Ford S-Max: North Coast 500 revisited

  • We bid our long-term S-Max Vignale goodbye
  • Its final jaunt with us takes in the North Coast 500
  • Is this as good as it gets in the MPV arena?

1. Welcome 2. Is Vignale worth it? 3. Family test
4. How does it drive? 5. vs Galaxy 6. Farewell

Update 1: Vignale and I

Isn’t it funny how a contemporary car like the Ford S-Max Vignale can mysteriously take you back to a random recollection from your childhood?

If you were a plumber in the early 1980s, you might recall Ideal Standard’s Michelangelo range of bathroom suites. The style captured the futuristic look popularised by the glut of sci-fi films of that era – you could imagine it being fitted in the Millennium Falcon, with Han Solo shaving at the wide, bevelled basin.

So what does a three-decade-old bathroom design have to do with this S-Max long-termer I’m running for three months, especially seeing as I was a primary school pupil then, not plumbing my way around Lincolnshire?

Leather, leather everywhere

Cashmere is the answer. That’s the name Ford’s given to the near-white hue of perforated leather that envelopes all seven seats of this luxury take on its second-largest MPV.

It was also the name of the soft beige colour of the Michelangelo suite my parents planned for the bathroom of a new-build. Back in 1983, Britain was in the midst of a post-avocado smallest room revolution – dusky pink and whisper grey were the cashmere alternatives if you’re interested – all very much a far cry from today’s bright, white bathroom uniformity.

And so it is that since I was seven, whenever I hear ‘cashmere’ I automatically think of that Godawful bathroom.

With this Vignale it’s even more of a talking point – open the Ford’s doors to someone for the first time and there’s no sitting on the fence: you’re either greeted by a ‘wow’ or a ‘woah’. The alternative is ebony – black in other words – but this pale cabin makes it all the more distinctive from lesser S-Maxes. Let’s see how practical it is after a few weeks of ferrying folk about.

Good bye Ghia, hello Vignale

Vignale is Ford’s modern interpretation of its old Ghia trim level franchise. Leather’s usurped the velour, while faux wood gives way to gloss black plastics and a hide-swathed dashboard. Up front, at least, it’s a very agreeable place to be, as is the middle row once you’ve slid back and reclined the three individual seats. Third row? Like all S-Maxes, it’s best reserved for pre-teens, such is the paucity of head- and legroom.

It’s further distinguished on the outside with a unique grille pattern, lashings of additional chromework – tastefully done to my eyes – but no mention of S-Max or engine details from the exterior badging, merely a smattering of blue ovals and Vignale script.

Twin-turbo petrol performance

Talking of engines, we’ve become so conditioned to big family wagons announcing that the starter button’s been pressed with a hallmark diesel clatter, that this S-Max’s petrol powerplant’s relative hush catches you out when you fire it up.

If you’re hankering back for the days when Ford used to fit Volkswagen’s narrow-angle VR6 engine into top-line Galaxys, then the performance – if not the rortiness – of this twin-turbo 2.0-litre, four-cylinder EcoBoost will help you forget you’re piloting a fertility symbol.

There’s 240hp at your right foot’s deployment, and even though it has 1,704kg of heft to haul around before you fill it with people and their detritus, it’ll still complete the 0-62mph sprint in a tidy 8.4 seconds. And no, I have definitely not grinned inanely when the Ford out-drags hot hatches away from traffic lights. Not. At. All.

This one’s been up-specced with polished 19-inch alloy rims (a £700 fee, please) which pegs the official fuel consumption figure at 35.8mpg. That’s less dazzling than the wheels, but my first 227 miles behind the wheel yielded just 25.6mpg. Ouch! Fingers crossed that improves.

Emissions are quoted at 180g/km of CO2, so if you buy one before 1 April 2017 you’ll pay £350 instead of the £800 for the first year’s VED car tax. However, if you buy one like this and keep it for at least six years, under the new VED scheme it will actually cost £85 less to tax overall. So much for going green…

Well-equipped but options abound

It is, as you’d imagine for £35,500, generously appointed – a kit count I’ll delve into in a future update – but it seems odd that adaptive cruise control and an electric tailgate are not included as standard on Ford’s S-Max flagship.

