Ford S-MAX review
The Ford S-MAX is a seven-seat MPV that’s great to drive and comes with loads of standard kit
Ford has a long history of making stylish, spacious and fun-to-drive family cars, and the brilliant S-MAX is no exception. It first arrived in 2006, proving that you needn't sacrifice driver enjoyment simply because you have a family to carry around. The latest iteration is more grown up, but still has the edge over rivals.
It’s not perfect, however. Some rivals are slightly cheaper and offer more space inside, but the S-MAX’s cleverly packaged interior and solid build quality should win buyers over. There's a great range of engines, too, ranging from economy-focused low power diesels, to the flagship turbo petrol.
When the S-MAX first went on sale in 2006, Ford proved you needn’t sacrifice family practicality for driver enjoyment – marrying the two to create not only one of the best-handling MPVs but also one of the most appealing family cars on sale.
Now in it’s second generation, the Ford S-MAX goes up against other seven seaters such as the Renault Grand Scenic, Peugeot 5008 and SEAT Alhambra. However, the Citroen C4 Grand Picasso is its main rival - it costs slightly less than the Ford and is also slightly more spacious. We should also remember that the S-MAX has a big brother in the shape of the Ford Galaxy, a more traditional MPV with extra room but a less sporty feel.
Buyers get a choice of four trims – from the familiar Zetec, through Titanium and Titanium Sport specifications. Those after something a bit more special can opt for the upmarket S-MAX Vignale, which went on sale in the middle of 2016.
All cars get Ford’s new SYNC 2 infotainment system and 17-inch alloy wheels, as well as parking sensors, keyless go and a DAB radio. Titanium cars add the all-important sat-nav and USB connectivity, while top-spec Titanium Sport models boast bigger wheels, a sporty bodykit, sports suspension and heated front seats.
For around £2,000, customers can add the Titanium X pack, with LED headlights and electrically operated leather seats. Vignale cars upgrade to SYNC 3, while also adding heated leather seats, a reversing camera and 18-inch wheels. Laminated side windows are included for better refinement.
Safety is also an area Ford has worked hard on with the new S-MAX. Every model comes crammed with airbags and as the previous S-MAX scored the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash test, we expect this latest model to maintain its strong safety record. Other features include traction control and stability control, while Ford has also introduced an adjustable speed limiter which automatically increases or decreases the car's speed by reading road signs and adjusting the seed accordingly.
There is a wide choice of engines, too: four diesels and two petrols, as well as manual and automatic gearboxes, and two or four-wheel drive - though the AWD models cost more to buy and run. Ford expects the mid-range 148bhp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel to be the biggest seller, though the more powerful 178bhp version adds more torque and costs just £750 more. The top-spec, 237bhp petrol should be avoided though, as it doesn’t feel noticeably quicker as the diesel and will cost a lot more to run.
Engines, performance and drive
From behind the wheel, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the S-MAX for something much smaller – such as a Ford Fiesta or Focus. The S-MAX feels nimble, belying its bulk in a way few MPVs can, with the lower centre of gravity meaning it doesn’t roll as much as some of its rivals through the corners. The AWD version adds extra grip, but it won't make enough difference on UK roads for most buyers. It’s more fun to drive than many seven-seat SUVs too.
However, all this handling prowess doesn’t mean it’s uncomfortable on motorway journeys. The compliant suspension does a great job of keeping the car in check, yet soaks up the lumps and bumps on pitted country roads. It’s remarkably composed, and will transport big families long distances from A to B without breaking a sweat.
S-MAX Vignale models manage to retain the standard car's fun-to-drive character, but turn refinement up a notch, with laminated side windows and better sound insulation.
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Ford offers buyers a choice of two petrol and four diesel engines, with the mid-range 148bhp 2.0-litre TDCi expected to be the big seller. It offers a decent blend of performance (0-62mph in 10.8 seconds) versus running costs, and feels suitably nippy on the move. There’s a smaller 118bhp version (0-62mph in 13.4 seconds), but if you regularly carry seven people, it’s likely to feel a little lethargic.
