What Car? says...
Statisticians tell us that the world’s population has more than doubled in the past 50 years. So, along with placing a huge strain on Earth’s resources, more babies, toddlers and teenagers than ever before need to be ferried to and from nurseries, schools and universities, putting a strain on your family transport. Just as well, then, that the Ford S-Max is around to help take some of the strain off harassed parents.
Okay, you’ll have to ignore the fact that it’s not a trendy SUV, and there is a whiff of ‘airport taxi run’ about it, but don’t assume that the S-Max is a boring family plodder – historically, it has been one of the sportiest MPVs around. And, of course, all versions come with that all-important asset of seven seats to keep the whole family mobile.
As if being an MPV wasn’t unfashionable enough, diesel engines feature heavily in the S-Max lineup, with a choice of two power outputs. However, there’s also the option of a bang-up-to-date hybrid that combines a petrol engine with a battery pack and electric motor to drive down CO2 emissions and improve fuel economy.
To match the three engines that can reside under the S-Max’s heavily raked bonnet, Ford also gives you a choice of three trim levels. These range from sensible but by no means sparsely equipped Titanium, sporty ST-Line and luxurious Vignale.
But should you be looking to buy one over its seven-seat rivals, such as the Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer, the Ford Galaxy and the Volkswagen Touran? Read on over the next few pages for our in-depth impressions, along with our recommendations for trim levels and engines. And don’t forget to head to our What Car? New Car Deals pages for the best prices available.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The range kicks off with the Ecoblue 150. Available with the Titanium trim level, it’s a 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel with a manual or automatic gearbox. It pulls strongly enough across a broad rev range, so can easily cope when the car is heavily loaded. Outright performance is adequate if nothing more; 0-62mph takes a reasonable 10.6sec with the manual gearbox.
If you want more oomph, the 187bhp Ecoblue 190 is offered with the ST-Line and Vignale trims. It’s only available with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and drops the 0-62mph time to 9.6sec, adding more muscle from low down, too. This engine is also available with four-wheel drive, making the S-Max a good choice if you live in a part of the country affected by harsh winters.
The final engine choice is arguably the most relevant, the Duratec 190 FHEV. This combines a 2.5-litre petrol engine with a battery and electric motor to give performance that’s nearly as strong as the Ecoblue 190 – 0-62mph takes 9.8sec. It needs to be worked quite hard to feel that quick, though.
Suspension and ride comfort
The S-Max is quite sporty by MPV standards with fairly firm suspension, so it tends to shimmy from side to side a bit at lower speeds and the suspension picks up on small imperfections in the road. That said, it isn’t as harsh over potholes as some MPVs, such as the Citroën C4 Spacetourer, and it never borders on being uncomfortable. What’s more, the ride is very settled on motorways and A-roads, making the S-Max a good choice if you regularly cover long distances.
The sportier ST-Line S-Max gets firmer suspension but the differences compared with the standard set-up are marginal. This is worth considering if your commute includes lots of winding roads.
If you regularly tow a caravan or trailer, self-levelling suspension is a relatively affordable option, although it isn’t available on ST-Line or four-wheel drive versions.
MPVs don’t get much more enjoyable to drive than the S-Max; it combines lots of grip with minimal body lean. In fact, it handles like a smaller, lighter car and is impressively agile along twisting roads. Although the steering is inclined to return to centre rather too aggressively, it’s precise enough to help you place the car exactly where you want it through bends. It’s also easy to spin at low speeds, making parking in relatively tight spaces surprisingly easy.
Body movements are also exceptionally well controlled, so the S-Max doesn’t suffer from the unsettling, wallowy road manners that afflict many other MPVs.
The S-Max is no spring chicken and perhaps the one area where it’s starting to show its age is braking. As well as feeling quite wooden and difficult to modulate at low speeds, the pedal needs a substantial amount of pressure to get enough stopping power from higher speeds, especially when the car is fully laden.
