Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ford S-Max

Our reason for changing cars has always been to accommodate our growing family. So it was a MkI Focus sedan until we had 3 kids, and now with the fourth, the Edix had to go. Both cars had served us wonderfully for four years each, and would still be highly recommended for families of up to five and six respectively. But with helper in tow on weekends it meant one child had to be carried or sitting on the floor, neither comfortable nor safe solutions.

I had previously test-driven the S-Max (or Smacks as we like to call it) around two years ago, and immediately loved the way it drove. It reminded me of a grown-up Focus, whose steering and chassis I had missed when we switched to the Honda. Meatier, less delicate, but just as precise and responsive to inputs, it was stable and planted on straight roads, and a dream to corner. But at over $110k (then), I had to write it off as beyond my reach.

Fast forward to the beginning of February this year, and a few factors came together to prompt a decision. The Edix was nearing its fourth birthday, and while remaining utterly practical (I still cannot find another reasonably-priced, yet fairly compact car that seats six adults comfortably, along with a full Corolla-sized boot), it was, as mentioned previously, starting to strain from our family’s needs. Also, with 130,000km on the odo, bigger wear and tear costs were starting to creep in – I had already replaced a front suspension arm, and I suspected the wheel bearings were heading south as well. On top of these, COE prices were on the rise, in anticipation of the impending the quota cut, so if we were to make a change, it would have to be soon.

A 7-seater was a given, but which one? The usual suspects (Wish, Stream et al.) proved to be too narrow. We currently have a rearward-facing baby bucket seat, a pretty bulky toddler seat and two boosters – try any combination of these in the above cars and you’ll find them reduced to six-seaters with tiny boots. Infuriatingly, even the largest Japanese MPVs have benches for their second row, with the middle seat inevitably smaller than the outboard two, and given a token lap belt instead of a proper pre-tensioned three-point job. Looks like not all passengers are meant to be treated equal.

From there the choice became clearer. The Renault Grand Scenic, VW Touran and Citroen Grand Picasso all boast three individual seats in the middle row, but have much smaller boots than the Smack’s decent 285 litres, and there was no way in heck I’d live with barges like the Espace or Voyager on a daily basis. I’d sooner get a Vito.

Of course, a new Smacks was still pricey at a dollar under $100k (in Feb), while 2-year old examples, bought for nearly $120k, were going for around $80k. It made a lot of sense to buy second-hand, especially for a fast-depreciating, “non-luxury” conti brand like Ford. A quick check online confirmed two used S-Maxes for sale, a Trend and a Titanium. The Titanium was a few months older and had more mileage on the clock, but the dealer wasn’t asking for much more than the Trend, plus the OMV was a whopping $5k greater. Even ignoring the better trim level, it was looking like the better deal.

But what a trim! In the UK, 70% of owners spec their Smacks to Titanium, and it’s not hard to see why. 17-inch rims, auto-lights and wipers, double-moonroof, 8-inch information screen in the instrument cluster with steering-mounted controls, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, bi-xenon headlamps and cornering lights, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, two extra airbags for second row passengers, full leather seats, 8-way powered driver’s seat and powered-height adjustment for the front passenger. All this on top of the already not-impoverished Trend level.


Admittedly, some of these toys are less useful than others, but they are nice to have all the same, and even better with the minimal price difference between the two cars I was looking at. I was pleasantly surprised with the effectiveness of the rain sensors, one of the features I had originally written off as gimmicky. With the start-stop rain we’ve been having recently, it was comforting to have one less thing to have to keep adjusting on the move. And not having to take my hands off the steering wheel to control the cd player is pure joy. But no such luck with my iPod, which is connected to the lovely 8-speaker system via a simple coaxial input instead of data-readable USB.

A week into ownership, I was trawling through online reviews when I discovered from a photo that my very car was used by Straits Times for their long term test! This got me a little apprehensive at first, especially when I realized that at the end of its five month stay with them, it was sent to Sepang for a right thrashing. But then again, I believe mechanical parts are meant to be used (even used hard), and a comprehensive pre-sale inspection confirmed the car was still in excellent condition. On the flip side, being a press car meant that Regent Motors took particularly good care of it, right down to banishing the few squeaks and rattles that were reported. Thus far, the only cabin noises I hear come from my sunglasses in its holder and the child seats. It is otherwise a highly-refined and relaxing cruise. So much so that my second daughter seems to fall asleep on drives of even moderate distances.

