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Fetching family freighter was a true wolf in sheep's clothing – one of the best-driving MPVs we've tested

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The Ford S-Max 2.5T of 2006 to 2009 was the Clark Kent of motoring.

A comic-book hero that doubled as a sober-suited executive MPV during the week and responsible family holdall at weekends, but which, thanks to the 217bhp 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine from the contemporary Focus ST under its bonnet, could morph into a hot hatch-baiter capable of 0-62mph in 7.4sec.

Ford managed to blend elements of SUVs and sports hatchbacks into its seven-seat MPV

Today it’s extremely rare, although it is still possible to find well-maintained examples. More commonplace, and nearly as much fun, is its successor of 2012, powered by a 2.0T Ecoboost petrol engine making 237bhp.

This version cracks the benchmark sprint in a shade under eight seconds, and it would be quicker but is paired with an automatic gearbox, whereas the 2.5T version enjoyed a six-speed manual. Both too much for your heart and your pocket?

Then seek out the more plentiful 200bhp 2.0T from 2010 that takes half a second longer and drinks a little less fuel. Whichever version you choose, they are impressive figures for a seven-seat family car.

Incidentally, we’re talking about the first-generation S-Max, launched in 2006, updated in 2010 and replaced in 2015 by the second. The latter is sleeker-looking and sports a lot more technology, but this publication's testers preferred the first-gen’s ride, handling and steering.

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The model was voted European Car of the Year in 2007, and there’s plenty more to celebrate. Those potent petrol engines were offered alongside a range of diesels. Among the latter, our favourite is the 161bhp 2.0 TDCi, especially combined with the Powershift dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

Thanks to the engine’s wide spread of torque, you should see around 50mpg with moderate driving. From 2010, petrol and diesel engines were either replaced or updated, but don’t expect to drive one of the diesels into a ULEZ area scot-free. At best they are Euro 5-compliant – Euro 6 is required – so they will attract a charge.

Also as part of the 2010 update, Ford improved the S-Max’s ride and handling – not that the engineers had to burn too much midnight oil, because beneath that capacious body is the chassis of our favourite repmobile, the Ford Mondeo.

We describe the S-Max as a seven-seater, although Ford called it a 5+2 – an acknowledgement that the rearmost seats are big enough only for children. There’s not much head room, either, owing to the S-Max’s raked roofline – but it’s one reason why people bought it over the more upright Galaxy. Those seats and the middle row fold into the floor to give a 2m-long load bay.

Trim levels rise through Zetec and Titanium to Titanium X Sport. This last adds a sports bodykit, twin chrome-tipped exhausts and – don’t laugh – a rear diffuser. In this spec, and with either the 163bhp 2.0 TDCi under the bonnet or the punchy but reasonably efficient 200bhp 2.0T, a post-2010-reg S-Max looks a proper eyeful.

Diesels outnumber petrols and Titanium trim is the most plentiful; sports suspension was an option. It firms up the ride, which, fortunately, remains comfortable. 

When Autocar tested the S-Max, our testers saved their biggest accolade for the verdict, stating simply: “The car is comfortable and secure yet can also put a smile on your face.” We’ll take that.

Ford S-Max (2006-2014) common problems

Engine and gearbox: Given how many have been sold, you can expect all sorts of horror stories. The best you can do is insist on a full service history, ideally from a Ford dealer, with invoices detailing every job. Fresh oil, both engine and transmission, plugs, coolant and brake fluid at the right intervals are essential. On low-mileage cars or cars that have spent a long time in the city doing stop-start driving, be aware of issues with the dual-mass flywheel.

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Electrics: Many issues with the S-Max concern the electrical system and features, so check for things such as warning lights and failed parking sensors. There have been reports of blocked drain channels flooding the wiring loom and of water ingress into the wiper arms and alarm module.

Brakes and suspension: Expect the suspension to have suffered a hard life and be feeling a little tired. Don’t rely solely on the handbrake on a steep slope, either – engage gear to be on the safe side.

Interior: Being a family car, the S-Max’s cabin is bound to look a little bruised. However, upholstery tears and rips and cracked or missing trim point to a general lack of care that could extend to the rest of the car. Check the centre armrest isn’t collapsing, that the sunroof, where fitted, isn’t leaking and that the front footwells aren’t damp due to blocked drains or even a split air-con hose.

Body: Check the corners for bump parking, doors for careless opening and wheels for serious kerbing. The low nose is easily stone-chipped.

Recalls: The S-Max has been the subject of around 14 recalls, ranging from the possibility of, where fitted, the glass roof panel becoming detached to an airbag not inflating. Check the status of your vehicle on the government recall website.

DESIGN & STYLING

Ford S-Max rear

From a distance, the Ford S-Max and Ford Galaxy look very similar – Ford uses the same independently sprung chassis on both. Close up, the differences are easier to spot. The S-Max is lower by 69mm and has a subtly raked roofline, a more aggressive-looking front with a slimmer grille, high-intensity circular fog lights and slatted air vents just below the bumper line.

