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.
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.
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.