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Can the new S-Max retain its title as the driver's seven-seater of choice, or have MPV rivals moved the segment on?

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Almost 10 years have passed since Ford first attempted to prove that a wee bit of style and dynamic rigour weren’t necessarily qualities lost on the seven-seater segment.

The Ford S-Max that resulted has proven popular – not just with buyers who found its mix of practicality and well-groomed design appealing, but also with those of us who prefer to labour under the illusion that we might be piloting a large and high-sided saloon rather than a minibus.

The Ford S-Max shares its platform with the Mondeo and Galaxy

This, of course, was the point. Ford, apparently with its tongue nowhere near its cheek, still prefers to call the S-Max a ‘sports activity vehicle’, a marketing misnomer conjured up mostly to differentiate it from the slightly larger (and less shapely) Ford Galaxy it firmly considers an MPV.

The distinction, though, remains critical because once again the underpinnings – an evolution of the latest Ford Mondeo’s modular platform – are shared between the two.

To bolster the car’s appeal, Ford hasn’t been shy with the application of technology. The S-Max is the first to use Ford’s adaptive front steering system and there’s now the option of intelligent all-wheel drive and an extensive line-up of overhauled or entirely new engines, including the latest range-topping 2.0-litre bi-turbo among a glut of similarly sized oil-burners, as well as the 1.5-litre Ecoboost petrol and its burly 238bhp 2.0-litre sibling.

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Atop it all comes the crucial renovation of the interior. Ford’s quaint last-decade design theme has been replaced by something more modern and Mondeo-ish, along with a revised version of the Easy-Fold seating that was a big part of the model’s appeal.

Available in Zetec, Titanium and Titanium Sport trim levels, the S-Max starts at £24,545. It’s around the same price as a Seat Alhambra, and still significantly cheaper than the new breed of affordable seven-seat SUVs typified by cars such as the Kia Sorento. For those looking for a little more exclusivity with their MPV then there is the luxury, lifestyle S-Max Vignale up for grabs too.

Time to find out whether or not there’s still a place for Ford’s sportier option between the two.



Ford S-Max rear

It’s easy to overstate the first S-Max’s basic good looks, but it was one of the first models to feature Ford’s ‘kinetic design’ philosophy, and if you think about what the Volkswagen Sharan, Seat Alhambra and outgoing Ford Galaxy looked like in 2006, it was certainly chiselled by comparison for a seven-seater.

In truth, the new car has not fallen desperately far from the tree. The decision to move the front pillar back to provide the car with a longer bonnet is mildly contentious. Some testers prefer the S-Max’s previous profile to the one Ford has optimistically characterised as being ‘even more dynamic’.

A comparatively large rear light cluster has always been a feature of the S-Max, a trait taken further than ever by the latest generation

Either way, the front end finally gets the raised chrome trapezoidal grille and slim headlight design that have been common features elsewhere in the Ford line-up for a while, and the rear is a little more tapered for effect than you’ll find elsewhere in the segment.

Because it shares the Ford Mondeo’s platform, the S-Max gains some of that model’s virtues – namely, the aluminium-rich integral-link rear suspension and the superior attention paid to refinement levels.

Much as it did with the Mondeo, Ford claims better sportiness from the chassis, but more so the improvement in ride quality for rear passengers, possible thanks to the integral link that allows the wheels more freedom to travel rearwards than was the case with the previous suspension. Ford also cites a 3dB reduction in road noise for those seated in the back.

In the front, the S-Max’s inferred focus on the driver is embodied by the new Adaptive Steering tech, Ford’s new generation of electric-powered rack, which includes additional gearing to reduce the amount of turning required to negotiate tight turns and T-junctions. To calculate the number of turns needed, an electronic control unit and steering angle sensor are housed within the steering wheel.

The reasoning is greater ease of use, although Ford still promises precision and intuitiveness (and continuing its unbroken run as the mainstream’s finest purveyor of steering feel will mean that it needs to).

Alongside the adaptive system, Ford counts at least 20 other new technologies, including Glare-Free Highbeam, Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Front Split View Camera and a switchable Intelligent Speed Limiter that automatically recognises the speed limit and prevents the driver from breaking it.

Somewhat more stimulating is the availability of four-wheel drive in the shape of Ford’s iAWD system, which can send 100% of torque to the rear wheels should the need arise. With iAWD, twist is provided by the revised 2.0-litre Duratorq diesel engine in its 148bhp and 177bhp forms, the higher-powered version mated to a six-speed Powershift automatic transmission.

Both can be had as front-drivers, too (as the car tested was), alongside a 118bhp version, and the new 207bhp unit, which develops 332lb ft from 2000rpm courtesy of its sequential bi-turbo design. The two Ecoboost petrols, including the 158bhp 1.5-litre, complete the line-up.