The petrol models are quieter, but in exchange for some added refinement you’ll have to fork out at the pumps. We’ve not tried the 158bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged EcoBoost, but the range-topping 237bhp 2.0-litre didn’t feel nearly as fast as the figures suggest. Ford says it’ll do 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds, but the inferior torque figures mean the diesel engines feel more eager. We’d avoid it and go for one of the faster diesels instead. That’s exactly what Ford expects customers to do as well, with the manufacturer predicting almost 98 per cent of buyers to opt for the diesel models.
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A six-speed manual gearbox comes as standard but Ford does offer a Powershift automatic gearbox as an option. It’s smooth – although changes don’t feel as quick as those in the equivalent DSG gearbox you’ll find in the SEAT Alhambra. We’d stick with the six-speed manual unless you desperately need a self-shifter.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
The Ford S-MAX has never been the most economical MPV, and that hasn’t changed with this latest iteration. While the diesels won’t break the bank – rivals like the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso cost significantly less to fuel and tax, so if running costs are of the utmost importance, you might want to look elsewhere.
The most frugal diesel is the 118bhp 2.0-litre TDCi. It’ll do 56.5mpg and emit 129g/km of CO2, putting it in tax band D. Incidentally, those are identical figures to the more expensive 148bhp and 178bhp versions, but less than the more powerful 207bhp unit (52.3mpg and 139g/km). Adding four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox does no favours for the fuel consumption either – with the 178bhp 4x4 auto getting 48.7mpg on the combined cycle.
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Those figures are acceptable but when you consider the most efficient version of the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso is capable of returning over 74mpg, the S-MAX starts to look a little bit weak. We’d stay clear of the petrol models, too. There’s no surprise the 237bhp 2.0-litre petrol model – which uses the same engine from the sporty Focus ST – returns a very poor 37mpg. Even the 158bhp 1.5-litre EcoBoost is only marginally better at 43.5mpg.
As for other running costs, the S-MAX is a large car and existing owners have reported heavy tyre wear, particularly on the front wheels. Service intervals are 12,500 miles for every model, while the 650-strong dealer network means there’ll be a Ford workshop near you to fix any problems. Ford also offers an annual fixed-price servicing deal for £125 or £195 depending on the level of cover required.
As you’d expect there is also a 60,000-mile or three year warranty (which ever comes first) on the S-MAX. Insurance groups have also been kept reasonably low, starting from 16 and rising to 27 for the more powerful Vignale versions.
Interior, design and technology
It’s clear that Ford thinks it’s struck gold with its latest nose design, as the big grille and slender headlights of the new S-MAX are largely identical to the front end of the Mondeo, facelifted Focus and higher-spec versions of the Fiesta.
It certainly gives the S-MAX a smart, upmarket look, with thin chrome bars framed by even more chrome trim, while the headlights add a dash of style, too. The car in our pictures featured the £1,000 adaptive LED option, bringing smart daytime running lights that turn into strobing indicators when you signal.
In pictures, the new S-MAX appears similar to its predecessor, but in the flesh, it definitely has a sportier look. Overall, it’s longer and wider than before, yet it hides its bulk well. There are sharp creases down the flanks, and the curved roof line adds a sporty touch not seen on any other MPV. The old car’s big wheelarch blisters are ditched in favour of more subtle flared arches, while the rakish rear end has a smarter, sportier look than its predecessor.
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Quality is up, too, with a much plusher feel and swathes of upmarket materials and solid-feeling controls. Yes, the usual scratchy plastics are evident if you peer into the footwells, but it’s a big improvement over the old model.
Standard kit includes 17-inch alloys, while mid-spec Titanium cars add privacy glass, LED daytime running lights and more body coloured trim. As the name suggests, Titanium Sport models are the most athletic-looking, with 18-inch wheels, a full body kit and subtle rear spoiler.
Opt for one of the posher S-MAX Vignale models and you'll benefit from heated leather seats, a new SYNC 3 infotainment system and laminated side glass for improved refinement. There's lashings of chrome on the outside, too.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
While it may not look strikingly different on the outside, the biggest changes have been made to the interior. All models get Ford’s innovative SYNC2 infotainment system (apart from the Vignale, which uses the improved SYNC 3), which does a good job of cleaning up the previously cluttered dash. You'll find a one-touch electronic handbrake in place of the old airline-style joystick.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The all-new S-MAX may not have the rear sliding doors of the SEAT Alhambra, or the rear seat practicality of its bigger brother, the Ford Galaxy, but it’s still an impressively well rounded family car – and a welcome alternative to the recent raft of seven-seat SUVs.
