"The S-MAX is very practical and well equipped – but the key to its appeal is its sporty drive and youthful image."
If you're looking for a people carrier that can do more than just transport an entire family on the school run or move a wardrobe, then the Ford S-MAX may be the MPV for you. There are larger, more spacious people carriers out there, but few offer the same level of style and fun drive as the S-MAX. And that sharp design and good handling hasn’t meant a loss of practicality, either. The Ford Galaxy is bigger, but the S-MAX's boot is very large, with up to 2,000-litres available with the seats folded. It’ll even seat seven if you don’t mind squeezing in the back row and sacrificing a degree of headroom.
When Ford launched the S-MAX, it set it apart from the rest of the market by emphasising how good it was to drive. From behind the wheel it's hard to tell that you are in a tall people carrier, except for the obvious practicality and excellent levels of visibility it offers. On the move, the car seems to shrink around you and feels more like a hatchback in the way it drives. It feels composed in the corners, manfully resisting a temptation to roll as the corner tightens. This does mean a slightly firm ride on occasions, but it's soft enough to soak up inner-city potholes or country road bumps, even on larger alloy wheels. Engine choice is wide but the entry-level 113bhp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel feels underpowered and best avoided. Our pick would be the mid-range 138bhp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel, which quick, economical and refined. The petrol 2.0-litre Ecoboost engine is good but only comes on the top-of-the-range Titanium X Sport and is thirsty compared to the diesels. The optional Powershift automatic transmission changes gears smoothly and is easy to live with, especially in town.
The smart design and sporty drive of the S-MAX haven't hurt the car's comfort on a day-to-day basis. The interior is spacious and neatly designed, with a wide range of adjustments to the driver's seat and controls that make it very easy to find a comfortable position. Rear seats are supportive and can seat three adults with no restrictions on head or legroom, while the two seats in the boot are very small and only really suitable for kids. They do fold away neatly into the boot floor when not in use, though. The dashboard-set gearlever is a clever piece of design, freeing up space around the front seats and making gear changes a mere flick of the wrist from the steering wheel. The ride is able to soak up major bumps and potholes with ease and its firmness is more reassuring than annoying over long distances. Noise is well controlled in the cabin, too.
In the 2012 Driver Power survey, the S-MAX came an impressive 24th, which was a much better showing than its rival, the VW Touran. In 2010 the S-MAX received a mild facelift that improved the quality of the materials used in the interior, helping it feel like a well engineered, solid and safe place to be while adding to the style. In its early years, the S-MAX did suffer from some mechanical problems that led to recalls – such as faulty heated screens – but these problems are largely a thing of the past. The safety equipment in the car is up to Ford's high standards, with window airbags for front and rear passengers and knee airbags for the driver. In addition, the MPV has traction and stability control fitted as standard – all of which helped the S-MAX achieve five stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests.
With its sporty lines, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the S-MAX had compromised its practicality, but, in fact, that's not the case. Dimensions are decent, so headroom is excellent, both in the front and the rear, while the neat dashboard design has freed up a lot of extra storage space up front. The third row of seats are small and really only suitable for kids but they do easily fold flat into the boot. The boot capacity is huge, up to 2,000-litres with the movable rear seats folded, and there are useful storage areas dotted around the cabin. Using the third row of seats does cut down on the overall boot space, but it still offers enough room for two big squashy bags.
Value for money
The unavoidable truth is that the S-MAX is not a cheap car to buy or run in comparison to rivals from Vauxhall and Citroen. There are three specifications available in the range: Zetec, Titanium and Titanium X Sport. Entry-level cars include climate control, electric windows, parking sensors and Bluetooth, while Titanium models add automatic lights and wipers, cruise control, a DAB radio and a USB port for iPods. Top-spec Titanium X Sport cars get the best levels of equipment, though, adding a sporty body kit, sports suspension and part-leather seats. List prices are keen, but you’re likely to secure a bigger discount on a Citroen C4 Picasso or Vauxhall Zafira.
Owners complain that the S-MAX can be an expensive vehicle to run. As it's a heavy car, tyre wear can prove expensive and none of the engines provide class-leading levels of fuel economy. The three diesels will do 50mpg – with the pick of them being the 138bhp version. But with 152g/km in CO2 emissions tax is not as low as you would hope. The petrol engines offer a smooth and speedy driving experience but economy suffers compared to the diesels. The most common complaint from owners is that the cost of servicing seems to be high, with pre-paid plans from rival manufacturers offering better value. The S-MAX does have strong used values, though, which means you’ll recover a large proportion of the original list price, when the time comes to put it up for sale.