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Motors

Ford’s S-Max should have brought us back to the future

Wednesday, 6th March, 2019 4:30pm

This was supposed to be the future.

Once upon a time, and it’s not that long ago, the future of the car was the MPV (multi-purpose vehicle). There had been early stirrings in the sixties, with such as the original minibus versions of the Volkswagen Kombi and the Ford Transit. There was even the tiny, egg-shaped, six-seat Fiat Multipla.

It was 1984, appropriately enough, when we first saw what the future was supposed to have been.

A year before Marty McFly travelled on-screen to the past, Renault seemed to have travelled to the future and brought back a car.

That first Espace, with styling (inside and out) meant to evoke the look and feel of the super-fast French TGV trains, was a revelation.

Sure, Dodge’s Minivan had been on sale in the US already, by that stage, but that felt more like a traditional van with windows (and even had the word van in the title).

The Espace looked, felt, seemed, something quite different. A car with a big, glassy body, seats for seven, and made of ever-lasting plastic (which seemed like a good thing in those pre-recycling days), and a velour-tastic cabin, all within the same overall length as a humdrum family saloon. A second French revolution.

Just as so many others flocked to the totems of liberté, egalité, and fraternité, so too many flocked to the MPV idea. VW would, half-a-decade later, create its Sharan.

Renault struck again in 1998, creating an entirely new market segment with the first Scenic. Opel had a crack with the (somewhat rubbish) Sintra before hitting paydirt with the compact, seven-seat Zafira of 1999.

Ford, having co-created the first Galaxy with VW (it was the sister car to the Sharan, and the original Seat Alhambra) waited until 2006 to create the S-Max. It was worth the wait though, as that first S-Max was the first MPV truly worth driving.

Thanks to its third-gen Mondeo chassis and steering, once you allowed for the higher weight and the loftier centre of gravity, the S-Max was pretty terrific to drive. Especially the rare 2.5 litre turbo version, which used the same 212hp five-cylinder engine as the Focus ST.

By the following year, though few realised it at the time, but the writing for the MPV would be on the wall just the following year. Nissan launched the Qashqai, triggering a new revolution in the car world, and suddenly someone had gone back and monkeyed with the space-time continuum.

MPVs were no longer the future. SUVs suddenly were. You can also blame Jeremy Clarkson (for so much, but specifically) who said once that buying an SUV was the equivalent of social death, a mark that you had given up on fun motoring.

The effect on the market has been profound. Renault stopped selling the Espace in right-hand drive (a shame as the latest model is gorgeous and truly luxurious). Citroen replaced its cute and quirky C3 Picasso mini-MPV with the rather bland C3 Aircross crossover. Opel did likewise, culling the likeable second-gen Meriva and replacing it with the faceless Crossland, while the Zafira too has gone the way of all flesh. The Scenic clings on, essentially on sales life support.

Ford still makes the Galaxy — so beloved of minicabbers and airport shuttle services everywhere — and still, just about, makes this S-Max.

You do get the feeling that its theme song if it had one, these days, would be a funeral dirge. Ford is repeatedly having to deny that it intends to shut-down S-Max and Galaxy production, having already moved the building of both cars from their original factory in Genk to Valencia in Spain. Anyone familiar with Premiership football, or ministerial appointments, knows what usually follows a declaration of support.

The thing is, as with so much of the world today, that it’s all so pointless, so foolish, so short-sighted. Ford is going about turning itself from a maker of cars into, entirely, a maker of SUVs and the S-Max will be an early casualty of that (the smaller, mid-size C-Max is already a goner). It should not be. It’s far too good a car for that.

I’ve been driving this grey-brown S-Max, in sporty-ish ST-Line trim, for two weeks now. It has, quite literally, been driven from one end of the country to the other — from Belfast to the wilds of West Cork, to the blustery beaches of Waterford, back through Dublin, and up to Belfast again.

It’s carried recycling, luggage, a dog, two kids, sundry parents and parents-in-law, and occasionally just myself.

It has pounded the long motorways of this nation in excellent comfort and very impressive refinement. That 150hp 2.0 litre TDCI diesel engine may be both unfashionable, and lacking a touch for outright power, but it’s all but silent at a cruise, and doesn’t do too badly on the economy front — 40mpg is easy, even with seven-up.

That folding third row isn’t as roomy as the same set of seats in the mechanically-related Galaxy, but it’s tolerable even for a tall recently-teenager for a hop of medium length.

Fold them flat (just pull a cord and they tumble forward) and you have a 700 litre boot with which to play. Drop all the back seats and you have 2,000 litres of cargo volume.

The only bugbear? With all the seats folded flat or occupied, there’s nowhere to store the luggage cover, so you have to leave that at home.

The thing is, MPVs make rational sense. They are mono-space, mono-volume vehicles, with their cabins stretched out to (almost) the corners of the car, maximising space within a given footprint.

A similarly-sized SUV wastes vast acreage of space by having a ‘rugged’ flat, castellated bonnet, and equally loses interior volume through having a (usually pointlessly) taller ride height. An MPV, if you need a deft blend of space, seats, and comfort (and many of us do) is the sensible option.

The problem, now, is that no-one buying a new car is being sensible. Or rational.

The future suddenly looks less clever.

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