It also has a bigger, trapezoidal lower air intake and – hot design flourish of the moment – front wheelarch vents. It’s also 52mm shorter than the Ford Galaxy.

The S-Max didn't come with a spare wheel – there was a tyre inflation kit instead

The upshot is that it looks exactly as Ford intended: sporty first, sensible second and, with that shorter rear overhang, impressively unbulky. This links into the thinking that the S-Max will more naturally appeal to buyers moving out of a saloon, estate or hatch, rather than those locked into an MPV mindset.

Ford offered the same three trim levels as it did on its other road cars. In basic Zetec specification, the S-Max came equipped with 16-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control and front and rear parking sensors.

Middle-range Titanium trim added larger 17-inch alloys alongside cruise control, a DAB radio and automatic headlights and wipers. Top-spec Titanium X trim upgraded the S-Max’s wheels even more to 18-inch alloys, while also granting a sports body kit (including a lower grille and a more pronounced front valance).

Titanium X models also feature twin chrome-ended exhausts, which look smart and add to the sporty look of the car, but the fake rear diffuser is perhaps a step too far. Further upgrades include special leather trim and a panoramic roof.

And, sadly, those air intakes behind the front wheels are fake, though they do again add to the sporty stance of the S-Max.

INTERIOR

Ford S-Max dashboard

While the Ford S-Max doesn’t have the removable seats of the larger Ford Galaxy, the seats do tuck into the floor. With both rows flattened, the load bay is an impressive 2m long.

Ford described the seating pattern as ‘5+2’, indicating that the rearmost pair of seats is best suited to children, although there’s just enough leg and headroom to keep things bearable for adults so long as the journey is short. Access to the third row is good.

Ford has even managed to retain a useful 285 litres of luggage capacity when all seven seats are in use

Moving forward, there’s ample leg, elbow and headroom for five adults, and while the seats aren’t quite as armchair-like as those of some rivals, they are well shaped and supportive.

The driving position is quite upright, with the steering wheel tilted towards the windscreen and the front edge of the seat set fairly high in relation to the pedals.

That said, the seats and steering wheel have plenty of adjustment, and the fascia is clearly laid out and places everything within easy reach. Many of the switch functions are on the chunky four-spoke steering wheel, controlled by a pair of toggle-and-press switches like those on many mobile phones. This looks complex but works well.

Much of the interior appears solidly built and there are plenty of appealingly tactile materials on the fascia and doors. Some of the other plastics, especially towards the rear, seem cheaper and look as if they could be easily scratched and marked. The handbrake – a broad handle with a straight up and down action – is a neat touch that frees some console storage space.

After some use, however, we suspect the black plastic trim could begin to look messy, with its glossy finish showing dust and finger marks a lot faster than a duller matt grey finish might.

Though visibility in the S-Max is good, thanks to the split A-pillars and low waistline, this model and the Ford Galaxy are the first European Fords to get the company’s Blind Spot Information System. It works well, and is a relatively cheap and worthy option for those who plan to cover a lot of miles.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The 158bhp Ford S-Max

The most notable changes following 2010's revisions to the Ford S-Max were under the bonnet, where Ford’s range of engines were given a thorough overhaul.

A then-cutting-edge 114bhp 1.6-litre diesel joined the range, while 138bhp and 161bhp 2.0-litre diesels were also available, alongside a range-topping 197bhp 2.2 TDCi oil-burner.

The 200bhp Ecoboost engine in the Ford S-Max has two very distinct characters; one economical, one punchy and rorty

The real fireworks come from the petrols, which included a 200bhp turbocharged powerplant mated to Ford’s dual-clutch automatic transmission (called Powershift). A range-topping 237bhp EcoBoost engine gives the S-Max hot hatch levels of performance, while the entry-level car was then powered by Ford’s 158bhp 1.6-litre EcoBoost petrol motor.

Ford's 237bhp EcoBoost offers predictably livewire performance but its economy and CO2 emissions – 34mpg and 194g/km – mean most will be looking at the lower-powered petrol and diesel models.

The 200bhp EcoBoost unit performs like a turbodiesel. With the Powershift dual-clutch gearbox left in drive and a light to medium throttle, the engine and transmission choose to operate towards the bottom end of the rev range.

But if you want to achieve maximum performance – 0-60mph in 8.7sec and 30-70mph in 7.9sec as tested – the engine reveals a different character. It spins freely to the rev limiter and even emits a not-unappealing rasp in the process. This EcoBoost option achieves 34.9mpg combined and emits 189g/km of CO2.

The base 1.6-litre diesel feels a bit gutless in a car of the S-Max’s size, and of the larger 2.0-litre and 2.2-litre diesels, the 161bhp 2.0 is the best all-rounder. In this guise, the S-Max spreads its torque well, giving drivers much more confidence when overtaking on the motorway.

When mated to the dual-clutch automatic Powershift gearbox, this is easily the best combination we’ve found in the S-Max.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford S-Max cornering

Ford wisely chose not to fix something that wasn’t broken in the facelifted S-Max. Therefore, it retained the basic suspension architecture of the original, with MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link ‘control blade’ arrangement at the rear. As such, it maintained its class-leading combination of ride and handling.

