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Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

Long term test: 2016 Ford S-Max
Ford's S-Max has defined its own niche within the MPV market segment, offering owners excellent practicality, but shunning the high roof and woeful driving dynamics of a traditional people carrier: it's what made the previous model such a long-lasting success, and there's every reason to think this all-new model will carry that lead on. Early impressions are of a slightly less distinctive car, and one that doesn't appeal to the driver in quite the same way, but then the new model counters with plenty of driver assistance technology and the option of four-wheel drive and new engines. In top-line Sport trim this is not a cheap car: is it still the choice for the family driver who doesn't want to give into practicality completely?


About the author:

A lifelong car enthusiast, Adam began his career in motoring journalism at Autocar Magazine in 2003, eventually holding the title of Road Test Editor. He subsequently edited the popular Pistonheads website before turning freelance in 2007. Since then his work has appeared regularly in titles across the spectrum of motoring media, including Top Gear, EVO, Octane and Classic Cars. He is also currently a regular motoring reviewer for the Express national newspaper at the weekend. Adam loves most types of cars, but has a particular obsession with classic French hot hatches and older Porsches, along with a keen interest in historic and modern motor sport. If it's not cars, you'll probably find him immersed in the world of old aircraft.

Follow Adam Towler on Twitter: @AdamTowler

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

  5 January, 2016
I never thought I'd be excited by an MPV. I mean, a people carrier, it's not the stuff of automotive dreams, is it? I never sat daydreaming about an MPV when I should have been concentrating in a maths lesson; never doodled an MPV on the front of my exercise book when sat in double physics.

However, when you reach a certain age, and you have three young children in tow, suddenly an MPV that isn't boring - either to look at or to drive - could be the Promised Land. This has always been the cornerstone of the S-Max's appeal, and I just can't understand why other car brands don't wise up to producing something similar. The roads around where I live are crowded with the things, presumably due to the reasons I've mentioned above.

The old S-Max was in production for a very long time, by car industry standards, and easily defined the niche it was in. This new model picks up where the old car left off, and is still clearly identifiable as an S-Max. However, as smart as it undeniably looks, it isn't quite as distinctive as the old one; and I know from driving them both recently that, while it's a good steer, it's not a surprisingly entertaining one like the old car was.

Never mind. You don't buy a MPV for driving thrills: the fact that it doesn't drive like a converted van is the main thing, and the latest S-Max is still a fine mix of composure and precision on the road. And it seats seven, has a big load area and a high level of standard equipment, too.

There's something else though, and it's not something that'll you'll ever read too much about. That's kind of infuriating for a parent with three young kids, because the issue of 'fitting all the seats in' defines my family motoring experience, and I often feel it's a point completely ignored.

First of all, you can forget about the third row of seats. They may be useful if you're taxiing around the little ones and their friends on a rare occasion, but they decimate the load space, and as anyone with youngsters knows, they have an awful lot of associated stuff that comes with them wherever they go.

The real issue though is fitting three child seats across the middle row of seats. On just about every large vehicle in production, there tends to be a sloping cushion in from the doors, then a large, comfortable seat on either side of the car, separated by a smaller 'perch' in the middle. Just to make things even less helpful, the two parts of the seat belt are positioned closer together on the middle seat. Why is this a problem? If you have three car seats of various types, as I do, they just don't fit properly. You end up with very little room between them, and given one of the seats now uses the normal belt - due to the age of the child - it leaves very little space to get your hand down between the seats and unbuckle the belt. Not something you'd want to contend with in a hurry.

Even the new Volvo XC90 I had on test the other day struggled in this regard. However, the S-Max, with its three individual seats across the car and vertical body sides, offers plenty of room. Ah, and to think it was once all hp figures and 0-60mph...

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

  5 February, 2016
Looks smart, doesn't it? But then it should, given the near-40,000 list price. This isn't quite the ultimate specification of new Ford S-Max, but it's close to it. What we have here is a Titanium Sport model, with the 180hp version of the 2.0-litre diesel engine, hooked up to a six-speed automatic 'Powershift' transmission, and deploying that power to the road with four-wheel drive. Moreover, this car has the Titanium X pack, which, for an additional 2,000, brings full leather upholstery with electric seat adjustment and LED headlights. There are also the further options of active cruise control and the panoramic roof. Phew.

The 'Deep Impact Blue' colour reminds me of a '90s Ford RS colour, as favoured by Escort RS Cosworths of the time. Sadly that's where the similarities end, apart from the presence of a turbocharger and four-wheel drive, it has to be said. Hmmm... maybe if I stand a long way back and squint...

The key elements in all of this might just turn out to be the Sport package. This makes the S-Max look quite different, with 18-inch alloy wheels, the body kit and rear spoiler, heated seats and - and this is the important bit - sports suspension. I'm not sure about sports suspension on a vehicle such as this, but then I suppose that's what this long-term test is all about. It can't be denied that in Sport trim the new S-Max stands out from the normal legion of MPVs on the road and their crossover relations. That's always been part of the appeal of the S-Max, both in its first generation and with this new car: it gives you the practicality of a people carrier, without feeling like you've totally sold out in sensible middle age.

