BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Ford S-MAX is that rarest of things - a family bus with an element of coolness about it. Manufacturers have tried and failed for many years to make an MPV that was something other than weird, dorky or overly try-hard, but the S-MAX's blend of solid practicality combined with genuinely elegant styling was a hit from the word go. Here's what to look for when tracking down a facelifted first generation version.
Originally arriving in UK dealers in summer 2006, the Ford S-MAX didn't take too long to make an impression, fending off challenges from the Opel Corsa and Citroen C4 Picasso to take home the 2007 European Car of the Year award. The range was steadily augmented right through to 2010, which is where we pick up the story here.
Having been on sale for four years, it was time to treat the S-MAX to a refresh in order to keep it at the top of its game. The styling was treated to a makeover, keeping much the same silhouette but tidying up the details, with a strongly sculptured bonnet and a gloss black, lower front trapezoidal grille. A new lower front bumper included distinctive LED daytime running lights on high end models. At the side, there was a chrome strip surrounding the whole glass area, while the rear view showed a re-profiled tailgate, chrome bar between the rear lights, lower bumper assembly and LED tail lights.
Under the bonnet, the S-MAX got the punchy 2.0-litre 203PS EcoBoost petrol engine, sold alongside 115, 140 and 163PS 2.0-litre Duratorq TDCi diesels. Additionally, the Ford PowerShift twin clutch transmission was introduced as standard on the EcoBoost petrol engine and as a cost option with the 2.0 140PS and 2.0 163PS Duratorq diesels. A Blind Spot Information System was also debuted. Ford announced a replacement for the S-MAX at the start of 2015.
What You Get
There's only so much you can do to make a large 7-seater people carrier look sporty but designer Claude Messale certainly did his best to make the aesthetics match the dynamics. This car is a mere 2 inches shorter in height and 3 inches shorter in height than its Galaxy stablemate but visually, the two cars are worlds apart. The differences lie mainly with the S-MAX's lower, sportier roofline and its more car-like front end: the side vents and the air gills either side of the low front air intake serve no functional purpose but they do look good.
There were cosmetic changes made to this improved S-MAX, but you needed to be a bit of a Ford anorak to spot them. Buyers got a more overtly contoured bonnet, deeper front bumpers, a chrome surround for the glass and daytime running lights on plusher versions. At the back where the look is necessarily a bit frumpier, the bumpers were also deeper and there were smarter wraparound rear light clusters.
As on the original version of this model, the vast glass area and the slim windscreen pillars mean that at the wheel, visibility is excellent and it's easy to find the ideal driving position thanks to the amount of seat and wheel adjustment provided. Rather ambitiously, Ford wanted this car to appeal not only to someone who might be considering another large people carrier but also to owners of prestigiously-badged executive estates, hence the high quality of fit and finish the Belgium Genk factory produced around the cabin. In the rear middle row, there's decent room for three adults and the width of the cabin comes in handy if you're trying, for example, to fit three child seats back here.
Older children though, will flock towards the two rearmost chairs that fold out of the boot floor. Because an S-MAX loses 6 inches in height over a comparable Galaxy at the back, these extra seats have to be set low, so many adults will find themselves riding knees up, but aside from that, proper fully-sized people will be relatively comfortable here during short to medium-length journeys. That's not something that could be said of the 7-seater mini-MPVs (Vauxhall's Zafira, Peugeot's 5008 and so on) that some journalists insist on comparing this model to.
It's actually a bigger class of car than that, almost VW Sharan or SEAT Alhambra-sized, something you only fully appreciate when you use the innovative FoldFlatSystem (which offers no fewer than 32 seating permutations) to reveal a genuinely huge load floor that measures 2.0 by 1.15 metres - about as big as a double bed, with lashing points to keep stuff in place if you do fail to resist this Ford's sporty character. There's a removal-van-like 2,000-litres of space back here and, almost as impressive, still 285-litres even if you have all 7 seats in use. There are also no fewer than 26 different cubbies located around the cabin so you'll need to know where you left that key/credit card/wedding ring or it could be a lengthy search. In total, there's a full 90 litres of oddment stowage in total.
What to Look For
The S-MAX has proven a bit of a diamond in Ford's portfolio, with excellent customer satisfaction scores backing up some strong sales. Owners have reported the odd minor electrical issue but the key grouse is that the cars rarely get near their published fuel economy figures. The S-MAX isn't alone on that count.
(Estimated prices, based on a 2.0 TDCi Zetec (inc VAT) A clutch assembly is around £140, an exhaust system around £800 (incl. catalytic converter) and an exchange alternator around £320. Front brake pads are around £70, front shock absorbers are about £45 and rears around £40.
On the Road
If you really don't want a large people carrier but absolutely have to have one, it's hard to think of a better way to spend your money. The fact that Ford has its marginally more practical Galaxy model for those only concerned with practical 7-seat A-B family transport leaves the S-MAX free to provide something pretty unique in the MPV sector: 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, especially if your S-MAX comes fitted with the optional sports suspension and adjustable dampers that make it the kind of car it was really designed to be.
You sit slightly lower than you would do in a more conventional MPV, but there's not much in it and the driving position is still properly commanding. And you don't have to drive very far to begin to appreciate this Ford's many attributes. The steering actually gives you a feel of what's happening under the wheels, encouraging you to corner harder, at which point you appreciate that there's a surprising amount of grip. It's all confidence-inspiring but even if you don't care about that - this is a sensible family car as well as a sporty one after all - the lack of body roll and the supple ride courtesy of clever multi-link rear suspension are good enough to make other large rivals feel like vans with windows.
Right, let's get on to engines.
The TDCi diesel versions likely to favoured by most buyers are all 2.0-litres in size, offering either 113, 138 or 161bhp, the pokiest two versions of which get the option of the Powershift 6-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox. You get it as standard on the ideal-choice petrol option, the high-tech Ecoboost SCTI 200bhp turbo 2.0-litre. Courtesy of 300Nm of torque, the 0-60mph sprint time of 8.2s is about 1.5s faster than the fastest diesel option, yet it gets within a claimed 12mpg of that model's fuel returns while being significantly more refined. A good compromise then, but hardly an inexpensive one: if that's an issue, Ford offered their old 145PS 2.0-litre normally aspirated unit for poorer petrol buyers though such is its lack of pulling power fully laden that you'd really be better off going for the cheaper diesel.
The S-MAX is one of those cars that on first acquaintance seems to offer less vehicle for more money than its more sensible Galaxy sibling, but there's a charisma to it that's hard to pin down. As such, it's hard not to find it a good deal more appealing and immersive as an ownership experience than is usually the case with big MPVs. That's probably why they cover such big mileages.
This facelifted model is well worth seeking out for its more efficient, more powerful engines, extra equipment and smarter look. Get a well looked after car and you'll enjoy MPV motoring more than you ever have thought possible.