Competing against the ever-popular SUV in the kids'n'dog category is the MPV. It's a much derided class of car; where SUVs have "sport" in the name - suggesting athleticism and virility - MPVs carry the stigma of being the end of the motoring line. It's where you end up when your primary purpose is moving people and little more.
Perhaps that's why Ford likes to call the S-Max a SAV - sports activity vehicle - rather than a people carrier, which is only one step away from being a bus.
With that rather miserable prologue out of the way, the S-Max has, for some time, been one of the better looking cars in it's class. There really is some sportiness in the design and the newly designed 2015 S-Max brings refinement to all corners of the pitch.
New Ford S-Max design: S for sleek
The thing that stands the S-Max aside from its rivals is the sleek looks. It might sound difficult to achieve "sleek" in a seven-seater design, but that's what the S-Max has been through the last generation and into the new.
There's a sweep from front to rear that's a signature of many of Fords through the best part of the last decade, pushing Ford's "kinetic design", a language that aimed to give Ford's cars the appearance of always moving. It's very much what the S-Max is about and sitting alongside the new Ford Galaxy, it's evident that the S-Max is still the looker of the pair.
Where the smaller C-Max has an awkwardness of being slightly too big for its wheels, the S-Max fits its size much better. That sports activity tag plays out too, with Ford splitting the rear pipes and opening the grille to match the rest of the family. In this latest body, the S-Max looks closer to the Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo.
Looking side on we can't help feeling that the bonnet could do with a little more rake to fit that sweeping line of the windscreen a little closer, and that's a change from the past we're less keen on. In giving the S-Max that sporty grille that suits the smaller cars better, the front of the S-Max has become a little more snouty.
Ford S-Max interior: S for spacious
But the exterior design isn't really what you buy a car like the S-Max for. It's in the inside that matters: it's the space, it's the cabin, the part where you're going to put the people you're carrying. It's here that the S-Max brings plenty of practicality.
The interior is more spacious than many SUVs and the boot space is generous too if you don't have those rear seats deployed. You have the flexibility of folding any of the rear five seats flat, as well as sliding the second row forward to give the back more space, depending on who has the longest legs.
Better still, there's the option for power folding on the rear seats, as well as the option for a handsfree tailgate (£400, with keyless entry) . Should you find yourself needing to throw a new double mattress in the back, you'll be able to prepare the car with very minimal fuss. The mattress might just fit, too, given the capacious dimensions.
The front is a nice place to sit. The S-Max avoids that van-like feel that some larger cars get. The use of sporty seats both on Zetec and Titanium trim at least gives the driver the feeling that they're not just driving a minibus. The people in the back might be behaving like animals, but the driver's seat is a great place to be.
The cabin has obviously been designed to remove distractions from the driver. It's not littered with buttons and controls, but instead presents the essentials and everything is easy to use.
If we've a criticism of the interior, it's that it perhaps lacks design cohesion. Glacing around the interior of the Zetec, there's innumerate different textures and materials. Although the main soft-touch top of the dash is high enough in quality, there must be six different materials in the door panel, and the silver bar in the dash looks like it might be a remnant of the previous model's interior design.
That's all acceptable, especially when you have leather touch points in the places that matter, like the steering wheel. The centre console cubbyhole lid makes a good armrest, but we feel like these seats could also do with an armrest option. But what Zetec and Titanium both have a problem with is the glossy black finish over the centre of the transmission tunnel. We can't see how that's going to avoid getting scratched in a busy family car.
We might be wrong. Ford tells us that the interior is designed to be hard wearing, we just worry that prominent shiny black piece in the middle will let the side down.
There is a bonus, however, and that's that the huge handbrake that looked like it belonged in a Boeing 747 has been replaced by a electronic switch. We know that some S-Maxers will rue its passing, but its removal does lend to a less cluttered cabin.
Ford S-Max: S for sporty?
What really sells itself, though, is the drive position. The view is excellent, not only over the road ahead, but all around. The spacious cabin, large rear window and plentiful window space down the sides means checking blindspots couldn't be easier and in many cases, a league above most SUVs.