Aside from the spangly rims, this Vignale’s been further upgraded with a self-parking function (£150 and not yet tried out), a hilariously phallic – and electrically-operated – tow bar at £750, the fixed glass roof with an electric blind (also £750 but worth the investment for my kids as it seems to reduce travel sickness) and a pair of multi-contour front seats with massage function – they’re an extra £600.

I’ve voiced my displeasure of massage seats before, but this is a whole new level of personal interference on the move. I feared I was going to be violated the first time I tried them. At least it distracts you from the fact the price has crept up to £38,450.

So, first impressions are that the Ford S-Max Vignale is pleasingly comfy, amusingly brisk but worryingly gluttonous when it comes to unleaded. It’s certainly going to be interesting, and that’s always a good thing in my book.

Overall mileage: 227 miles

Fuel economy: 25.6mpg (calculated)

Update 2: The Vignale experience

I’m going to start with the elephant in the room that answers to the name of Vignale. While fast Fords are frequently feted, posher offerings wearing the Blue Oval badge tend to be squinted at through a monocle of cynicism.

But is that fair?

There’s no escaping that over the past 20 years in particular, ‘premium’ brands have nestled firmly within the psyches of Britain's car buyers, and largely that’s been to the detriment of mainstream marques. When Ford ceased sales of the large Scorpio back in 1998, there was no replacement in sight, which partly explains the enormity of the contemporary Mondeo as it fills the void.

And this is where the cynics have a field day: yes, they can see how well-equipped the Vignale Fords are and it’s impossible not to notice how much leather the interior’s swathed in, but are those factors, plus unique grilles, and a range of exclusive colours garnished with lashings of chrome, really enough to tempt buyers away from Audi, BMW, Lexus, Jaguar or Mercedes?

Embracing the Vignale experience

In fairness, only time will tell, and seeing as the range only began filtering onto the market from summer 2016, it will require years of exposure to gain traction. But it’s inevitable that some buyers will be lured across to a Ford Store to buy something Vignale-badged.

Shorter-term, this view misses the point. Across its line-up, a very healthy proportion of Fords are sold in well-appointed Titanium trim. However, what happens when those buyers are ready for the next step up the luxury ladder?

Naturally, Ford doesn’t want them to migrate to an established premium brand, so upping the feel-good ante with its own products – and doing it so blatantly with unique embellishments inside and out – means that they can be seen to have upgraded, far more easily than when neighbours are playing the 'is that a Zetec or Titanium on their driveway?' game.

Here it begins to make more sense and – to these eyes and fingertips – the improvements feel more substantial and convincing than Citroen buyers might experience progressing to DS, despite the French going to the trouble of establishing a whole new marque for its luxury offshoot.

And let’s not forget exclusivity. The appeal of the premium marques was nurtured in the past due to them being expensive and exclusive. Today you’re far less likely to see a Mondeo Vignale than you are a common-or-garden 3 Series.

Visiting Vignale at a Ford Store

The car itself is only part of the equation, particularly for buyers who have higher expectations after years of premium brand showroom indoctrination.

To find out more about what customers can expect, I visited Scott Jones (no relation), the Vignale Relationship Manager at Evans Halshaw Ford in Lincoln.

Each Ford Store – the bigger showrooms that also sell the Focus RS and Mustang – have a dedicated Vignale sales area, hallmarked by its earthy-toned leather sofas, soft lighting and a touchscreen-topped table to configure your car of choice.

In all honesty, it feels a bit underwhelming, so let’s hope this is phase one and that the next stage will be more upmarket and exclusive.

Scott’s clearly passionate about the Vignale proposition though, citing how unlike other Fords where any sales executive can deal with you pre- or post-sale, he’s the sole port of call. 'I’m available 24/7 to deal with customer inquiries,' explains Scott. 'By being the dedicated person to get in touch with, I can answer queries, arrange for cars to be serviced and or simply explain how the on-board technology works.'