There’s just as much room inside as there was before, meaning three individual seats in the middle row, and a pair of smaller ones in the back. There are loads of cubbies and storage bins dotted around the cabin, and those in the rearmost seats even get a pair of cupholders to make longer journeys less painful for small kids. Bootspace is decent although not as spacious as the Citroen, though with all seven seats in place you’ll be restricted to a few squashy bags rather than a plethora of hard-backed suitcases.
Just like the previous model, the new Ford S-MAX is a very practical car. As before, you get 285 litres of bootspace with all seven seats in place, and while that might not sound like much – it’s more than your average supermini. It’s more generous than most of its rivals, too, and should be enough for a few small bags.
However, fold the rearmost seats flat and this expands to 965 litres, increasing to a van-like 2,020 litres with the middle row folded. That final figure means the sporty S-MAX is 169 litres bigger than the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso, despite the slightly sloped roofline.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The rearmost seats are only really suitable for children, but the Easy-Entry system fitted to the middle row allows for decent access with the bench tilting and sliding forwards in one sleek movement. All the seats fold flat individually, while buyers can spec buttons in the boot to lower them electronically – but in our opinion, this is an unnecessary option. Ford claims there are a whopping 32 seating and loading combinations in the S-MAX so a trip to Ikea with car full of people shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
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If you have smaller children you’ll be pleased to hear that the three seats in the middle row also come with individual ISOFIX points which can also be used at the same time. There perhaps isn’t as much space in the S-MAX as you get in the Citroen but you’re unlikely to get any complaints from passengers back there with decent head and legroom.
The interior is packed with useful cubbies, including places to stash odds and ends and all the associated family bits and bobs. The huge airline-style handbrake has been removed in favour of a simple electronic switch, freeing up space on the new minimalist dashboard. As you’d expect, the combination of a high seating position and slim A-pillars means you get a commanding view of the road, while the seats and steering wheel benefit from a wide range of adjustment, meaning it's easy to get comfortable.
Reliability and Safety
The Ford S-MAX didn't feature in the 2016 Driver Power rankings. However, despite the old model finishing a lowly 116th in the 2014 survey, we expect the new model to be altogether more dependable. That said, Ford came 27th out of 32 manufacturers overall, with owners issuing complaints about reliability and build quality.
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The new S-MAX was awarded a full five-star rating when it was reviewed by testers in 2015. All cars get a host of airbags and tyre pressure monitoring, as well as ISOFIX points on all three middle row seats. Other tech includes automatic braking, variable lock steering and a system that recognises road signs and adjusts the car’s speed accordingly. Unlike rivals, however, the S-MAX does not come with airbags in the middle row of seats, which could be a concern for parents especially if small children will regularly be on board.
As the S-MAX has only just gone on sale, if you’re looking to buy a used model you’ll have to settle for the previous generation model for the time being. In terms of styling, the old model doesn’t look radically different form its modern day alternative with sporty profile and curved bodywork.
Models on sale will include 2.0, 2.3 and 2.5-litre turbo petrol versions as well as 1.8, 2.0 and 2.2-litre diesel models. Following its arrival in 2006, a facelifted model was introduced in 2008 with an updated 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engine along with a new dual-clutch transmission called Powershift.
The main things to look out for on the earlier models is the electronics, so it’s may be worth stretching to one of the later models if your budget allows. The engine to go for is the 2.0-litre diesel which offers the best in terms performance and running costs at 49mpg.
The cheapest models come in at under £4,000 for the diesels but these examples will have incredibly high mileage. Models which have covered 50,000 miles can ask around £7,000, which the facelifted versions can be priced from £8,000. The S-MAX has also has seven recalls during its time, with issues surrounding braking faults as well as problems surrounding the fixing of the glass roof. The most recent recall was in 2013 for a fuel leak problem.
Cosmetically, you’ll have to put up with a few bumps and bruises on a used S-MAX. Given its intended audience interior scuffs from carrying a car full of children and all of their belongings. Thankfully most of the damage will be superficial so is unlikely to have any lasting issue. A lot of the higher mileage models may also have spent most of their life as a taxi, so its definitely worth checking out the vehicles history as these models would have had a particularly hard life and are to be avoided.