Ford S-Max dashboard

The genius of the previous Ford S-Max extended in several different dimensions. It was not only fine-handling but also great-looking and apparently right-sized. Owners got that bit more second and third-row occupant space than a compact seven-seater offered, and a slightly bigger boot – and yet they didn’t have to settle for a car that distantly resembled a converted box van.

But that was then. The S-Max now has myriad imitators and its position is no longer quite so distinct or secure. As our measurements prove, this is still a practical car – even for an MPV. Ford’s preference for stadium-style seating conspires here with an optional panoramic glass sunroof to limit second-row head room, but the car still has 70mm more third-row head room than an equivalent Citroën Grand C4 Picasso.

The centre console offers plenty of storage, although you wouldn't mind a greater sense of quality or flair

The Ford’s boot is usefully longer (in five-seat mode) and wider than the Citroën’s, too. Smaller adults can use the S-Max’s third row as well as kids, which is something of a boon. But the same is true of the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer, which has a narrower cabin but slightly more cargo space than the Ford (in five-seat mode) as well as a roomier second row.

Ford’s management of the S-Max’s cabin space is also only so clever. All five rear chairs fold easily and lightly enough for one-handed operation, and the middle three seats also slide fore and aft independently.

However, there’s no ‘lounge seating’ option such as the Vauxhall offers, which might free up extra shoulder and leg room to make the car more comfortable for four occupants. Although wider than the compact seven-seat norm, the Ford’s middle-row seats are quite hard and flat.

However, the front seats are perfectly comfortable, and although the S-Max’s fascia follows that of the Ford Mondeo in setting an unexceptional standard on material richness and quality, it’s certainly pleasant, solid and well provided for storage.

On in-car tech, it is competitive without feeling cutting-edge. Ford’s 10in LCD instrument binnacle promises to be quite sophisticated in the brochure, but it’s less so in practice, consisting of two inset multi-function displays framed by conventional speedo and tacho scales.

An 8.0in touchscreen and DAB are standard, but Ford’s Sony-branded hi-fi is an option even on Titanium Sport models, although it’s relatively affordable at £450. That buys a respectable navigation system, a more powerful amplifier and three extra audio speakers, so it’s decent value and it sounds good enough.

The navigation system lacks the graphics sophistication and mapping detail of the best factory set-ups, but clear directional tulips make it easy to follow. As we’ve written before, it can be a bit unresponsive. Ford’s Sync2 multimedia brings with it decently intuitive voice control functionality for setting destinations, but simply say ‘I’m hungry’ and it’ll bring up a list of local restaurants from the POI database.

For parents of older kids, Ford’s MyKey functionality now includes the in-car entertainment system. Allow your older teenager to drive the car using that special key and you can reduce the maximum volume of the stereo and disable it entirely unless all occupied seats have their corresponding belts done up. You can also ensure that posted speed limits aren’t exceeded, thanks to the car’s speed limit recognition system.

There are three trim levels to choose from, the entry-level Zetec models come with 17in alloys, Sync3 with 8in touchscreen infotainment, parking sensors, sports seats and DAB radio. Upgrading to the Titanium trims gets you Ford's sat nav system, auto wipers and lights, traffic sign recognition and cruise control, while the Titanium Sport gets a sportier bodykit, rear spoiler and sports suspension including heated front seats.

Opt for the Vignale and you will find numerous pearlescent paint jobs, lots of chrome, 18in bespoke alloys and acoustic glass, while inside owners will be greeted by a full leather upholstery, electric seat adjustment, rear-view camera and Sony's infotainement stereo system.


Ford S-Max side profile

Fitted with one of the less powerful of four available 2.0-litre turbodiesel engines, the S-Max struggles to pull off the impression that it is truly sporting. 

However, owners are unlikely to be disappointed by only average outright performance in such a car and we’re certainly not minded to criticise a large, heavy, modestly powerful model for failing to excite.

If you have frequent heavy-loaded motoring or towing in mind, the extra torque of the 177bhp and 207bhp diesels will be important

A lack of low-range flexibility does seem a relevant bone of contention, though. Like the Ford Mondeo Estate we tested with the same engine, the S-Max is a bit slow and unwilling in its response to the accelerator pedal below 2000rpm. It just feels that bit longer geared than it really is.

Use the lower intermediate ratios as you should at low speed and you won’t perceive much of a problem. But in the higher ones, the issue is there all right, as our fourth-gear 30-70mph time makes plain. More than 16 seconds for this benchmark isn’t becoming of any car making a claim at dynamism – worse still one likely to carry heavy loads.

In other respects, though, the S-Max is easier to drive. Like most modern Fords, its control weights are substantial but uniform, and so its pedals, wheel and gearlever are easily mastered. The gearlever’s action is taut and slightly notchy when shifting between planes, but slick enough vertically through the gate.

Refinement is particularly important in a big passenger car, and the S-Max delivers well on it, producing markedly less cabin noise than a Zafira Tourer cruising at both 30mph and 70mph. Wind noise and road roar are well controlled.

