2006 Ford S-Max 2.0i (CH)

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As customer tastes continue to move away from buying conventional saloon, hatch and estate models to those vehicles which offer more versatility, commensurate with the busy and active lifestyles we all lead these days, it was no surprise that as well as replacing the large Galaxy People Carrier in 2006, Ford chose to add an additional model, which was positioned as a sort of half-way between their Mondeo Estate and the now somewhat larger 7-seater Galaxy. They called this new car the S-Max, following a theme set by the smaller Focus-based C-Max, and it was extremely well received when the press got behind the wheel a few weeks after its premier. It went on to win “Car of the Year 2007”, an award which is supposed to indicate not just excellence in its own right, but that the winning vehicle brings new and innovative thinking and capability to the market place. So it is clearly an important car and one that I was interested to test. My chance came when the rental I had booked for a day out on the roads of Switzerland, from the category of “large estate cars” such as the Mondeo actually turned out on the day to be an S-Max. Whilst most of the sales of this model are predicted to be diesel-powered cars, this one had a petrol engine. Not, sadly, the “halo model” 2.5 litre turbo top of the range, which, in reality, is never likely to garner the majority of the petrol-powered sales, but the commercially more significant 2.0 litre petrol and rather run-of-the-mill “rental car” spec trim. That spec included more scratches and scrapes on the damage report form than could be fitted on the pictogram (and an apology from Mr Hertz at Zurich Kloten airport), but luckily, it seemed that the 33,000 kms that the test car had driven had taken their toll only on cosmetics and not the mechanicals, or even the interior.

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First impression when getting in the S-Max is one of relief that Ford seem to have eschewed most of the current “gimmicks”. There’s a conventional ignition key that goes in a key shaped slot, and which is twisted to start the engine. With the exception of the odd handbrake lever – but at least it is a proper handbrake, not some capricious electronic thing – and of which more later, everything else seemed intuitively obvious, so it was a simple matter of adjusting the wheel, seat, and mirrors, and firing up. That was when the first disappointment struck me. The engine note. A sort of slightly unpleasant whine to it, which certainly sounds quite different to the other Ford cars that use the same Duratec HE engine. Nothing else really struck me at that time, as I drove all of 4km to my overnight hotel.

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The following morning was when the serious test began. I had decided to retrace the steps taken when on my very first visit to Switzerland, as a holiday maker, long before it ever occurred to me I could end up working there. I planned to go from Zurich to the Graubuenden, to Klosters and Davos, which meant a test of about 100km on the Autobahn, having traversed Zurich City, then heading up into the mountains, and the idea of going up over the Fluela pass, to give the car a real work out. In the city, and on the autobahn, everything was very impressive. Only the engine note was a little unpleasant, but it is fairly muted unless you accelerate really hard, so cruising at a steady 120 km/h, all that I was aware of was a slight wind rustle, which sounded like the trailing edge of the driver’s door and which I put down to a less than perfect seal. Otherwise, this was an impressive car. Quiet, very comfortable, with excellent, very Ford-like positive gearchange (though finding reverse, down to the right, below 5th gear was never quite as positive as I would like), precise steering and which seemed to ride well on the smooth Swiss roads. And acres of space – or, perhaps, that should be “hectares of space” as this was a Swiss market car.

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But – and you guessed there might just be a but – once I left the Autobahn at Landquart and headed up into the mountains, that engine revealed its true colours. It’s not that it is truly bad. Or unduly underpowered. But, I did feel that if you really filled this very capacious car with people – and it really will seat 7 – and then pointed it at the hills, it would struggle quite a bit. As it is, I found that once you lost momentum in fifth, you really did need to come down 2 gears and work it quite hard on what were not really really steep hills, and the aural pleasure to be gained from so doing was not something you would relish. It felt like it would benefit from more power, and I suspect more torque would be useful too. My suspicion is that on this car, like many now, the diesel versions may be a better drive. However, there is an upside. The handling. This really is a big heavy car that handles like something far smaller and more nimble. The Fluela, like many of the Alpine passes has a series of quite tight hairpins and several more swooping bends, and the S-Max seemed to revel in being thrown around the corners far more than you would expect in an MPV. Not sure the brakes enjoyed it that much, as I could smell something very cooked as I descended the pass, and I did not think I had been trying all that hard. Oh, and on the subject of brakes, the handbrake needs special comment. It is a mechanical lever, but it goes across the width of the central console, and you pull it up vertically. No problem with that, but when you release it, I found it all too easy to trap my fingers underneath it. I am sure the reason why it is fitted like this is to create room for a cupholder and the central cubby/armrest (that just about clears your elbow as you change from 1st to 2nd!), but I still prefer the conventional lever type, and I am sure they could have fitted one quite easily in the space.

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The cabin of the S-Max is impressive. Built from the same quality of plastics and other materials as most Fords, it looks neat and unpretentious, but well designed. The windscreen is a long way ahead of you, but as well as a large cubby on top of the dash, I noted that the passenger side of the dash is recessed away forward, allowing the front passenger to sit further forward and create more space behind them. Despite this arrangement, there is still a decent sized glove box, and there were plenty of other oddment storage areas in the cabin as well. There was a huge amount of space behind the front seats. The middle seats are on slides, and can be positioned individually, as three separate chairs. The rear row of seats fold flat into the boot, and when they are down, there is an enormous boot area, and a nice cover to hide the contents. Even with these seats up, there is some luggage space. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a big car, and when you look behind you, manoeuvring, you do realise this, but otherwise, it does not feel or drive as if it is the large MPV that it really is. All round visibility is excellent, and although the windscreen slopes away very steeply, the extra side windows in front of the doors do add both to the airiness, and also help to eliminate what could otherwise be quite a significant blind spot. It seemed easier to judge the extremities of this car than the recently sampled Dodge Grand Caravan. Also, it is worth noting that I drove the car 425 km in one day, and I have to report that I could easily have done a lot more than that. The seats were tremendously comfortable, and the ease with which the S-Max just covered the distance was commendable, it was just such a restful cruiser.

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I’ve left one of the best bits til last. Although I was a little disappointed with the power, torque and sound of the engine, I have to sing its praises in one other respect. Parsimony. I was convinced the fuel gauge was not working, as I drove a very long way before it moved off “full”, but eventually it did, so I had to refuel the car before returning it. I put in 36.42 litres, for the 426 km, which by my calculations gives an average of close to 34 mpg….. a lot better than I would have expected for such a big and heavy car that did a lot of mountain miles, and a lot of stop/start as the photographer kept looking for more shots.

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Summary then? Well, whilst the engine was perhaps not the S-Max’ trump card, on the whole, I was very favourably impressed and as a practical car for all the extended family, this Ford is well worth a look. But do go and test the diesels, as well.


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