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Ford S-Max Forbidden Fruit First Drive

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/27/2015 Paul Horrell

Ford seldom invents segment-busters, but back in 2008 its European arm did just that. The first-generation S-Max had enough success to be worth replacing with a new generation today. But not enough for any other carmaker to copy it.

Elevator pitch: It's a minivan with sex appeal. A curving roofline swoops over tapered windows and hipped sheetmetal. Under the skin it shares pretty well everything with Ford's more conventional Euro-minivan, the Galaxy. They in turn are the seven-seat brethren to the European Fusion (which, just to confuse us all, is called the Mondeo across the pond).

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I asked a Ford marketer why the company still bothers with the S-Max and Galaxy, given that in Europe as in the U.S. minivan sales are collapsing in favor of crossovers. "You've got to dominate the segment or not bother," he said, and in many countries Ford's pair do outsell all opposition combined.

It's also worth noting that Ford has sensibly hedged its position by making an — admittedly fashionably late — entrance to the crossover party in Europe by importing the Edge. Given that the Edge, S-Max, Galaxy, and Mondeo all sit on the same platform, it shouldn't be too much of a headache for the dealers' service shops. And being related to those cars, the S-Max shows up with impressive refinement and technology. It's not quite as agile as a sedan, but it gives it a good try. Certainly the dynamics carve great chunks out of most crossovers.

We tried a version fitted with Ford's 237-horsepower (rated 240PS in Europe) EcoBoost engine and six-speed auto. It's the most powerful option — nearly all European buyers will go for the torquey diesel options, up to a 2.0-liter, twin-turbo unit fielding 207 horsepower and a handsome 332 lb ft. All-wheel drive is also available on some of the diesels.

The EcoBoost's performance is frankly a bit disappointing. Ford claims 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in 8.4 seconds, but the motor radiates an impression of stress at high revs. Better to stay under 5,000 rpm or so, ride the torque, and then enjoy the quietness. Most of the blame for that underwhelming performance lies with the weight. It's quoted at 3,800 pounds, but an engineer said the fitted options could have taken it up by another 100 at least. The six-speed auto feels slushy and energy-sapping, too.

The handling is fine, with consistent reactions to the steering, a good resistance to understeer, and decent roll damping. We tried a version with adaptive damping and Ford's new active steering, and that really is a worthwhile box to tick. The steering system consists of an electrically worm-driven collar on the steering column that adds to your inputs at low speeds, making the car more agile. At high speeds it subtracts from your inputs, effectively gearing down the rack and making the car more stable. You can change the effects and threshold speed via the Sport button. Such a driver-selectable steering ratio (not just weight) is close to unique.

You might roll your eyes and say a minivan isn't the natural home for a slalom-enhancing gadget. But the Ford system's killer attribute is that it packages entirely within the steering wheel itself — rival setups demand traumatic remodeling of the engine bay. So expect a low option price and a widespread rollout across the Ford range. And this first brief acquaintance suggests it feels natural and unobtrusive — unlike the BMW and Lexus systems.

The S-Max rides superbly, with good compliance, quietness, and secondary damping. It also carves its way through the air — even crosswinds — with little fuss or noise. It feels like a quality piece of engineering, even up to the 90-mph-plus speeds European highway drivers often use. Except for parts of Germany, that's breaking the speed limit. If drivers don't want to, they can option another piece of tech introduced in the S-Max, the Intelligent Speed Limiter. A windshield camera reads posted limit signs, and as you pass a new lower limit the car coasts down to that speed. It will also react to data in the nav system if the signs are obscured. You can set it to drive at the limit, or 3 mph or 6 mph over.

The S-Max can also be outfitted with a radar cruise control. This cruises at your set speed until it detects a vehicle ahead, when it drops speed to follow.

Yet the limiter and the cruise are separate systems (one uses a camera to spot signs, the other uses radar) and don't talk to each other. They can't both be activated at once. If the limiter is switched on, your S-Max reacts to reduced limits, but if you come up behind a slower vehicle, it will drive right into its tail until the autonomous collision mitigation kicks in. I asked the engineers why the limiter and cruise couldn't be combined to give fully integrated speed control, and they said, "Good idea. Hadn't thought of it." I found that switching between the two systems took far more of my mental energy than simply driving the car unaided. Duh.

Really, the S-Max is a 5+2-seater. The center row of individual seats slide and recline, but in the rearmost pair headroom and legroom are in short supply for anyone above mid-teenager height. And that's with the middle row slid forward to a compromise position. It's a usefully versatile cabin, though, with a set of five buttons in the trunk that flop each of the second- and third-row seats forward in turn, easily creating a deep and flat load bay.

You seldom see an S-Max with all seven seats full. The third row — something the Edge doesn't have — is there for occasional runs with school friends and grandparents.

Ford tried to make the S-Max look more like a car this time around. The A-pillars were moved back to create a definite hood rather than a ski-jump nose. It gives you the high eyepoint of a crossover but really does look and feel more like a car. Yup, even though it remains a segment of one, this new edition is good enough to deserve preservation.


2015 Ford S-Max 2.0 EcoBoost (Euro-spec)
BASE PRICEN/A
VEHICLE LAYOUTFront-engine, FWD, 7-pass, 4-door minivan
ENGINES2.0L/237-hp/255-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)3,800 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE112.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT188.8 x 84.1* x 65.2 in
0-62 MPH8.4 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECONN/A
ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWYN/A
CO2 EMISSIONSN/A
ON SALE IN U.S.Never
*(75.4 w/o mirrors, 77.1 mirrors folded)

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