The beauty of the Ford Ford S-Max set-up is that it asks so few compromises of its driver, regardless of what they want from the car. Those who don’t care about driver enjoyment will simply find a car that is easy to drive, confidence-inspiring and comfortable.

All variants ride a little stiffly, but are still comfortable enough for family use

Those who do enjoy driving, though, will find that this is a seven-seat MPV that grips well, changes direction without feeling flustered and can be placed accurately on the road.

Much of this comes from the suspension and damping control (passive as standard, but optionally adjustable) but some of it is also down to the steering, which balances manageable weight with reasonable feel. While diesel models have electro-hydraulic systems, petrol models are fully hydraulic, and are all the better for it.

All S-Maxes ride a little stiffly, but are still comfortable enough for family use. Sport suspension is also offered, meaning a firmer but still perfectly acceptable ride quality. While there is vertical movement over bumps, this is well controlled in both compression and rebound.

However, it is the way the Ford S-Max deals with lateral forces that impresses most. Over uneven road surfaces the car produces very little head toss, especially for a tall car, making it relaxing to drive.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford S-Max 2006-2014

The S-Max was arguably the most premium-feeling car Ford offered in its day, especially in terms of image, and as such Ford charged a premium for it.

With prices originally starting at around £24,000, it was certainly more expensive than a Peugeot 5008 or Citroën Grand C4 Picasso – which started at £18,800 and £19,200 respectively – although the firm would have argued that the seven-seat Ford Grand C-Max was more of a rival for those cars.

The S-Max was arguably the most premium-feeling car Ford offered

The Grand C-Max was another reason why prices of the S-Max crept up, so the rivals for Ford’s bigger MPV were the more usable, if not as much fun, Volkswagen Sharan and Seat Alhambra.

The diesels still make the most financial sense in terms of purchase price and running costs, as long as you don't need to drive through any of the UK's clean air zones (such as the London ULEZ). Our own tests showed the petrol EcoBoost models were not as green as the official figures suggested, even if their performance and refinement are tempting.

That’s not to say the diesels are noisy and slow, because they aren't, but economy that’s likely to average 40mpg-plus is the real draw, especially with CO2 figures that make them much more affordable as company buys.

A high-powered car will always have compromises. The more powerful EcoBoost S-Max is no exception, and the price you pay for extra performance and refinement comes mainly at the fuel pump.

Ford offered a wide range of options for the S-Max, which on the whole were reasonably priced. Titanium and Titanium X Sport models are well equipped, although we were surprised to see items like an electronic parking brake and power folding mirrors on the options list, even if they weren't too expensive.

Option packs are worth looking for. They may include some things you don’t especially need or want but they do tend to offer decent value.

Certainly, in higher-up trims, the Ford S-Max can be transformed from a rough and ready MPV to a semi-luxurious tourer, with plenty of extras to keep the family entertained on long journeys.

VERDICT

4 star Ford S-Max

The facelifted iteration of the Ford S-Max remained at the top of its class. We came to this conclusion not only because the S-Max is such a pleasant car to drive, but also because it delivers on space, flexibility and ease of use.

It has plenty of room for an expanding family, while it’s rare among MPVs in providing both a drive and a style that don't mark you down as the driver of a parental taxi.

More accomplished than ever, but the high price was a worry

Whether you choose to drive in two-seat or seven-seat mode (or anything in between) the car remains comfortable and secure, yet can also put a smile on your face. And while moving the seats around isn’t as easy as in some cars (the two-stage rearmost seats in particular), it won’t stop you from buying an S-Max.

Quality, on the whole, is pretty good, although the best materials are found where you’re most likely to look and touch. Elsewhere, close scrutiny reveals cheaper materials.

Were we to ignore the issue of price and rate the S-Max simply on fitness for purpose, it would be difficult to deny it anything other than unequivocal praise. However, we could not overlook the fact that, even with price reductions and an abundance of offers, the S-Max was still more expensive than its direct rivals.

Nevertheless, as enthusiasts, we must say it was mission accomplished for Ford with the S-Max. On the one hand, it has to fulfil its function as a multi-purpose, family-friendly holdall. On the other, it has to transcend its essential usefulness to become an object of desire, a car you’d want to look at, admire and, most of all, drive.

It might not be the greatest or cheapest MPV ever conceived but it is, without question, the best to drive.

What the owner says

Gareth Chapman: “I’d like to tell you my S-Max has been a pleasure to own… It’s certainly been great to drive: it’s a 2013-reg 2.0T 203PS Ecoboost automatic that is quick, comfortable and practical. But it’s also unreliable. I’m the third owner. I bought it with a high mileage and it’s now done 118,000 miles. The first thing to go wrong, in 2021, was the transmission, which cost £3000 to fix. Then the brake vacuum pump failed – twice. Now there’s an odd noise from the engine, and I’ve been told it’s a timing chain issue. The garage has said they will have to remove the engine to see what’s going on. In fairness to the car, its service history isn’t great.”

Ford S-Max 2006-2014 First drives