Noise and vibration
All of the engines we’ve tried are relatively smooth and hushed. The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel is certainly more refined than the equivalent engines in rivals including the C4 Spacetourer. It only becomes vocal at high revs and you don’t feel too many vibrations through the major controls. The FHEV is near silent when you’re driving gently, thanks in part to its ability to run on electricity, and switches smoothly between electric and petrol power. The latter, too, gets a bit noisy when pushed hard, but vibrations are kept to a minimum.
There’s road noise on the motorway – especially on versions with big alloy wheels – but no more than in most key competitors, and the S-Max does a good job of quelling wind noise. The petrol engines are particularly quiet, especially around town.
The six-speed manual gearbox has a slick action that makes it pleasant to use, while the eight-speed automatic 'box (standard with some engines and optional on others) shifts smoothly other than the occasional jolt at low speeds. The FHEV’s gearbox doesn’t have conventional gears, but it does allow engine revs to rise and fall naturally as you’re accelerating. This means it doesn’t sound as grating as other systems that hold the engine’s revs at a constant level.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
You sit slightly lower than you do in many MPVs, but it’s a matter of personal preference whether or not you think that’s a good thing. Some drivers will prefer the more elevated driving position offered by some rivals, while others will appreciate the S-Max’s more hatchback-like arrangement.
Either way, there’s a wide range of adjustment to help you find a comfortable driving position, and you’re unlikely to suffer from backache on long journeys because adjustable lumbar support is standard across the range. As a bonus, the seat is more heavily bolstered than those in many MPVs, so it holds you securely in place through corners.
Our only criticism is that the dashboard layout could be a bit more user-friendly; adjusting the air conditioning isn’t as straightforward as it could be.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
Forward visibility is excellent, thanks to slim windscreen pillars and a large glass area. Whether you’re pulling out from a junction or onto a roundabout, the blindspots are far smaller than they are in, say, a Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer.
The view out the back is more restricted, but it’s no worse than in most rivals. The deep windows and gently rising window line mean over-the-shoulder visibility is pretty good.
This is still a big car, though, so you’ll be grateful for the standard front and rear parking sensors, while a front and rear-view camera is optional on Titanium and ST-Line. Vignale gets a rear camera as standard, but you’ll have to pay extra for the front one. The standard heated windscreen is a boon on frosty mornings, and adaptive LED headlights are standard on Vignale and optional on all other trims.
Sat nav and infotainment
All models get an 8.0in touchscreen with a DAB radio, voice control, sat nav and Bluetooth, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring. Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system is fitted to the majority of its cars.
The screen is reasonably bright but readily shows up fingerprints, particularly when the sun is shining. The layout of the menus could also be more intuitive, while some of the icons are rather small and tricky to hit while driving. Even so, it’s better than the system you get in a Citroen Grand C4 Spacetourer.
The voice control is activated by pushing a button on the steering wheel and is mostly effective, allowing you to select an artist from your USB-connected MP3 player or phone, make calls, select destinations or even change the climate control. Two USB connections come as standard, so charging your family’s phones shouldn’t be a problem.
The S-Max isn’t a cheap car, yet its interior doesn’t look or feel as upmarket as you might expect. The Citroën C4 Spacetourer is classier inside, for example, while the Volkswagen Touran also has a more premium feel.
The S-Max stops short of feeling low-rent, but there are some poorly damped switches and a few too many hard and unappealing plastics on show. Even the matt-finish dash feels a little cheap next to the denser, more attractively textured materials you’ll find in some rivals.
The top-of-the-range Vignale model goes some way to addressing this with soft leather on the seats and dashboard, but not by enough to justify its ludicrously high price.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
MPVs are all about space and the S-Max certainly delivers on this front. There’s lots of room for even the longest legs and head room is similarly generous. This is a wide car, so there’s plenty of elbow room for you and your front passenger.
Storage space is similarly impressive. The door bins are wide and deep, and there are two cupholders between the seats, along with a large lidded storage bin that doubles as an armrest. The glovebox is a good size, if a little shallow, and there’s a small cubby in the centre console that’s the perfect size for a mobile phone. The overhead storage console includes a sunglasses holder, plus there’s a handy lidded cubby on top of the dashboard.
