People carriers, or Multi-Purpose Vehicles (MPVs) as they are now known, used to be dull but worthy; with the honourable exception of the achingly beautiful Citroen CX Familiale, large families pretty much had just the two choices: a large Peugeot estate with a couple of dickie seats in the boot or a Land Rover station wagon.
Neither was fast, safe, or even remotely comfortable, especially over long distances.
George Orwell predicted many things in his book 1984, but even he didn’t foresee that Renault would turn the world of family motoring upside down in that year with the introduction of the groundbreaking Espace, an MPV that proved once and for all that seven people could travel in something that was stylish, economical, safe, and comfortable.
Oodles of legroom and plenty of storage space
The Ford S-MAX has much the same footprint as a Ford Mondeo (which isn’t a surprise as it’s based on the same platform), yet will seat seven very comfortably.
The three individual seats in the middle row slide and recline independently and come with oodles of legroom, so six-footers will be very happy back there, even when they’re sitting behind a tall driver.
The rearmost seats are smaller, and only really suitable for carrying teenagers at most and there is plenty of storage space to organize the detritus that is always generated when you carry children.
And when you aren’t shifting people, all five seats are easy to fold down, turning the S-MAX into a very convincing Transit van.
Little things adding up
The S-MAX has also got rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, a lane keeping aid, front and rear parking sensors, and rear privacy glass.
If you also choose the Adaptive Cruise Control (£900 extra), the Blind Spot Monitor (£500), and the Sony sat-nav (£450), the S-MAX might just be one of the most competent and comfortable cars you’ve driven for a long time – it certainly was for me.
Active Park Assist will also park the S-MAX for you for just £150, which is a bit of a bargain and removes at a stroke one of the few drawbacks of driving such a large car.
It also features the quickest and most intuitive phone synching on the market. I know you’ll only ever have to do it once, but little things add up to give an overall sense that the S-MAX was designed by people who actually drive cars.
An absence of noise, vibration and harshness
It’ll outlast the Duracell bunny, too; the 70lt diesel tank gives a range of up to 650 miles even at real-world fuel consumption levels, which is the equivalent of Inverness to Plymouth without having to stop.
This is, calls of nature aside, perfectly feasible as the S-MAX goes like a train, cruising effortlessly and in almost complete silence at motorway speeds. The absence of noise, vibration and harshness was remarkable, as was the ride quality, making this one of the most civilized ways to transport seven people I’ve driven in a long time.
The 148bhp diesel engine is smooth and powerful and rarely makes itself heard, even under heavy acceleration.
There is ample torque for mid-range overtaking and motorway cruising takes no more than a whiff of throttle, helping it achieve a thoroughly respectable 42.1mpg in my hands, albeit with just me on board for the majority of the 450 miles I covered in the week I spent with it.
Petrol engines are available but hard to recommend; they tend to produce great fuel economy figures in theory, figures that they generally struggle to achieve in normal use. Best to stick with the diesel, in my opinion.
Petrol vs diesel
Don’t mistake competence for dullness
The S-MAX comes as a front-wheel-drive or an intelligent all-wheel-drive that shuffles the drive to whichever wheels have the most grip; it does the thinking for you, giving the best possible traction under every weather conditions.
My time with it coincided with some of the worst rain we’ve had for a long time and despite hitting standing water, greasy roundabouts, and muddy, flooded roads, the S-MAX remained unperturbed.
Don’t mistake its competence for dullness, though. The S-MAX might be a big old people carrier but there is still fun to be had along country roads where it feels remarkably composed and much smaller than it really is.
A few niggles
Problems were minor on the whole. The dashboard display features more information than I’ve seen in one place for a long time and this takes some getting used to; simple, clear and legible, it isn’t.
Also, what controls there are on the centre console might be simple but there is still too much faffing around with the (large and clear) touchscreen, which is dangerous when you’re driving.
Finally, the leather seats look and feel a bit cheap and nasty. However, they should prove hardwearing and easy to wipe clean, which is probably the right side of that particular compromise if you’re going to be carrying small children…
The best dual-role vehicle on sale today?
The availability of a reasonably long wheelbase, four-wheel-drive and an automatic gearbox means that the S-MAX makes a great tow car too - and as the 178bhp diesel engine isn’t much thirstier than the less powerful one, you might be understandably tempted to upgrade if you do a lot of towing.
The most basic model you can buy with this configuration has a showroom price of £33,345, but carwow suggests that you should be able to shave 10% off that, turning a reasonably priced car into one of the biggest bargains of 2016 so far.
It might also be the best dual-role vehicle on sale today, unless you are willing to step up into a Land Rover Discovery.
If you’re just looking for a comfortable, quiet and refined family car, then the model I drove with the 148bhp engine and the manual gearbox (there is no way to buy this engine with an automatic gearbox, sadly) would make a great choice.
Again, pricing is already keen but you can expect to drive it down still further when the time comes to get your chequebook out.
Power – 148bhp
Torque – 258lb ft
0-62mph – 12.1 seconds
Top speed – 122mph
Kerb weight – 1,831kgs
Official average fuel consumption – 52.3mpg
Honest John real world fuel consumption – 41.2
CO2 emissions – 139g/km
VED class – Band E
Towing capacity (braked) – 2,000kgs
Towing capacity (unbraked) – 750kgs
Warranty – 3 yrs/60,000 miles
Price – £29,595
Price as tested - £32,670
The Ford S-MAX is a highly convincing package that offers the rare option of four-wheel-drive.
The best of the rest
The SEAT Alhambra isn’t as nice inside or to drive, but it is a tiny bit bigger if you need to carry full-size adults in the third row of seats.
The Ford Galaxy is based on the same platform as the S-MAX and offers even more room. It’s not quite as nice to drive, but if you need to be able to carry seven people and their luggage, this is the way to do it.