At first glance, the Smacks appears to be Wish-sized, such is the illusion stemming from its tapered shape. Park the two side-by-side however, and the size difference becomes quite obvious, the Ford being around 5% larger in every major dimension except for height. The main benefits of the increased size are particularly noticeable in afore-mentioned boot space and cabin width. Believe me, that little breathing distance between siblings can make all the difference between pleasant journey and civil war.

One practical downside of its girth is a bus-like turning radius, large at 11.9m, but made borderline-unacceptable by the Edix’s tiny 10.5m effort. If those numbers don’t seem to mean much, I suggest you find a two lane U-turn and discover how significant that extra 1.4m can be. I blame the necessity to fit the Focus ST’s 2.5 litre 5-cylinder motor into the engine bay for the Smacks’ lack of parking maneuverability. Sure enough, the ST shares an identically-dismal turning circle.

Rather unfortunately, we don’t get that lovely turbocharged engine in Singapore, at least not in the Smacks. And the new fast but frugal 2 litre Ecotec will not arrive until later this year, so what I have under the bonnet is the 2.3 litre unit, closely-related to the one found in the Mazda 6. For a VVT, its headline figures (161 hp, 208 Nm) are not outstanding, but matched with a silky 6-speed auto gearbox with sport mode, the power is put down to the road very well.

Driven casually, progress is smooth and shifts near-indiscernible, with engine noise barely intruding into the cabin. Give the accelerator a stab however, and the gearbox will drop one or two notches, the engine note hardening up and sounding suitably sporty from 3,500 rpm onwards. You never feel the resulting surge, in terms of pure accelerative shove. But a glance at the sweeping speedo needle and relative velocities of adjacent traffic will convince you that you are beginning to travel rather quickly indeed. This deceptively-relaxed situation is compounded by the Smacks’ exceptional body control, which feels more tied down the faster you travel.

A short blast down Old Upper Thomson Road showed how its dynamic components – engine, gearbox, steering, suspension, brakes - come together so beautifully when showed a series of bends, it is truly more than a sum of its parts. Despite weighing close to 1.7 tonnes, the S-Max resists understeer and body roll in a fashion that would shame many hatchbacks with one-third less mass to carry around. The result is a real confidence in your machine, which in turn leads to better judgment and situational awareness. Ford’s engineers should be applauded for consistently instilling such crucial driving intangibles (and pleasures) into its mainstream cars.

As always though, the snag with enthusiastic driving lies in fuel consumption, and this engine is proving to be something of a drinker. The official combined figure is 9.7 l/100km (or 10.3 km/l), and while this number is certainly achievable, it takes a strong will, light foot and quick swapping into the higher gears. With average consumption staring at me from the large info display, I have learnt to avoid city driving as much as possible, and detest idling the engine for any time at all. But sometimes, just sometimes, the urge to open the taps to 5,000 rpm proves irresistible, and the bliss of the experience lasts right up to the point where I remind myself to drive like an uncle again.

So there you have it, our new old car. Hugely comfortable, hugely safe (9 airbags!) and at certain U-turns, just plain huge. It may not have a factory-fresh crispness, but at least I know its teething gremlins have been taken care of. Above all, it’s the right car for me at the right time, which is what matters most. I’m glad to be back with the Blue Oval.



Monday, March 15, 2010

Get Well Soon, Sophie

Little Sophie has a cough and low grade fever, so she can't stay over at her cousin's place with her older brother and sister. The poor thing cried when we left her to be put to bed by our helper.

When we got back the house was already dark. But she was still coughing in her room so we went in and she immediately sat up. "Hello Mommy hello Daddy."

She felt clearly warm to the touch, so I gave her some Paracet. As she snuggled back down, she asked why she couldn't stay at Natalie's house.

"You're not feeling well, Sophie. When you're well you can stay there next time."

"Oh, when I'm well I can stay at Natalie's house?"

"Yes."

"Oh, Auntie Sue Lin will wake us up? And we can have breakfast, and drink milk?"

"Yes."

In the darkness I could just about make out her smile and wide-opened eyes as she lay there imagining staying over, although here she was, left out of all the fun, sleeping on her big brother's bed as a consolation.

She said, "I'm happy that Kor-kor and Jie-jie can stay at Natalie's house."