Ford's compact B-MAX supermini-MPV family carrier has been improved. Jonathan Crouch looks at what's on offer.
Is there any point in a People Carrier if it's a really small one? It's a fair question that supermini-MPV models in the Nissan Note, Citroen C3 Picasso and Vauxhall Meriva segment have often struggled to answer. We think that in many respects, Ford's B-MAX offers a credible response to that query, its unique design and unrivalled versatility offering more ways to use a car of just 4m in length than you might ever have thought possible. It's now been improved with the option of a pokier 140PS version of the 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine that most buyers want.
The smallest sort of people carrier is definitely evolving - and here's a car that's been driving that process. Prior to this model's original launch in the Autumn of 2012, we'd had so-called supermini-MPVs, cars like Nissan's Note, slotting in below compact Scenic and C-MAX-sized designs. Usually though, they offered little more than a slightly pumped-up take on the usual small car theme. New brands entering this segment needed to try harder - and with this B-MAX, Ford did. It scores on its doors, but in a very different way to any of its rivals. This was the first car of this kind to use sliding side doors and, more uniquely still, it was the first to do away completely with a central B-pillar so that with the front door open, there's an enormous 1.5m of cabin aperture width, stretching all the way from windscreen to rear hatch. A far more innovative design than the Blue Oval bought us with this car's direct predecessor, the Fusion. And there's equal brilliance beneath the bonnet, with the option of a three cylinder 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine that provides a decent alternative to diesel and is now available in pokier 140PS form, if you need more performance than the standard 100 and 125PS 1.0 EcoBoost variants can provide. Overall, Ford's plan continues to centre around trying to attract the kind of buyer who wants the versatility of a larger C-MAX-style compact MPV but needs something easier to park and cheaper to run. Something like this? Let's find out.
Ford models are generally great to drive and most of the reason why is found in one thing: chassis stiffness. You might think that the lack of a B-pillar would see this B-MAX falling down here. Not a bit of it. It's not that there isn't one: it's just that you can't see it. Clever design has integrated the central pillar structure into the leading edges of the front and rear doors where they come together. When they're shut, they clamp themselves to the body very tightly and become part of the stiffness of the car. So much so in fact that this B-MAX can actually boast a stiffer structure than that of the Fiesta supermini upon which it's based. And a stiffer ride too? Well actually no. In fact, the ride quality is one of the very best things about this car. There's a suppleness to the suspension which strikes a better balance here than in almost anything else Ford makes, soaking up terrible town tarmac, yet firm enough to keep body roll well controlled through twisty roads you'll enjoy yourself on thanks to the standard torque vectoring system that helps corner turn-in and accurate, well-weighted electric power steering. And under the bonnet? Well, if you can get beyond the 90PS 1.4 and auto-only 105PS 1.6-litre petrol units at the foot of the range, there's plenty to admire, most notably with the innovative three cylinder 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol powerplants, as before offered in either 100 or 120PS guises and now also available in a pokier 140PS form. If you want a diesel, there's a choice of a rather slow 1.5 TDCi unit in 75 or 95PS guises.
Most important here of course is the issue that dominates discussion every time talk turns to this car: the doors. The front ones open normally but the back ones slide aside on cleverly concealed runners, so parents need have no more worries about their offspring re-sculpting the side of adjacent parked cars in tight supermarket spaces. And with the side doors open, you're ready to admire this car's party piece: the absence of the kind of centre B-pillar that almost every other car in the world has to have for structural rigidity. Here, that same stiffness is provided by the edges of the doors themselves when they shut tightly together, clamping themselves against the body. What this ingenuity creates is a car that's incredibly easy for anyone of any age to get in and out of. And get things in and out of. With both side doors open, there's a 1.5m-wide aperture, into which you can slide items of up to 2.34m in length if you've taken up the option of folding flat the front passenger seat. Of course, most of the time, you'll still be loading stuff like that in through the 318-litre boot, extendable to 1386-litres if you flatten the rear bench. This car though, has primarily been packaged for people - and the lives they lead. Thanks to the pillar-less Easy Access system, it's simplicity itself to lean in and install a child seat or to help in an aging relative. And up front? Well, with an overall vehicle height that's 12cm higher than a Fiesta, you get all the benefits of what Ford calls a higher 'command' seating position.
