"The Ford S-MAX is very practical and well equipped – but the key to its appeal is its sporty drive and youthful image."
While it's no longer the new MPV on the block – in fact, it's getting on a bit – the Ford S-MAX people carrier is still a flexible way to transport an entire family run. Or just to move a wardrobe, if needs be. There are larger, more spacious MPVs on the market, but few offer the same level of style or are as fun to drive as the S-MAX. Plus, it looks good thanks to some sharp design and the handling is impressive for such a large car. There's no been loss of practicality, either – the Ford Galaxy may be bigger, but the S-MAX's boot is very large, with up to 2,000 litres available with all the seats folded away. It’ll even seat seven, if you don’t mind squeezing in the back row and are not a stickler for lots of headroom.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
The S-MAX is big and heavy, so it's hardly surprising that it can be an expensive car to run – a common complaint from its owners. That heft means that tyre wear can prove expensive, while none of the engines on offer even come close to class-leading levels of fuel economy. You can expect to get 50mpg from the three diesel engines available, with the 138bhp model the one to go for. This is where the S-MAX's age is most apparent, with even the EcoBoost engines not cutting the mustard compared to the rest of the Ford family – CO2 emissions especially leave a lot to be desired, the lowest only being 139g/km and the highest 194g/km. The petrol engines do provide a smooth and fast driving experience but economy suffers significantly compared to the diesel engines. Then there's the high cost of servicing, with pre-paid plans from rival manufacturers offering a lot more value. The S-MAX does have strong resale values on the used car market, however, which means you’ll recover a large proportion of the original list price when the time comes to put it up for sale second-hand. In fact, that market may be the place to start your search.
Interior & comfort
Neither the S-MAX's sporty drive nor smart design has reduced the car's levels of comfort for daily use. The inside is well designed and spacious, offering a wide range of adjustment to the driver's seat that makes it really easy to get into a comfortable driving position. Plus, all the controls are easy to find and use while on the move. The back seats are comfortable and supports, with three adults able to sit with no restrictions on either leg or headroom. The two seats in the last row – aka the boot – are really only big enough for small children, so don’t assume they’re a long-term solution for families with teenagers – but they do fold away neatly into the boot floor when not in use. The seats, that is - not the kids. The dashboard-set gearlever is a pleasing piece of design, freeing up space around the front seats and making gear changes possible with a mere flick of the wrist from the steering wheel. The ride easily soaks up any major bumps or potholes and its firmness actually proves to be more reassuring than annoying over long journeys. All wind, road and tyre noise is well controlled in the interior, too.
Practicality & boot space
The S-MAX's sporty look houses a much more practical interior that its shape suggests. It's big and spacious, with the size allowing for lots of headroom, both in the front and the rear. The dashboard design maybe be old school but it's neat enough to have freed up lots of extra storage space in the front. The third row of seats, at the very back, are very small, however, and truly only suitable for smaller children, but at least they do easily fold away flat into the boot if required. The boot itself offers a smallish 285 litres of storage space when all the seats are in place, but once the seats are folded away, that expands to a huge 2,000 litres that should be more than enough for most driver's transportation needs. There are also useful storage cubbies dotted around the interior for storing all the bits’n’pieces of family life. If you do use the third row of seats, the boot space isn’t hugely practical, so it can create a luggage vs passengers dilemma for long trips - but it still offers enough room for two big squashy bags.
Reliability & safety
The S-MAX ranked an impressive 24th in the 2012 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, but having launched in 2006, age has finally taken its toll in the 2013 poll. Dropping a mammoth 56 places, the S-MAX could only muster 80th place, with reliability being one of its main negatives according to its owners. Any such deficits will likely be addressed by Ford when the next model arrives further down the line, but you should bear this in mind when buying any model that is more than five years old – if you’re set an S-MAX you should also consider looking in the used market, just in case. In any case, models dated after 2010 have better quality materials inside the car and still feel well engineered, solid and safe, even if the style now lags behind Ford's current refreshed range. In its early life, the S-MAX did suffer from a few mechanical problems that led to recalls – faulty heated windscreens, for instance – but these problems are largely a thing of the past. And it has the maximum five-star rating from the Euro NCAP crash safety tests and comes equipped with window airbags for front and rear passengers, and knee airbags for the driver, electronic traction and stability control fitted as standard. It may no longer be up there with the best in the MPV class, but the S-MAX is still a decent car.
Engines, drive & performance
Ford's initial tactic with the S-MAX was to focus on how good it was to drive – a first for an MPV in the UK. That still holds true – it's hard to tell that you are indeed inside a tall people carrier when you’re actually driving, except for the obvious practicality and excellent levels of visibility that it offers. On the road, the S-MAX appears to shrink around you and starts to feel more like a hatchback in the way it drives. It's composed through the corners, refusing to give into the urge to roll its body through the really tight ones. This does means it's a bit firm to ride in on occasions, but it's still soft enough to soak up whatever potholes you’ll find in the city or bumps on winding country roads – even when sporting its larger alloy wheels. We’d steer clear of the entry-level 113bhp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel because it feels underpowered, instead recommending the mid-range 138bhp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel, which is quick, economical and refined. We also like the petrol 2.0-litre Ecoboost engine but that only comes on the top-of-the-range Titanium X Sport and drains fuel compared to the diesels. The optional Powershift automatic transmission changes gears smoothly and is easy to live with, especially in town.
Price, value for money & options
Alas, for Ford, the unmistakeable truth is that the S-MAX isn’t really a cheap car to buy or run, especially when compared to its main rivals from Vauxhall and Citroen. The S-MAX comes in three specifications – entry-level Zetec, mid-range Titanium and top-of-the-range Titanium X Sport. The entry-level cars come fitted with climate control, electric windows, parking sensors and Bluetooth connectivity as standard, while Titanium models include automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, cruise control, a DAB radio and a USB port for iPods. The top-spec Titanium X Sport cars have the best levels of equipment, though, adding a sportier exterior look, sports suspension and part-leather seats. You do pay for all these accessories, though, and you’re likely to secure a bigger discount on a Citroen C4 Picasso or Vauxhall Zafira.