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

  5 March, 2016
Some first impressions: it's big, practical, very blue, laden with gadgets/gimmicks that I'm still not sure about and it's actually quite nice to drive, especially on longer journeys.

Leave the transmission in its normal mode and it's quite a lazy driving experience. The gearbox wants to shift up as soon as possible and you can sense the weight of the car in the way it moves off from rest. It's amazing what a change of algorithm can do, because knock the gear selector back into Sport and the car does feel a lot keener. It's not just the gearchanges that are quicker, but the shifting points are completely different, as is the engine's throttle response. Given this all works off the gear selector position it can be easy to overlook (compared with a conventional sport button or driver mode select), but if you want to drive the S-Max with a bit more verve it's well worth dropping the lever back a notch.

There's nothing wrong with the way in which the car steers, although the electrically assisted system lacks the natural weighting of the old car's hydraulic power assistance. That's a real car geek's judgement, I do realise that, and for the vast majority of S-Max drivers it's absolutely fine. It certainly doesn't have the slack and wallow of a typical MPV. And while the four-wheel drive system does contribute to the overall weight of the S-Max, it does mean that even when the full force of that turbocharged torque comes in, there's never any tug from the front wheels.

In fact, the only thing I'm really not sure about so far is the sports suspension. Sure, it gives the car better body control on a B-road, but it also gives passengers a bit of a jolting when the road surface is poor. I feel a bit guilty looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the kids' heads bobbing around. It is a people carrier after all, not a performance saloon.

Next time we'll talk about some of the more practical considerations.

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

  5 April, 2016
I'm really valuing the practical side of the S-Max. It's not perhaps the most thrilling of subjects, but the beauty of an S-Max is that you can use it like a van, an MPV, or - just about - enjoy driving it like a normal car, and all with minimal compromise.

It's very easy to drop the seats by pulling the lever on the outer pair and the chord on the middle pew. Removing the rear parcel shelf is a bit trickier, but ok once you have the knack. That leaves a wide, long, flat load area, which is ideal for doing runs to the tip.

If you need even more load capacity, you can always fit a roof box. Ford supplied just such a thing and I've tried it on the car (although I won't use it until a holiday later in the year). However, the wind noise was very noticeable - a persistent howl that is going to take some getting used to on a run to the coast. Leaving the roof rails on wasn't an option either, as even without the roof box they were just as noisy. I imagine it's the same for all roof box fittings on an S-Max, although having the panoramic roof on this car requires different fittings compared to one with a metal roof - maybe that makes it worse?

The Ford designers have clearly thought about family storage elsewhere, too. There's a central storage 'hole' between the front seats, which plunges down into the depths of the chassis. Oddly, we never seem to use it, just as the bin with the lid that flips up on the dashboard never has anything put into it. I suppose some families do, or maybe these things just look good when a manufacturer is talking to focus groups. Maybe through habit, most 'stuff' just tends to get wedged into the cup holders in between the seats or squeezed into the glove box.

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

  5 May, 2016
The S-Max arrived in the depth of winter running on winter tyres, and given the changeable weather in this country, I have decided to run with them as long as possible. Apart from a slight vagueness to the steering, plus a small reduction in the outright levels of grip, there hasn't been a great deal of difference in everyday driving. When you combine that with the four-wheel drive system, the S-Max has felt like a very dependable car in poor conditions.

Nevertheless, now the worst of the weather seems behind us I've been meaning to get the tyres switched over, and finally, that has taken place.

As I expected, it has made the S-Max a more direct and enjoyable drive. And yet I'm still far from convinced on the sports suspension on a vehicle of this type. I wish you could order the rest of the equipment that comes with the sports option - like the body kit and the full leather interior - but not have to endure that suspension. Or perhaps an electronically controlled variable damper option would be good. Whatever, I couldn't help but smile wryly when Mrs T said she didn't find the suspension uncomfortable at all. I think perhaps sometimes road testers in this business obsess over the finer points of how a car behaves, whereas back in the 'real' world...

Ford S-Max. Image by Adam Towler.

  5 June, 2016
I've been thinking through some of the more minor facets of the S-Max recently, and here's what I've come up with, in no particular order:

1) I still don't really 'get' assistance systems. Maybe they're the sort of thing that you only value after you've needed them in an emergency? I can't really say, but I do know that I switched them off after brief exposure to them and haven't missed them since: the vibrating steering wheel when you're changing lanes, the flashing red light when it thinks you're about to have an accident (sometimes fooled by a car in the next lane).

2) The keyless entry system: you can keep the actual key in your pocket and unlock the car by simply putting your hand close to the door handle, while locking the car only requires a dab on the ridged section of the handle. This is one piece of tech that I actually quite like, although I'm not sure what the security implications are of this - keyless entry systems being responsible for a spate of car thefts in recent times. For some reason Mrs T doesn't use this feature at all. Each to their own, I guess.

3) I like the way you can turn off the internal sensors for the security alarm system at the flick of a button when the engine is switched off. So useful with a young family.

4) That pesky automatic tailgate. Sounds like a nice thing to have, given the size of the thing. But it's so slow to operate, and then if you disturb it mid-operation it can get confused, and the whole process of opening the boot can take half a minute when if you just did it yourself it'd be done in a matter of a few seconds.


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