Ford's improved second generation S-MAX continues to demonstrate that larger MPVs don't have to be boring. Jonathan Crouch explains why.
People-carrying MPVs do tend towards being a bit boring. They're ostensibly big boxes on wheels and notions of style or handling dynamics don't tend to come very far up the priority list for their manufacturers. Unless that manufacturer is Ford and that vehicle is an S-MAX. Ford's seven-seater offers impressive handling and some amazingly clever safety features, plus surprising efficiency from its frugal pair of EcoBlue diesel engines. The package of detail improvements we look at here has added to its appeal. As a result, it doesn't look like being deposed from its position as our segment favourite anytime soon.
When the first MK1 model S-MAX arrived in dealers back in 2006, we wondered what the heck it was. Didn't Ford already sell us a seven-seater called a Galaxy? Yet here was something that rode on the Galaxy chassis but was a bit more Miss Brahms and a bit less Mrs Slocombe. It looked great and Ford had made a number of subtle tweaks under the skin so that it drove as sharply as it was styled. It was an instant hit.
Anyway, that first S-MAX lasted more than eight years on the market before it was replaced by this second generation model in 2015, a car since usefully updated. It's that improved version we're going to look at here.
The fact that Ford has its marginally more practical Galaxy model for those only concerned with practical 7-seat A to B family transport leaves this S-MAX free to provide something pretty unique in the segment for bigger MPVs: namely, a good looking car dynamically capable enough to reward the enthusiastic driver. Other big 7-seaters feel vaguely pointless if you're alone in them on the move: this one just shrinks around you and encourages you to take the back road home. The range now hinges around a much improved family of EcoBlue 2.0-litre turbodiesel engines, offered in 150 and 190PS outputs. Improved low-end torque is a particular characteristic of these latest-generation powerplants.
The range also now benefits from a more refined, smoother-sifting 8-speed auto gearbox which alters its shift pattern to suit your driving style. It also enables the fitment of Adaptive Cruise Control and includes an engine Stop & Go system. The brand's intelligent all-wheel drive (I-AWD) set-up continues to be offered at the top of the range. The system continually measures how the car's wheels are gripping the road surface every 16 milliseconds; can adjust power delivery to individual wheels in 100 milliseconds; and can send 100 per cent of available engine torque to the rear wheels. Ford's clever integral link rear suspension helps enhance the signature car-like, sporty driving dynamics with a configuration that features reduced-weight aluminium components. Additional sound-deadening materials and improved door seals contribute to a particularly quiet cabin.
Changes to this revised version of the second generation model are subtle and relate mostly to front grille embellishments which are trim-dependent. There's extra chrome for 'Zetec' and Titanium' models, a sporty honeycomb finish for 'ST-Line' versions and 'flying V' signature styling for the top 'Vignale. Otherwise, it's as you were, which means that this is still the sporty-looking large MPV you can buy.
There are no complaints about the cabin, Ford having done a great job of bringing an upmarket feel to the fascia, with high quality materials used throughout and a cleanly-styled centre stack. New medically-approved AGR-certified 18-way adjustable front seats are available. The steering wheel's a bit busy with buttons but you'll get the hang of it. The seats retain the usual 2-3-2 layout, with no fewer than 32 seating and load-space combinations, as well as Easy-Fold second and third row seats. The system enables each rear seat to be folded flat from a push-button control panel. The S-MAX also features Easy-Entry second row seats that provide one touch access to third row seating with a new design that tips and slides the seat forward in one action. Storage also includes new covered stowage in the instrument panel top, a media storage area incorporated into the centre stack, and concealed under-floor stowage behind the third row. There's not a lot of luggage space, with the third row raised, but drop the rearmost seats and you have a really wide, conveniently-shaped 700-litre boot.
Prices start at around £27,500 for base 'Zetec' trim. Above 'Zetec', there are three further trim levels; 'Titanium', 'ST-Line' and plush 'Vignale'. Even base 'Zetec'-spec gets you plenty of kit though, including 17-inch alloys, the SYNC3 infotainment system, parking sensors, keyless start, a DAB radio, sports seats, power fold mirrors, a tonneau cover, an electric handbrake and ISOFIX attachments for child seats in the second row.
Go for 'Titanium' spec - as 70% of S MAX customers do - and you get sat nav, privacy glass, rain sensing wipers and automatic headlights, LED daytime running lights, a lane keeping aid, keyless entry, traffic sign recognition, body-coloured trim bits and cruise control with adjustable speed limiter. Near the top of the range, the 'ST-Line' variants come with a body kit, 18-inch alloys, a rear spoiler, sports suspension and heated front seats. Beyond that, you can choose the ultimate S-MAX, the 'Vignale' variant, with bespoke leather trim and a unique customer service package.
All S-MAX models can now feature the 'FordPass Connect' media system. In addition to enabling WiFi hotspot capability, this technology allows for a range of convenient features via the FordPass mobile app, including a Vehicle Locator; a 'Vehicle Status' feature that checks fuel levels, alarm status, oil life and more; and a remote Door Lock/Unlock system. Local Hazard Information functionality - enabled by the FordPass Connect on-board modem - can inform drivers of a hazardous situation on the road ahead, even if the incident is not visible due to a bend in the road or other vehicles.
The diesel engines all return excellent economy. In the 2.0 TDCi 150PS variant with 17-inch wheels, you'll see 54.3mpg on the WLTP combined cycle and 130g/km of NEDC-rated carbon dioxide. Or 50.4mpg and 138g/km with the auto gearbox. For the 190PS auto diesel model, the figures are 47.9 and 134g/km. Or 47.1mpg and 151g/km with AWD.
The warranty is a 3 year/60,000 mile deal with Ford Assistance for 1 year, providing roadside assistance in the UK and throughout Europe. In addition, buyers should get healthier residual values that they might expect from a Ford. Low-ish depreciation has long been a Galaxy staple, used buyers recognising its safety, durability and low ongoing running costs.
You'll have to make your own mind up on the aesthetics, but in every other regard, the latest S-MAX continues to be a compelling choice in the large MPV segment. Some may wonder whether this car really offers £4,000 of added utility over cheaper mid-sized 7-seat MPVs like Renault's Grand Scenic or Citroen's C4 Space Tourer. If you enjoy driving, you're going to want to convince yourself that it does.
The engine choice seems to offer something for everyone, the technology is now bang up to date and safety standards are very class-competitive. In short, we still think that the S-MAX still deserves the big billing. Try one and you'll see why.