Six-footers will be comfortable in the middle row of seats, thanks to generous head, knee and elbow room. There’s also enough space to fit a rear-facing child seat behind a tall driver. In fact, it’s easy enough to fit a child seat to any of the middle-row seats, because they all have Isofix mounting points.
The S-Max is less impressive in the third row; leg room is limited unless middle-row occupants slide their seats quite far forward, while the rearmost seats are mounted close to the floor – something that can cause discomfort for adults on long journeys. Even so, rear head room isn’t particularly great, with even average-height adults likely to have the roof close to their heads. However, kids should be happy enough, and access to the third row is good because the middle-row seats tilt and slide forward out of the way.
If you regularly carry seven adults, the Ford Galaxy is a better bet.
Seat folding and flexibility
Handily, the S-Max lets you fold down the five individual rear seats by pressing buttons in the boot. This makes it simple to extend the size of the load area for those occasions when you need to carry lots of stuff.
However, you still need to pull the seats up again manually, and this involves a fair amount of arm strength. The Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer and Volkswagen Touran have lighter seats that require less manhandling.
The S-Max’s three individual middle-row seats slide back and forth, and the backrests can be reclined if passengers prefer a more laid-back seating position. All models come with height-adjustable front passenger seat with adjustable lumbar support.
Even with all seven seats in use, there’s enough space for a couple of bags, as there is in most similarly sized MPVs. If you want more luggage space with a full quota of passengers onboard, you’ll need to look at the larger Galaxy.
With the two rearmost seats stowed in the floor, you get a huge boot that’s long enough to take a pushchair lengthways. If you need even more room, dropping the middle-row seats creates a massive load bay that’ll swallow 2000 litres; the weekend trip to the tip will hold no fears if you drive an S-Max.
The boot opening is also low enough to make loading heavy items less of an effort, plus there’s no boot lip, so you can slide your luggage straight in. A powered tailgate is available as an option.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
The diesel models aren’t particularly great for economy or emissions compared to smaller MPVs like the C4 Spacetourer and Touran. The FHEV has the lowest emissions in the range, which – while good for a car this big – are still undercut by even regular petrol powered versions of the Spacetourer.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that the FHEV is capable of diesel-like economy in the real world if the trip computer is to be believed. Mid 40s mpg is easily achievable with nearer 50 possible if you’re being careful.
Equipment, options and extras
We’d stick with entry-level Zetec trim because it is attractively priced and still gets you alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors and the 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system. The only options we’d be tempted to add are metallic paint and – if you do a lot of motorway miles – cruise control.
Titanium trim gives you cruise control, alloy wheels and keyless start plus automatic lights and wipers. It’s good value for money and our pick of the range, but you’re limited to the basic diesel engine or FHEV. ST-Line, meanwhile brings a host of sporty visual upgrades inside and out, plus heated front seats and rear privacy glass, but is too pricey to recommend.
It’s the same story with the range-topping Vignale model. Yes, it counts fancy leather seats with contrasting stitching, 10-way electrically adjustable front seats and keyless entry among its features, but they’re accompanied by a sizeable price increase.
In our latest reliability survey, Ford came a mid-table 18th out of 31 manufacturers. That’s ahead of Volkswagen but behind Citroën.
Like all Fords, the S-Max comes with a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty and one year’s breakdown cover. This is comparable with the cover provided by most car companies but falls short of the five-year, 100,000-mile warranty you get with Citroën.
Safety and security
Front-seat occupants are protected by front and side airbags, plus the driver gets a knee airbag. There are also window airbags that cover the first two rows. It’s disappointing that these don’t stretch to the third row.
The S-Max scored the maximum five-star rating in its Euro NCAP crash test and gets both automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assistance as standard. As part of an assistance package, all versions are available with an optional system that warns you if there’s a vehicle in your blindspot.
Security equipment is comprehensive; every S-Max comes with an engine immobiliser, alarm, deadlocks and remote central locking.
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|RRP price range||£38,565 - £42,175|
|Number of trims (see all)||2|
|Number of engines (see all)||1|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||hybrid|
|MPG range across all versions||44.1 - 44.1|
|Available doors options||5|
|Warranty||3 years / 60000 miles|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£2,525 / £2,764|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£5,051 / £5,528|