litre B-Max, in Zetec trim, for a whisker over £15k. As you'd expect, it's a car quite sparsely equipped: air con and Bluetooth are both cost options.

Meantime, the entirety of the B-Max model range is manual-only, the exception being Ford's 104bhp 1.6-litre Powershift model.

INTERIOR

Ford B-Max dashboard
Dashboard architecture mimics that of the Fiesta supermini

You’ll be wide-eyed the first time you open both side doors of the Ford B-Max, when a gap not unlike the one at the side of a Transit van is revealed. The doors themselves are designed so that you can close either the front or the rear one first (the catches are on the roof and floor, if you’re wondering). And although the rear sliding ones are a little heavy, they’re light enough for, say, a 10-year-old to manage. They latch open fairly easily, too.

When they’re closed, ironically enough, the doors make for a slightly wider blind spot for the driver than a conventional B-pillar might. But when those doors are open, you begin to understand the advantages that the B-Max has been designed to offer.

You'll want to specify the space-saver spare wheel option. Repair foam is no substitute when you're marooned.

Rear cabin space is only average for the mini-MPV class, but access to the back could hardly be more convenient if you’re leaning inside to adjust a child seat or similar. The effect is all the greater on the passenger side, because the B-Max’s front passenger seatback folds flat. Here, you could load or unload long boxes from the side of the car; there’s simply no B-pillar to get in your way.

However, we don’t like the fact that there’s nothing to lock the rear doors open for safety’s sake. If you parked on an incline and forgot to pull the handbrake on hard enough, for example, they could easily slam closed on an arm or leg after a meeting of bumpers. Nor do we like the exposed electrical cables at the bottom of the doors, where a little one could find them with a foot.

Space inside is good but not great, and material quality is likewise. Cabin styling and architecture is a close match for that of the Ford Fiesta. It’s smart and pleasingly modern compared with the class norm, but it could use a dose of added charm. You could also reasonably expect a more up-to-date, larger-screened multimedia setup, given the advancement of some of the systems being offered by Ford's competition.

There are four trims to choose from with the entry-level Studio trim being removed and the range starts with the better equipped Zetec models. Opt for one and the B-Max gets 15in alloys, Ford's Sync infotainment system, air conditioning and front foglights. Upgrade to the Zetec Colour Editions, and you get the choice of three snazzy colour combinations, a rear spoiler and privacy glass.

The mid-range Titanium models get a host more luxury equipment including, climate control, cruise control, a Sony audio system and 16in alloy wheels, while the range-topping Titantium X comes with a panoramic sunroof, a partial leather interior and heated front seats.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford B-Max rear
Equipped with Ford's 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine, the B-Max is remarkably flexible

Ford’s Ecoboost engine is a bit more rorty in the B-Max than in the Ford Focus. That may be because it’s physically less distant, or because there are stiffer pathways here for its shimmies and vibrations to travel down from the engine bay to your backside. Whatever the reason, at just above idle the three-pot engine’s manners could certainly be improved.

You couldn’t ask for improvement from it in most other respects, though. Responding very cleanly indeed to the accelerator and revving freely all the way from 1200rpm to beyond 6000rpm, the engine’s breadth of operational range is remarkable. Cracking 60mph in 11.6sec is pretty ordinary. But being able to engage fourth gear and pull from 20mph to 40mph almost as quickly as you can get from 50mph to 70mph speaks volumes of a small capacity turbocharged petrol. This engine is supremely flexible and blissfully straightforward to interact with.

You may not be able to switch the ESP off, but it's never intrusive

At high revs, it just keeps on giving. At 5500rpm there seems to be little more harshness or noise than at 2500rpm. For sheer willingness to work, it could rival a red-blooded V8.

Is it economical? In a family car, you could reasonably argue that’s more important than any likeness to a supercar. And the answer is yes – to a point. Our touring economy test drew a corrected 41.3mpg from the B-Max; our average was 34.9mpg, including a stint at the track and some spirited road driving. We’d class that as good – for a petrol-powered MPV.

High-mile motorway regulars will still want the diesel. But then mini-MPV drivers don’t tend to be high-mileage motorway regulars. And off the multi-laners, at everyday speeds, the Ecoboost’s economy is a lot better than our test numbers suggest.

If it must be a diesel, Ford’s super-frugal 94bhp 1.6-litre TDCi is the motor of choice, giving the B-Max quoted 70mpg potential and emissions of just 104g/km. In the real world, this is more like a 55mpg car, but that economy is still probably 10 per cent better than you'll produce from any other model in the range.