That personalisation theme is something Ford’s keen to promote, with a supplementary call centre service and a Vignale smartphone app, although sadly that’s more for information-based activity than remotely turning on your car’s heating on chilly mornings or confirming that it’s locked when you’re lying in bed and don’t want to get up to check.

When it comes to servicing a Vignale, Scott outlines the differences compared with a regular Ford: 'We can arrange for the car to be collected from the owner’s home or place of work, leaving another Vignale in its place so that they don’t have to take a step down in luxury.' This courtesy’s also extended to when the car’s first bought, saving a trip to the showroom if so desired.

An inquisitive neighbour who’d spotted the S-Max on my drive proffered that perhaps the Vignale’s showroom enticement might be hampered by would-be customers having to mix with the hoi polloi scrutinising Fiestas and EcoSports en route to the pricier metal. She maybe has a point, but then the same could be true of a Mercedes S-Class customer tripping over a Smart ForTwo if they happen to access the showroom via the wrong door.

Winter tyred

While I was at the dealership, I also took advantage of Evans Halshaw Lincoln’s tyre hotel service – it’s one of around 150 showrooms across the country offering a facility to store your summer rubber for a recommended price of £88 a month for all four, while you’re running on winter tyres.

Winter tyres – optimised to work effectively at temperatures of 7 degrees Celsius or lower – aren’t a legal requirement in the UK, but given the reduced temperatures as mid-winter approaches, as well as the prospect of administering 240hp through the front wheels, I figured the extra grip would come in handy.

Now enveloping the S-Max’s optional 19-inch polished rims are a set of Dunlop SP Winter Sport 3Ds (245/45 V19 if you’re a sizing junkie) which retail for between £210 and £260 each depending upon where you look online.

It’s maybe too soon to judge how effective the swap is given that it’s not been especially frosty – and certainly not snowy – just cold since they’ve been fitted.

If you didn’t know they were on you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference in normal conditions: there’s slightly more noise and steering wheel vibration at higher speeds, but that’s about it.

One thing is decided, though – if the snow won’t come to the S-Max, the S-Max will go to the snow.

Overall mileage: 1,403 miles

Fuel economy: 25.1mpg (calculated)


Update 3: First class upgrade?

If you’ve got growing kids (are they still ‘kids’ when they’re taller than you?) then you’ll be familiar with the notion of them suddenly being too big for the family car you bought a few years ago.

My children have decided they’re getting fed up of being roped into my long-term update reviews, so instead I encouraged/persuaded/coerced (delete as applicable) a couple of friends – Claire and Rowena – who are finding their offspring are rapidly outgrowing the family’s wheels.

Claire – currently drives a Honda CR-V

'As soon as I saw the S-Max, my thoughts were that it it looks a quality car. It manages to appear sleek and sporty, yet practical, too. And those flashes of silvery trim on the outside look classy.

'But the shape’s deceptive – it looks high from the outside but there’s only just sufficient headroom for adults in the middle row, while the back two seats are tiny. There’s so little legroom back there; a Galaxy’s much better from that point of view.

'I love that you can recline the middle row of seats, though; my kids always like to sleep on longer journeys, so leaning them back a few more degrees will increase their comfort.

'While I really like the light-coloured leather, I’ve always been dubious about having it in a car with younger kids, but now mine are a bit older it could be something I’d consider – certainly makes the interior feel airier than black.

'I know my kids like panoramic roofs, so the S-Max’s is good – personally I can take them or leave them – but it’s hard to grasp why roller blinds on the back doors aren’t standard on a car costing this much.

'The front seats are really comfy, although the massaging aspect feels a tad intimate. Not convinced I’d ever use it. There’s also plenty of adjustment on the steering wheel, meaning I can set the wheel low enough to see the dials without my rings snagging my tights.

'I’ve not used Apple CarPlay before and it’s definitely something I’d look out for when I’m buying my next car, but only for phone calls, sat-nav and music. That text messaging thing’s far too distracting and unreliable.

'I’d need a diesel rather than a petrol one like this, but it felt really responsive, especially with the gearbox in Sport mode. And the brakes feel up to the job of stopping a big, heavy car like this.

