Ford S-Max Review

Martin Schwoerer
by Martin Schwoerer

The Ford F150 is America’s best selling vehicle. The domestically produced full-size pickup truck is generally recognized as the class of the field. Unfortunately, nothing else Ford sells stateside achieves that standard– and Ford’s “showroom of the future” offers little hope. No wonder the company’s camp followers have turned their gaze upon FoMoCo’s European operations, where the S-Max people mover won the coveted Car of the Year award. Should The Blue Oval Boyz switch on their tractor beam?

Given that Ford’s “New Edge” design language bloat-morphed into New Ed (i.e. your uncle's idea of design), the fact that the automaker’s “Kinetic Design” survived long enough to find expression in the S-Max minivan is something of a miracle. Bottom line: the S-Max looks more like a Japanese Shinkansen or a TGV than suburban soccer-team transport.

Although the S-Max’ front end is relatively demure, the overall design is crammed with funky details: heavily raked windscreen, blistered wheel arches, [fake] gills behind the front wheels, flame surfaced side panels, bizarre window shapes and more. Say what you will about overwrought design, but my 16-year-old daughter wasn't ashamed to be seen in it and my girlfriend said it didn't make her "feel like a mom.” For a minivan, that’s about as good as it gets.

Marketingspeak calls the S-Max a "5+2" seven-seater sports car. In fact, it’s an elevated station wagon with plenty of room for five adults and two midgets. While that pretty much describes any CUV, the S-Max does the "five" part extremely well. First and second row headroom and legroom are fit for a Queen (Vic). Equally impressive, the spacious cabin fully accommodates the center rear passenger. Again, the S-Max’ third row is a short term solution for short people– whose presence reduces rear cargo capacity to that of a Honda Fit.

Journalists have compared the S-Max’ interior an Audi's– which is a bit like comparing a bottle of Aventinus Dunkel Weizenbock to a can of Miller Lite. The S-Max’ soft plastics are excellent, but many surrounding materials are cheap and nasty. The plasti-metal on the middle console, adjacent to a brushed-aluminum strip, next to faux-chrome on the steering wheel, reeks. Note to Ford of Europe: nobody wears a white plastic belt with khaki trousers anymore.

The S-Max’ handbrake is easily the interior’s blingiest touch. The jet throttle facsimile shelters tantalizing buttons marked “Comfort,” “Normal” and “Sport.” Unfortunately, using the handbrake is a pain, since it forces you to adopt an unergonomic bent-wrist grip. And for all the effect the three buttons have upon the S'Max's handling, I’m sure these switches were designed by FoMoCo’s Psy-Ops department. Even so, the S-Max is pleasure to drive in any of its [phantom] modes.

Our tester holstered a 2.0-liter, 140hp (DIN) Duratorque diesel. The mini-mill propelled the minivan with a satisfying turbodiesel snarl-shove at 2200 – 3800rpm, with no bothersome noise or vibration above or below the power band. The S-Max’ ten second amble from zero to 60mph sounds a lot worse than it is; the S-Max’ slick shifting six-speed manual affords easy access to whatever torque the oil burner can muster. In fact, there’s plenty of useful thrust right up to an indicated 120mph.

Although you sit noticeably higher than you would in a normal car, the S-Max has none of the ocean going sway that blights the rest of the minivan genre. At 100mph through high-speed bends, buffeted by stiff side winds, the S-Max stayed level and planted.

There’s not much of a downside to this fine handling. Even over cobblestones, the S-Max’ ride quality remains faultless. The vehicle’s noise suppression is good, but not on par with European luxobarges. My daily driver, a hydropneumatic Citroen, is a far more unruffled cruiser at 70mph. At 110mph, the difference is marginal.

Driven around corners at 6/10, the inevitable understeer… never arrives. Accelerating past that point is pointless, controllable and maybe even a little bit of fun. Aside from the S-Max’ lower center of gravity and world class chassis fettling, its communicative tiller is the main hoon enabler.