Despite its size, everything in the S-Max feels light. The steering is light, especially at low speeds, as is the clutch. For the busy school run that might appeal, but the sporty aims don't quite run to lots of precise steering feedback. Given the size and dimensions, you're not really going to be throwing the S-Max around corners, and misjudge the speed a little on motorway exit and you'll feel the car fighting you as you try to keep a tight line.
We tested two engines which we think are likely to be the most popular. The 150PS 2.0-litre diesel mated to a six speed manual gear box gives you plenty of power, but there's the choice of lower and higher power outputs from the same 2-litre engine.
The slight downside of putting a big diesel in the front of the S-Max is that it's a little noisy in low gears. That can give a van-like noise pulling away in those fairly low ratio first and second gears, but once you're rolling, the S-Max isn't noisy. Put it on the motorway at 70mph and it's smooth and quiet, and satisfyingly so. Ford says that the body design aims to reduce road noise and with the 17-inch wheels of the Zetec we tested escaping the harshness of low profile tyres, you're left with a nice smooth and quiet ride.
Pair that with comfortable seats (whether finished in cloth or leather) and it's easy to see how the S-Max is going to offer great comfort on long journeys.
For a little more poke you might like the 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol engine. With 160PS, it's a little smoother than the close diesel we tested, but the trade-off is in efficiency and emissions, where the diesel easily wins. We also like the manual gearbox. It's a reletively short throw between gears, but it's nice and precise, and very positive, so it's very easy to drive.
In our test drives (which weren't long enough to be an entirely accurate picture) we averaged 40mpg from the diesel, and just over 30mpg from the petrol. Glancing over the stats, however, this big beast of a car doesn't slip below the 120g/km level, so you'll always be looking at higher rates of road tax.
For those who live in areas more prone to snow, or perhaps interested in towing, the S-Max is now available with all-wheel drive too. This adds weight, meaning a trade-off in performance, but should give you the assurance you need when things get a little more demanding.
Ford S-Max: S for super tech treats
So if we accept that in terms of practicality and the satisfaction of driving, the new S-Max is something of a triumph, we can turn our attention to the technology on board. This is one area where Ford has added a lot in this new model.
The centre console sees a large 8-inch display, offering easy access to navigation, phone, entertainment and climate control (options depend on trim). It's simple and intuitive, showing a great deal of experience, as there's almost zero learning curve. We found it very easy to use. There's an updated Sony system you can replace it with, if you're feeling flush.
For those looking for a little more visual excitement, there's the option for 10-inch digital driver display, making it really easy to customise the information you're presented. The analogue style dials are still fairly conventional, but being able to choose everything in the middle is great for personalisation and it's easy to see how this could be adapted in the future with more information, like scrolling maps.
Then there the optional front camera that looks around corners, designed to help you see out of blind junctions, all-round parking sensors, as well as the auto-parking function (a £150 extra).
But the S-Max is also smart on the road. There's an intelligent speed limiter option that will help you avoid speeding tickets by keeping your speed in check, although we suspect that many drivers are probably happy enough to take responsibility for their own speed. One clever system recognises road signs so you can see the speed limit at a glance. It's not unique to Ford (the Honda CR-V offers it, for example), but it is handy, as you can glance to double-check.
Most of the convenience features come as standard. You'll get keyless start with a push button on all models, as well as the alarm, parking sensors, DAB radio and that 8-inch Ford Sync 2 system. Step up to Titanium trim and you get satnav, auto wipers, keyless entry, traffic sign recognition and cruise control.
If you can stretch to the Titanium trim you get a lot more, but there's still a healthy selection of options, whichever trim you choose.
The MPV class is never going to be sexy and there's always the feeling that SUVs are going to give you a sporty flex where these larger people carriers might struggle. But the S-Max feels like the exception to the rule. Stand outside any school and you'll see a healthy number of these cars, because they are great for families.
But it's not just the practicality of having that space, or the option for seven seats when you need them. The Ford S-Max is nice to drive too. It's never going to be a tight as some of the better estates when it comes to handling, it's never going to be truly sporty, but there's plenty that you get in return.
There are some design elements we question - the new nose seems less fitting than the last and the interior has too many textures - but they're easy to overcome when you factor in the comfort, the convenience and that even on the most basic trim level, you get plenty of creature comforts.
You might have never considered an MPV before, but just remember that when Ford calls this a SAV, it's justified in doing so.