'There’s no doubt I’m tempted by the looks of the S-Max but I think if I was going to buy a Ford MPV the roomier Galaxy would make more sense and allow even more growing room. Pity neither of them offer a split-level boot floor to maximise what space there is with all seven seats in use.”

Rowena – currently drives a Volkswagen Touran

'I was struck that although the S-Max seems much larger than my Touran outside, it doesn’t feel that much bigger inside for seven growing passengers. It’s very easy to adjust the position of the front seats, though – buttons for everything, including that massaging thing, which I’m still not sure whether I liked or not.

'Having flipped the seats around it doesn’t feel as flexible as the Touran, either – and I’m not a fan of the fact you can no longer remove the seats in newer MPVs.

'My daughter likes to sit in the back row and I don’t think she’d enjoy clambering over the middle seat in order to get there. The outer middle-row seats do tilt and slide neatly out of the way when getting into those smaller back seats.

'Adults relegated to the back row aren’t going to be happy – they’re clearly designed for kids – but you could tolerate a short journey there if you were getting a lift back from the pub, for instance.

'That said, there were loads of things that I liked about the S-Max Vignale that I’d like on my next car: the glazed roof, parking cameras and other mod cons. Then again, I’d only like them if they were standard; they’re not the kind of thing I’d be willing to spend extra on.

'Having experienced the performance from the passenger seat it seemed smooth with quite a bit of oomph when you needed it, although I suspect it wouldn’t be as economical as I’d need a car to be. And that’s a particularly man-sized knob for the automatic gearbox.

'I also really want a seven-seater with a spare tyre, as standard, as I’ve had two flat tyres in the last year!

'Although the Ford feels a nice car to be in, overall I’m disappointed that it wasn’t as roomy as I’d hoped it’d be. Maybe I need to look at a Galaxy instead.”

S-Maxed out for space

Evidently the styling and (most of) the appointments within the S-Max Vignale were appreciated much more than the Ford being less spacious than either of our would-be larger MPV buyers expected.

And it’s interesting to note that both expect the Galaxy to be much bigger, even though it’s based upon the same underpinnings.

Time to get the Blue Oval’s largest people carrier booked in to see whether it really is significantly more spacious than its S-Max sibling… 

Overall mileage: 2,358 miles

Fuel economy: 24.4mpg 


Update 4: Handle with flair

Flick through your well-thumbed copy of The Almanac of All Things Motoring and in the chapter titled ‘Fine-handling MPVs’ there’ll be a picture of the Ford S-Max hugging a tight line around a bend and displaying minimal bodyroll. Rather like the one below…

Performance-focused MPV

Since Ford introduced the first-generation S-Max over a decade ago, it’s pitched it as a seven-seater for people who haven’t given up on being able to enjoy themselves behind the wheel simply because of their fruitful loins.

But here’s the thing: while the Mondeo with which the S-Max shares its underpinnings and oily bits with has traded agility for comfort, the sporty seven-seater remains a delight to thread along a ribboning section of B-road, especially in this mechanical guise.

I love seeing people’s faces when I tell them that this S-Max sips – well, guzzles, but more on that later – petrol. Diesel’s become so normalised in larger cars that the notion of someone choosing to refuel with the green pump seems alien.

Deep down in the Ford’s snub nose lies a twin-turbo 2.0-litre EcoBoost motor producing 240hp and 345Nm of torque, good enough for a 140mph top speed (apparently) and an 8.4-second 0-62mph time.

In truth, it doesn’t feel quite as stoked as that on the road – brisk yes, but not fast.

That initial 0-30mph surge is addictively potent, the Ford embarrassing a gaggle of supposedly sports saloons and hot hatches in its wake.

It’s a different story on the move, though: exit a roundabout alongside a middle-ranking turbodiesel hatchback with a rich seam of low-revving torque and it’s the S-Max that’s left trailing behind.

Lethargic automatic transmission

The culprit’s the six-speed automatic gearbox, a conventional one, too, not the quicker-reacting dual-clutch PowerShift affair that Ford mates with its diesel S-Maxes.