The S-Max’ helm provides instantaneous feedback on both the vehicle’s orientation and the quality of the pavement beneath its feet. Saying that, the stoppers are a lot more than merely adequate– and much appreciated by drivers intent on triggering the S-Max’ traction control idiot light.

Ford's stylish, practical and entertaining S-Max proves that The Blue Oval employs engineers and product planners who are as good as anybody in Japan or Germany. It's the mid-sized motor vehicle that should have replaced the pathetic Ford Windstar in the American market. Indeed, the S-Max might even have been the minivan that reinvigorated the entire genre, in ways that the bloated Chrysler Pacifica could only have imagined.

Pistonhead dreams of S-Max importation will probably go unrealized, as any such plans should have been hatched at the beginning of the model’s gestation, when a global strategy could have assured its profitability. Ford’s headed in that direction now, but it’s probably too late. The best-in-class S-Max is destined to be another Ford of NA could-a, should-a, would-a been.

Martin Schwoerer
Martin Schwoerer

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  • Brick_driver Brick_driver on Nov 02, 2007

    Maybe Ford has finally woke up and pulled the collective heads from there asses. I just saw an S Max in the middle of Connecticut. There it was, sitting in a relatively empty parking lot of a local indoor go-kart track. (Can it be inferred that it’s as fun to drive as a go-kart?) It stuck out like a Goth girl at a librarian's conference; quirky, yet alluring. The girl who'd you love to date, but your friends wouldn't approve of. It screamed "Different". It was wearing a Michigan "Manufacturer’s license plate, clearly stating that its not "from these parts". From all outward appearances, it had all the bells and whistles: cool 18" gun-metal snow flake wheels, wrapped in Continental 245/60 R18 sport tires, Silver Metallic paint, Black and dark grey Alcantra seats, the 6spd manu-matic, Nav system, rain sensing wipers, and all the power equipment. It was missing the third row of seats. It didn't look like a "Test mule", but I didn't see any marketing material in the trunk; so; I don't think it was out trolling for public approval. I really can't remember the last time I saw a Ford Motor Co. product that made me stop in my tracks, (Has there ever been a Ford product that made anyone stop and say "Ooooooo"?)but this one made me think about going to harass my local Ford salesman. Its what the Mazda 5 should have been, way cooler than the Pontiac Vibe could ever be, a Mercedes R-Class for the masses. Hopefully Ford has realized that a Euro-styled car can actually be sold in the States.

  • Rprowell Rprowell on Feb 02, 2010

    Tried out the Ford S-Max in Germany this a few months ago and wow what a nice and enjoyable ride. I agree this vehicle could definitely rival the Japanese automotive industry as far as quality in the US. I liked the feel and the comfort that it offered. Now am looking at the US versions to see if I can find the quality that I enjoyed in Europe. My kudos to this very nice and enjoyable ride.

  • 6-speed Pomodoro I had summer and winter tires for a car years ago. What a pain in the butt. You've permanently got a stack of tires hogging space in the garage and you've got to swap them yourself twice a year, because you can't fit a spare set of tires in a sportscar to pay someone else to swap 'em.I'd rather just put DWS06's on everything. But I haven't had a sportscar in 8 years, so maybe that's a terrible idea.
  • ShitHead It kicked on one time for me when a car abruptly turned into my lane. Worked as advertised. I was already about to lean into the brake as I was into the horn.
  • Theflyersfan I look at that front and I have to believe that BMW and Genesis designers look at that and go "wow...that's a little much." Rest of the car looks really good - they nailed the evolution of the previous design quite well. They didn't have to reinvent the wheel - when people want a Mustang, I don't think they are going to cross-shop because they know what they want.
  • Theflyersfan Winters go on around Halloween and Summers go on in late March or early April. However, there were some very cold mornings right after the summers went on that had me skidding a bit due to no grip! I do enough (ahem) spirited driving on empty hilly/mountain roads to justify a set of sticky rubber, and winters are a must as while there isn't much snow where I am (three dustings of snow this entire winter), I head to areas that get a bit more snow and winter tires turns that light, RWD car into a snow beast!
  • SCE to AUX My B5.5 was terrible, but maybe the bugs have been worked out of this one.