When it was launched in 2006, the Ford S-MAX delivered good looks, a fun driving experience and a dash of premium style – attributes that had rarely been seen in the MPV market before. So it’s easy to see where Vauxhall was aiming when it took the decision to make its most upmarket and dynamic people carrier to date. Yet even lined up against its younger rival, the Ford still looks great.
The car in our pictures is a Titanium X Sport model, with deep side skirts, 18-inch wheels and a rear spoiler. But even the Titanium we tested looks the part, with its chrome window surround, rear privacy glass, LED running lights and 17-inch alloys.
Plus, while the Ford is 110mm longer than the Zafira Tourer, it has an extra 90mm in the wheelbase to keep the proportions spot-on. Crucially, these bigger dimensions give
the S-MAX the advantage in terms of space. There’s more shoulder room across the middle row and a flatter transmission tunnel. All the chairs slide independently and although you sit low with your knees high, there’s more legroom in row three than in the Vauxhall.
Where the S-MAX disappoints is in the operation of the seats, which fold in the same way as those in the Vauxhall, but take a touch more effort to slide and tumble. Plus, the SEAT offers more space in row three and lets you fold the rear seats from the cabin, rather than just from the boot as in the Ford. Up front, the excellent driving position delivers a lofty view of the road, and as with the Vauxhall, thin A-pillars help visibility.
The chrome detailing and soft-touch materials on the dash, plus the ebony centre console treatment, deliver a hint of executive car quality, while the soft leather multifunction wheel is far more pleasing to hold than the cheap example in the Vauxhall. But the £1,300 optional navigation system – with its integrated audio and climate touchscreen controls – isn’t as straightforward to use as the SEAT’s. Plus, the cabin is a bit cluttered; the Alhambra follows a much more straightforward approach.
But aside from a few lower-grade plastics in out-of-the-way places, the Ford has cabin quality to match its newer rivals, while Bluetooth, a DAB radio, cruise control, parking sensors and dual-zone climate control are all included as standard.
However, what really makes the S-MAX special is the driving experience. All the controls are beautifully weighted and offer more feel, feedback and accuracy than the SEAT and Vauxhall. In corners, the keenness of the responses and the precision of the steering mean the Ford feels more like an agile hatchback. Body control is superb, there’s plenty of grip and a real enthusiasm for corners.
But for all its engagement, the supple suspension and smooth engine deliver excellent refinement. So while it doesn’t have the ultimate space of the SEAT, the S-MAX remains an attractive all-rounder and a stern rival for the new Zafira Tourer.
Chart position: 2
WHY: The S-MAX looks fantastic, plus is great to drive, roomy and upmarket. New Vauxhall couldn’t have picked a tougher rival.