Leave it in Drive (D) and it gathers momentum much more lethargically, which is generally fine about town but makes building up speeds on quicker roads feel tedious.

So, Sport (S) is the more obvious selection: here the engine revs are held onto longer to maximise its time in its torquier realms, but ratio changes still don’t feel particularly hurried.

You can manually override it by flapping the paddles behind the steering wheel, although this feels no more involving than a video game, but they do the job quicker than stamping on the accelerator to activate kickdown.

Enthusiast-sating handling

Where the S-Max trumps the Mondeo in the handling stakes is in the weight of its controls – it feels meatier than its more traditional sibling, as though the seven-seater’s greater heft is telegraphed to your hands, feet and posterior.

You really have to press on very hard to make it wash wide and understeer in a corner, such are the impressive levels of traction inherent in the S-Max, aided and abetted over the chillier, inclement months by the grippier winter rubber.

While the ride’s not uncomfortable with the 19-inch optional alloy rims, I’d save the £700 and stick to the standard 18-inchers. There’s a significant degree of extra compliance, but without introducing that level of floatiness that affects travel sick-prone kids.

Filling the S-Max with kids (and adults) does have a marginally negative effect on the handling because the Ford’s centre of gravity is elevated. With just the driver on board it’s nice and low, hence it doesn’t list like a North Sea ferry whenever you point it at a corner, but seven up it’s appreciably more wallowy, encouraging you to drive with less vigour to minimise passenger complaints.

Thirsty work

It’s driving the S-Max with enthusiasm at the forefront of the experience that has it bingeing on unleaded. Not that I expected to see the 35.8mpg official claim, but I was hoping to see something more acceptable than 24.4mpg after 4,000 miles. At this rate it’s costing 21p per mile to run in fuel alone.

It could be my commute that’s the problem: it’s 76 miles door-to-door but typically that involves a fair chunk of stop/start driving both on the A1 and in Lincoln city centre. While the S-Max has an engine cut-off function for when the car’s not moving, it’s deactivated when the gearbox is in Sport mode.

Fingers crossed it’ll improve on a longer, less interrupted run.

Until then I’ll console myself safe in the knowledge that the S-Max remains the best-handling MPV out there.

Overall mileage: 4,099 miles

Fuel economy: 24.4mpg

Update 5: Galaxy Quest


There’s a seven-seater surfeit in the Ford stable, with the smaller Grand C-Max and larger Galaxy vying for attention with the S-Max nestled between them in the range. So, which is best at hauling around a septet of people?

We’ve discounted the Focus-based Grand C-Max straight away. As it shares its underpinnings with a smaller model – both the S-Max and Galaxy are derived from the Mondeo’s platform – it’s immediately at a disadvantage.

Yes, its rear sliding doors are a Godsend against clumsy kids in cramped car parks, but they’ll be grumpy having played sardines inside it.

Aren’t the S-Max and Galaxy the same car?

At first glance, the Galaxy appears to be an S-Max with a more perpendicular tail, but poring over their respective vital statistics reveals key differences.

It’s not just the rear of the Galaxy that’s been raised – its whole roof is taller. At 1,747mm high it’s 92mm loftier than the S-Max.

Nose to tail the Galaxy’s 4,848mm long, an extra 52mm over its slightly shorter sibling, too.

They don’t sound like significantly different figures but climb into the middle and back rows and the Galaxy’s increased dimensions are immediately obvious.

Even from the driver’s seat the Galaxy feels much taller. I’ve never been one for giving cars names, but if my arm was twisted sufficiently, I’d call it Sir Topham Hatt (if you haven’t got kids then Google is your friend).

Space: the final frontier

A picture paints a thousand words, so they say, but in this instance it also means that you’ll have to suffer my hirsute head crowning my six-foot stature to demonstrate the increased headroom afforded by the Galaxy’s taller, less-tapered roofline.

That increased elevation allows middle-row passengers to sit more upright than the slouched positioning forced upon taller occupants in the S-Max. Not only does this feel more natural, it also liberates a little extra legroom for those in the third row.

