Ford’s introduction of the S-Max back in 2006 gave MPV buyers a chance to rejoice. At last, here was a seven-seater that was easy on the eyes and also genuinely enjoyable to drive. Unsurprisingly, it sold by the bucketload.
In fact, such was its success that it remained on sale for an unusually long nine years. Now an all-new version has finally arrived, and it promises more space, a more upmarket interior and much lower running costs. Here we’re testing what’s likely to be the biggest-selling model in the new range, the 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine combined with Zetec trim.
Going up against it is Vauxhall’s Zafira Tourer. In 1.6-litre diesel form, it’s only slightly less powerful than the S-Max yet is considerably more fuel-efficient. Vauxhall’s business-focused Tech Line trim brings an impressive list of standard equipment, too, and all for less money than you’ll pay for the Ford.
Ford S-Max 2.0 TDCi 150 Zetec
The S-Max has always been brilliant to drive, but this new model is much cheaper to run
Vauxhall Zafira Tourer 1.6 CDTi 136 Tech Line
Is Vauxhall's cheaper and more frugal Zafira Tourer a better buy for big families?
What are they like inside?
It’s easy to get comfortable in both cars thanks to a similarly generous amount of seat and steering wheel adjustment. Both cars’ tall, wide windscreens and thin front pillars also provide you with a good view of the road ahead, although the Ford’s curvier rear end obscures more of your view when you’re looking over your shoulder.
What is clear is that Ford has improved the quality of the S-Max’s interior. It’s still not perfect, but there are enough soft-touch plastics in all the important places, and everything feels more sturdily assembled. The Zafira, meanwhile, has cheaper-feeling dashboard plastics, as well as a flimsier centre console and a more lightweight feel to its switchgear.
The Vauxhall is also second best for infotainment. There are too many small buttons and knobs to get the hang of, and the menus on the 7.0in colour screen could also do with being more intuitive. The Ford’s 8.0in touchscreen is certainly easier to use, although it sometimes takes a while to respond when you press it and there are some unnecessarily small buttons. The fact you have to pay £300 extra for sat-nav (which is standard on the Vauxhall) is also rather galling.
Tall adults won’t feel cramped in the front of either car. Both offer generous leg room, but the Zafira’s higher ceiling provides a few extra centimetres of head room. The S-Max’s cabin is wider than that of the Zafira, though, and that makes it feel like an altogether larger car.
Move to the middle row of seats and you’ll find three individual chairs in both cars, which can be slid back and forth and folded flat independently of one another.
The Zafira trumps the S-Max for outright head and leg room, although once again the Ford’s wider rear cabin means that it is the better car for seating three adults side by side.
The S-Max has the more family-friendly rearmost seats, too. It offers noticeably more head room and slightly more knee and shoulder room than its rival, too. However, both cars’ sixth and seventh seats fold flat into the boot floor and are light enough to pull into position using one hand.
With the seats folded away, the Zafira just beats the S-Max for official boot space (710 litres vs 700), but our measurements show the Ford’s load bay is more practical – it’s longer, wider and has a bigger opening for easier access. That said, the Zafira has marginally more boot space, measured to the windowline, with all seven seats in place.
What are they like to drive?
The S-Max’s engine is bigger and has more power and torque, but there isn’t much to split the two for outright performance. The Ford’s taller gearing means it’s actually slightly slower when accelerating from low revs using the higher gears. However, change down a couple of gears, rev the Ford’s engine hard and it’ll accelerate slightly more briskly than its rival.
The Ford’s engine is also quieter when worked hard and fewer vibrations make their way into the cabin, while the S-Max also has the more positive and precise gearshift. You’ll also notice less road and wind noise when cruising at motorway speeds in the S-Max.
No one expects an MPV to handle like a hot hatch, but the S-Max is as good as you could possibly hope. Its steering is accurate and evenly weighted, the front tyres grip hard through tight corners and the large body stays surprisingly upright. Meanwhile, the Zafira’s steering feels vague around the straight-ahead, and there’s ultimately less grip to exploit when cornering quickly. There’s more body roll, too, although the Vauxhall never gets too out of shape through corners.
Our S-Max had larger-than-standard 18in wheels fitted, but it still rode well. It’s undeniably firmer than the Zafira, but only the sharpest bumps are felt inside. Importantly, its body remains composed at all speeds. The Zafira has altogether softer suspension and rides large obstructions, such as speed bumps, very well. However, it tends to move around more over patched-up surfaces, and there’s more vertical body bounce whenever you encounter dips or crests in the road.
What will they cost?
The Zafira is cheaper to start with and haggling with your dealer will see that price advantage grow to more than £2300. The Vauxhall is also cheaper to service, tax and insure, and our True MPG economy tests show it’ll cost you £214 less at the pumps every 12,000 miles.
However, the Vauxhall’s comparatively heavy depreciation outweighs all of this, and that means it’s actually marginally more expensive than the S-Max to own, assuming you buy now and sell after three years.
The Zafira is the much cheaper company car, though. Its lower list price and better CO2 emissions help it to a saving of almost £1800 over the S-Max over three years, assuming you’re a 40% tax payer.
If you’re buying on PCP finance, the Ford will cost you a reasonable £330 a month over three years. That’s based on a £5000 deposit and an annual mileage of 12,000. Vauxhall wasn’t able to provide us with a comparable PCP quote because its Tech Line models are aimed squarely at business users.
Both cars come with 17in alloy wheels, air conditioning, a DAB radio, electric windows all round, front and rear parking sensors and a multifunction steering wheel as standard. The Vauxhall also gets sat-nav and cruise control, whereas the Ford counters with keyless start and a heated front windscreen.
On the safety front, both cars get six standard airbags, but automatic emergency braking isn’t available on the Vauxhall, even as an option – Ford charges an extra £450 for it. That said, the new S-Max has yet to be crash-tested by Euro NCAP, whereas the Zafira was awarded a top score of five stars when it was launched back in 2011.
According to the security firm Thatcham, the new S-Max scores highly in its tests for its resistance to being driven away, as well as for avoiding a break-in. On both counts it was slightly better than the Zafira, which was also hampered by the fact that Vauxhall charges extra for an alarm, unlike Ford, which offers one as standard.
Both of these cars will seat five children easily enough, but the S-Max will keep them more comfortable as they grow taller. The Ford is also better to drive, more refined and has the more upmarket interior. The fact it’s also cheaper to own if you’re buying privately seals the deal.
This Zafira’s lower CO2 emissions make it well worth considering if you’re a company car driver, though, and it’s even more generously equipped as standard.
Ford S-Max 2.0 TDCi 150 Zetec
For Comfortable ride; sharper handling; more spacious third-row seating
Against Fairly pricey; higher CO2 emissions; sat-nav costs extra
Verdict Not the cheapest MPV, but one of the very best
Vauxhall Zafira Tourer 1.6 CDTi 136 Tech Line
For Cheaper company car; very well equipped; more economical
Against So-so interior quality; average to drive; fiddly infotainment
Verdict Well worth considering if you're a company car driver
Vauxhall Zafira Tourer