Prices start at around £13,500 and top out at around £19,500, targeting this B-MAX precisely at the two supermini-based MPV designs that probably represent its closest competition, Citroen's C3 Picasso and Vauxhall's Meriva. If, having looked at the opposition, you do settle on this Ford, then you'll probably have done enough research to conclude that the very top and the very bottom of the B-MAX line-up has limited appeal. After all, at entry-level, the engine technology's old, the spec's very basic and you can't order many of the really clever options. While at the top of the range, the pokiest petrol and diesel units - the 140PS 1.0 EcoBoost petrol and the 95PS 1.6-litre TDCi diesel - come wedded to pricey spec levels that will be beyond the pockets of most potential buyers. The result is that most B-MAX customers will be shopping in a narrow £16,000 to £17,500 bracket amongst mid-spec Zetec-trimmed 1.0-litre EcoBoost 100PS petrol or 1.5-litre TDCi diesel models that all come reasonably equipped. At this level, you can expect to find things like 15-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, a heated windscreen, air conditioning, a height adjustable front seat, leather trim for the steering wheel and gear lever, a six-speaker stereo with DAB digital radio, a trip computer and a Hill Start Assist system to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions. As for options, well the two key ones to consider. First up is 'Ford SYNC', the company's voice-activated in-car connectivity system that can Bluetooth link-in you mobile 'phone, read you texts and even call the emergency services in an accident. And talking of accidents, the optional 'Active City Stop' system should help you avoid the low speed variety. It uses a radar system mounted in the top of the windscreen that constantly scans the road ahead for collision hazards. If one's detected, it'll warn you and prime the brakes. If you don't respond, then the car will brake itself at speeds of up to 19mph. Clever.
Though it's quite possible that you might end up paying a little more for this B-MAX than you would for an older, less versatile supermini-MPV design, you'll start to claw back that premium pretty quickly once the miles begin to click by. You see, provided that you steer clear of the entry-level 1.4-litre petrol variant, you'll find this car to be the most efficient choice in its segment. Even without an Auto-Start-Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights, the volume 100PS 1.0-litre petrol EcoBoost model still manages diesel-like returns - 55.4mpg on the combined cycle and 119g/km of CO2. Adding start/stop to this engine makes quite a big difference. After all, with it installed, the 125PS EcoBoost petrol unit returns 57.7mpg and 114g/km of CO2. But if you really want diesel-like economy, then you really want a diesel. The 1.5 TDCi B-MAX manages 74.3mpg and 98g/km, whether you opt for it in 75 or 95PS guises. These are figures that are better than you'd get from some rival competitors - and there's plenty of cleverness to ensure that you get somewhere close to them on a regular basis. Like Ford's Eco Mode system, a neat bit of software that continually assesses the effects of your driving behaviour on fuel consumption based on speed, gear shifting, anticipation and the length of the journey you're on. With all this taken into account, the system will offer advice on how to drive more efficiently.
It's a tad ironic given the name that Ford's B-MAX is missing very little - apart from its B-pillar. Were it not for that, this would be a smart, carefully thought out but generally unremarkable contender in the supermini-MPV segment. As it is, this one stroke of design genius has set this model apart and established it as a class leader. Of course, we've had cars designed around doors before: few of them had much else to offer. Here though, it's different. Strong safety, the SYNC connectivity system's cleverness and three cylinder EcoBoost engine technology that delivers petrol power with diesel returns: all these things make this model one of the benchmark choices in its segment. Other rivals might be slightly bigger or more affordable but if you can afford one, in this Ford, you've what for us is the perfect growing family's second car. And finally, a small people carrier that makes perfect sense.
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