Talking of that back row, the Galaxy’s pair of rear seats is better-suited to carrying adults thanks to their increased seat-back height. This, in conjunction with that roof/tailgate meeting point designed with a set-square, means that most adults can get comfy in row three.

Clearly my physique sets me in a classification aside from ‘most adults’, but patently there’s more space than in the S-Max’s third row.

Booty call

The other obvious advantage of the Galaxy’s stretched dimensions is that as well as more space for people, there’s more room for their stuff, too.

Keep all seven seats upright and both fall foul of the common MPV problem of not having enough space to carry each passenger’s luggage, although at 300 litres up to the window line, the Galaxy beats the S-Max’s capacity by 15 litres.

Switch to five-seat mode and the differences are more telling: again to window level, the S-Max has 965 litres of cargo space, but the Galaxy trumps that with 1,206 litres.

It’s also worth noting that even though the retractable luggage covers are all but identical, installing and removing it is far easier in the Galaxy thanks to the greater interior space.


And, for those once-a-year moments when you need to convert them into two-seater vans, the Galaxy’s 2,339-litre capacity up to ceiling height outstrips the S-Max by 319 litres.

So, which is best – Galaxy or S-Max?

There’s no gaping chasm between the handling characteristics of either of these Fords – nor should there be given their common lineage.

Keener drivers might appreciate that the S-Max suffers from marginally less bodyroll and is a little firmer in terms of ride quality – which could well be attributed to this specific Vignale’s larger alloy wheels – but both corner accurately, deliver similar levels of feedback to the driver and allow you to press on along B-roads with confidence.

So, it’s down to space and flexibility – repeatedly switching between the two and experiencing the different seat positions is all the confirmation you need that as a seven-seater MPV the Galaxy’s fitter for purpose than its slightly lither S-Max cousin.

Which only begs the question of why buyers can’t travel in the plush confines of a Galaxy Vignale on their family days out to the Island of Sodor? Over to you, Ford…

Overall mileage: 6,200 miles

Fuel economy: 24.7mpg (calculated)


Update 6: Galaxy Quest

Last summer I popped my North Coast 500 cherry in the epic Ford Focus RS: (some) glorious sunshine, enticingly challenging roads and scenery that gave me goosebumps on my goosebumps.

Since then I’ve been trying to find an excuse to have a second crack at it, when it struck me that another performance Ford – the 240hp S-Max long-termer we’ve been running – complete with winter tyres, would be ideal for an NC500 run in mid-February.

Running on fumes 

A drama more serious than you’d find on daytime TV struck en route to Inverness. Having brimmed the S-Max before departing Lincoln I was expecting a refill somewhere deep in mid-Scotland, especially given that until the drive began, it had only averaged a wince-inducing 24.7mpg.

Sure enough, by the time I was ribboning through the glacially carved expanses of Glencoe I had 40 miles of unleaded left, with the sat-nav suggesting I was 15 miles from a filling station.

Thoughts of ‘no problem’ immediately became a rather a pressing issue as the range tumbled at a rate that outstripped the distance travelled by some margin. By the time I pulled up alongside a pump – air-con and everything electrical (barring the lights) off – there was just three miles of fuel left in the tank. Not a situation I wanted to repeat on the NC500 itself.

Snow joke

Over breakfast on the morning of the drive from Inverness, the B&B owner mentioned in passing how mild it had been this winter, suggesting he couldn’t remember a year where he’d experienced so little snow. So much for my plan to test the low-temperature grip of the S-Max’s rubber.

Driving the first leg to the Applecross Pass showcased how comfortable the S-Max Vignale is while travelling at speed. Naturally, the RS is a more visceral and punchy experience, but the seven-seater’s compliance over undulations allowed it to carry more speed than the Focus over a few stretches.

Leaving the automatic gearbox to its own devices didn’t always produce the desired results, with occasional up-changes exiting a corner where popping down a ratio would have made for a pacier departure, but the steering wheel-mounted paddles allow you to overcome that.

Tracing the winding Applecross road up into the clouds reinforced how well-balanced the S-Max’s handling is: despite its extra height, it feels far wieldier than the Mondeo it shares its platform with that I ran last autumn.