A lower-spec 98bhp 1.0-litre petrol (without engine start-stop) and 74bhp 1.5-litre diesel are also available, but use more fuel than their range-topping brethren while offering performance that’s not as outstanding for the petrol model, and pitiful to the tune of a 16.5sec 0-62mph time for the diesel. And the auto-option - Ford's 104bhp 1.6-litre motor, teamed with Getrag's six-speed Powershift twin-clutch transmission - offers respectable performance and economy, but nothing outstanding.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford B-Max cornering
Initial understeer can be quelled by lifting the throttle

The class bar isn’t set high for this particular section. The closest thing we’ve seen to a dynamically satisfying high-rise supermini, over the past decade, is probably the original Nissan Note – a car that pulls ahead of a crowd of comfortable but undistinguished small monocabs only by a neck.

The B-Max puts a good length between itself and the next best rival. True to form, it is to a C3 Picasso exactly what an Ford S-Max is to a C4 Grand Picasso: more controlled, more responsive, more grippy and more involving. And marginally less comfortable-riding now and again, over certain kinds of changing surface taken at low speed.

The Ford's brakes are strong and resist fade admirably

In isolation, you might wonder if such a practical car ought to strike that kind of dynamic compromise, but you won’t after first-hand experience. Because it isn’t just a question of sporting tastes being satisfied here; the B-Max also feels more mature and more meticulously fine-tuned than the competition. It steers with a weight that builds steadily and allows you tactile interaction with the road via the front contact patches. Its roll rate is consistent, controlled and reassuring.

The brake pedal has excellent feedback and is instinctive to modulate precisely. There’s understeer in the handling mix, just as there should be for stability’s sake in a car this high-sided. But there’s biddable agility and a little verve, too.

And at least as often as you’ll wonder if that bump you just felt would have been quite as obvious in a Meriva or a Mazda 5, you’ll be delighted by the tautness of the B-Max’s primary ride and its capacity to retain a level equilibrium even at most un-MPV-like back-road speeds.

The car’s poise comes without any chassis noise. Just as we’re used to from Ford, it’s got a velvety sense of dynamic resolve. And tellingly, you’ll find that can contribute to rolling comfort every bit as much as a soft low-speed ride can.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford B-Max
B-Max's unique construction means it doesn't need conventional B-pillars

There is only one Ford B-Max that’s cheaper on company car tax in outright terms than our test subject: the entry-level 1.4-litre Zetec model, which very few will buy.

Company users could save between £170 and £200 a year in benefit-in-kind tax by choosing the 1.0-litre 123bhp Ecoboost B-Max instead of the equivalent Meriva or Picasso. And considering the impact on contract hire of the very competitive residuals that our sources predict, for fleet users at least, that should more than offset a list price that looks high compared with some.

Fuel economy is the only area in which the Ecoboost engine doesn't particularly impress

For private money, the case is a bit less clear-cut. The Ecoboost engine’s real-world economy is good but doesn’t decimate the case for a diesel, as we’ve already explained. You’ll have to attach value to the added refinement and high-rev flexibility of the petrol engine to seal the deal here.

If somebody else has already made your mind up for you to buy a diesel, you'll find the 1.6-litre oil-burning B-Max competitive with the equivalent Vauxhall Meriva Ecoflex on cost and CO2, and on a par with Citroen's 1.6 HDI C3 Picasso on emissions and economy, although not quite on purchase price.

Ford could have been a bit more generous with B-Max equipment levels, though. It may be a supermini, but our test car is also a mid-range Titanium-spec car, and yet it does without the likes of sat-nav and a reversing camera as standard – items that you’d find on equivalent competitors.

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VERDICT

4.5 star Ford B-Max
The B-Max brings spice, as well as accessible space, to a segment crying out for it

The Ford B-Max, like the Ford S-Max before it, enters our MPV rankings right at the top.

Those innovative doors and missing pillars may look like gimmicks, but they really do improve access to the car in many everyday circumstances – not just when you’re in a tight parking space.

The B-Max is a cut above the class for driver engagement

Fitting a child seat into the nearside back seat and driving with the front passenger seatback folded would be a particularly convenient way to transport young children, for example. The body structure also gives you options for loading and unloading bulky items that you don't get even in big estate cars.

The innovative packaging on show here proves that making the biggest car in the class isn’t the only route to making the most practical, and because they’ve been delivered on a car that is no heavier than the class average, they represent the kind of innovative thinking the car industry needs in the 21st century.

We have one or two problems in the detail of the way in which Ford has executed its 'pillarless sliding doors' concept, but they could easily be addressed as part of a mid-cycle refresh on the car - and we hope they are.

Ford has also proven, again, that it can do ‘MPV’ without compromising on its unique selling point: a distinguishing sporting drive. Aided by an engine that lands a telling blow for petrol in a battle dominated by diesels over the past two decades, the B-Max brings dynamic spice to a class where space has been the be-all and end-all.

At the same time, the B-Max's headline diesel engine is also strong and economical - and in that respect, Ford must be congratulated for doing a thorough, belt-and-braces job.

Even without the innovative body design, the B-Max's driving experience might have been enough to make it our mini-MPV class champ; as it is, the credit to Ford should be all the greater.

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Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Ford B-Max 2012-2017 First drives