Fuel economy, meanwhile, is far from outstanding. Our True MPG testers produced 43.6mpg from the car, having recorded better than 50mpg from some of its rivals. Here, as on drivability, S-Max buyers will pay a price for the car’s size and heft.


Ford S-Max cornering

The new S-Max, like the old one, is a car you can enjoy driving with a bit of spirit. Its moderately high grip levels, meaty steering and fairly taut body control defy the MPV mould and give the car more handling composure and deeper dynamic reserves than you might expect of it.

It’s still quite tall and quite heavy and has a long wheelbase, so you wouldn’t mistake it for a sports saloon. It turns in to corners neatly, but with a certain amount of body roll and a sincere but not avid keenness to change direction.

It's enjoyable to drive but the ride is slightly less complaint than the old car

But for Ford to have aimed for anything more could have compromised the car’s ride compliance, stability and drivability,  and its chassis engineers are much too wise for that.

For owners of other more gently tuned seven-seat rivals, the S-Max’s hold on the road and mastery of its own mass should certainly impress, which is most of what it needs to do.

Whether it’s a significantly better-handling car than its predecessor is more questionable and will depend a bit on personal taste. Ford’s latest electro-mechanical power steering systems haven’t done the Ford Focus any favours, and although better on the larger Ford Mondeo, they certainly don’t give the S-Max the same slick and oily-smooth, feelsome helm it used to have.

You can guide the car as precisely as ever, but there’s just enough elasticity and stiction in the rack to prevent you from striking up the ideal relationship with the front contact patches. 

If you were expecting true handling balance here, though, forget it: you’ll have to settle for unflappable security. Truth be told, it’s a common compromise for high-sided cars, and although the previous S-Max was a touch more neutral, there isn’t another MPV on the market now that’ll offer much other than non-negotiable understeer when push comes to shove.

The steering’s lack of fluency only gets more noticeable as you add more cornering load into the front suspension, but its assistance levels remain consistent. Also notable by its absence is the old Ford S-Max’s fluent, progressive primary ride. The car’s increase in torsional body stiffness has probably been used as an excuse to ramp up chassis rates – and if so, we wonder if the change was necessary.

Where the old Ford S-Max would glide over crests and through dips thanks to soft enough springing and sufficient wheel travel to allow its dampers to work, this new one is a little more restless, and less supple and deft in its interactions with a choppy surface.

It may be a smidgeon more upright as a result, and perhaps a touch more directionally stable on the limit, but we marginally preferred the car as it was.


Ford S-Max

The cheapest S-Max – Zetec trim with the 1.5-litre Ecoboost – is £24,545, which is very marginally less than the list price of an entry-level (and similarly efficient) Seat Alhambra MPV, and almost £5k cheaper than the most affordable (and admittedly diesel-powered) Hyundai Santa Fe SUV.

However, the mainstay will be the diesels, and all three variants of the stock 2.0-litre Duratorq offer the same 56.5mpg combined economy and 129g/km CO2 emissions in conjunction with front-wheel drive and the manual six-speed gearbox.

Add the £400 Family Pack. You get a power-fold third row and you also get a 220V power outlet in the back

Bought in the mid-level Titanium trim tested here (where you’ll get sat-nav and the bulk of the new tech mentioned), £28k is more realistic, where, predictably, you’ll also find the best of the car’s direct rivals.

The stock S-Max’s efficiency is generally worthy – although, as our True MPG testers have shown, far from class-leading in the real world – and only slightly harmed by the optional fitment of either four-wheel drive or the Powershift gearbox.

Range-topping Titanium Sport trim provides access to the most powerful engines and adds a styling kit and firmer suspension, although selecting them puts the S-Max the wrong side of £30k, where some seriously attractive alternatives – the seven-seat Land Rover Discovery Sport among them – loom large.

Titanium trim is the one you want. Think hard about all-wheel drive; it's a £1500 step up. And we wouldn't be tempted by the £750 Panarama Roof if you're planning on frequently carrying adult-sized passengers in the second row.



4 star Ford S-Max
Still a fine-handling MPV although lacking its forebear's star quality

There’s just a touch of the dreaded ‘difficult second album’ syndrome about the new S-Max.

It was on the cards. Ford set the template for how to successfully add dynamism to a big passenger car nine years ago, and rivals on all sides have been raising their game ever since.

Looks and drives better than most but not the class-leader it was

The new S-Max doesn’t appeal in quite the same way as the previous one. On performance, ride and handling, Ford has failed to make a perfectly competent car appreciably better than what went before. It also feels as if the car’s versatility, exterior styling and perceived quality have been somewhat ‘phoned in’.

That’s being a bit hard on what remains a more than respectable, competitive and generally pleasing to drive family car – but then ‘hard’ is what the Autocar road test is here to be.

If you liked the last Ford S-Max, chances are you’ll like this one. It’s a good car. But it’s no longer a great one.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Ford S-Max First drives