Personally I’d appreciate a bit more weight and a little more communication through the steering wheel, but it’s at least chatty enough to let you know how much grip the front tyres are enjoying and, despite the exuberant drive, I never once felt unsure what the S-Max’s prow was up to.

Quicker than it looks 

Pressing on up the western coast, the Atlantic gently lapping against the shoreline, the terrain becomes bleaker, more mountainous and, for long stretches, narrower courtesy of mile-upon-mile of single track road. Passing places are numerous, which was just as well as there was a surprising amount of traffic heading in the opposite direction.

On more than a couple of occasions, where approaching cars were taking unnecessarily wide lines around blind bends, the S-Max’s width ensured there was much sucking in of air through teeth at the relief of not having the paintwork scraped by duelling door mirrors.

Longer, more open stretches allow for opportunities to release more of the S-Max’s performance, and while I won’t condescend you claiming it handles with the enthusiast-sating qualities of a bona fide sports car, it’s nevertheless a remarkably capable – and swift – point-to-point car.

One particular section after the Kylesku Bridge saw me being outdragged on a straight by a significantly more powerful coupe, but once the windier asphalt returned, that its pilot couldn’t shake off the S-Max says much more about the Ford’s handling traits than it does my abilities (or lack, thereof) behind the wheel.

Let there be light

As I continued northwards and approached Tongue, dusk enveloped the sky and the automatic LED headlamps pinged into life.

My non-car enthusing friends are bored to the point of being comatose about me banging on about the illuminating qualities of such lights, but I don’t care. Manufacturers could do themselves a favour by offering more 24-hour test drives so that would-be customers can experience the difference between LEDs and regular halogen units.

The Ford’s units also benefit from a matrix system to shut off sections of main-beam light to actively avoid dazzling oncoming cars as well as traffic you catch up with. With no other artificial light across the wilds of the Highlands, that moving darkened section was especially obvious; over the course of the night not a single driver flashed back in annoyance.

More positive economic outlook

An overnight stay near Wick was a sensible idea seeing as there wasn’t enough light to see the Dunnet Head lighthouse, marking mainland Britain’s most northerly point that evening.

Instead, it was visited at first light before heading hastily back south, following the road back down to Inverness before picking up the motorway network north of Glasgow.

Despite being a Saturday the roads weren’t at full capacity – although the endless gantries of speed cameras and roadworks along the A9 created frustration – so decent progress was made, not just in terms of elapsed time but overall economy, too.

Perhaps it was the steadiness of being able to sit largely at the national speed limit for several hours, with only an occasional roundabout hiccupping into proceedings, but that return leg saw the S-Max’s average economy rise by 0.4mpg, with one tank alone registering 28.1mpg – the highest during its near 10,000-mile stint with Parkers.

So would we buy one?

For all the S-Max’s performance and lack of engine clatter is alluring, real-world needs would swerve us towards the 210hp twin-turbo diesel if we were recommending a punchy S-Max.

But therein lies another dilemma: if you’ve got your heart set on a Ford MPV then the Galaxy offers appreciably more space albeit in a not-quite-as-good-fun-to-drive package.

Where the S-Max makes more sense is if your children are younger than mid-teens, as their heads won’t be brushing the headlining while you’re wondering when the hell they got so big. In a Galaxy they’ve got room for headwear far more substantial than a Vans snapback.

However, young children and the Vignale’s near-white perforated leather aren’t happy bedfellows either, are they? The admittedly less-special Titanium with smooth black leather would make more sense if your little darlings’ fingers are frequently smearing chocolate, soft fruit, juice and snot about the cabin.

That’s the S-Max Vignale’s biggest problem: it’s intriguing, yes, but it doesn’t fulfil any of its briefs quite as well as it could.

It’s been an interesting three months, but a pricey one – our Ford’s guzzled 1,542 litres of petrol at a cost of £1,710 – and that stat alone would stop us recommending one exactly like ours. 

Overall mileage: 9,714 miles

Fuel economy: 25.1mpg (calculated)