Published on Saturday 6 February 2016 18:20
Ten Second Review
Admittedly the Fusion never left particularly big shoes to fill, but the B-MAX, Ford's successor in the supermini MPV sector, is a good deal more progressive. Highlights include sliding side doors with no central pillar to impede entry and a great deal of technology under the bonnet, little of which is found in the entry-level 1.4-litre petrol variant we're testing here. But it's the only version that's really affordable. Let's try it.
It's said that the car is the most recyclable consumer durable. But it's not just the metal that gets recycled in the car industry. Ideas appear, disappear and then reappear in a different form. Take this Ford B-MAX. Its makers will tell you that it's a fresh, novel take on the supermini-MPV genre and there's an element of truth in that. But it's also a car that leans heavily on other vehicles that went before it. There have been a few compact cars with sliding doors, Nissan's Prairie being a noteworthy contender and more recently, the Peugeot 1007. You might have noticed a common theme. None of them were any good. Neither, if we're completely honest, was the B-MAX's immediate successor, the Fusion. It drove pretty well but then so did a Fiesta. The Fusion offered precious little additional utility, had a grim interior and looked dull as well. The B-MAX is almost off to a win by default here before it's even turned a wheel.
Just as Mercedes gets out of the short, high and clever compact MPV market with its A-Class, Ford has dived right in with this Romanian-built B-MAX. Perhaps it's a better fit with Ford's image than that of Mercedes, but do people want this sort of car? Let's take a closer look at it and figure that question out for ourselves at the wheel of the most affordable entry-level 1.4-litre petrol version.
Two conflicting thoughts niggle at you before you get into the B-MAX for the first time. The first is that it's a small Ford. How can it fail to be impressive to drive? The second is the nagging reminder that no car in history with sliding side doors has ever driven well. It's a perfect unbroken form line of dismal ineptitude. You'd like to think that someone got angry at Ford, broke a couple of pencils, took his glasses off and shouted THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS!
And you know what? It's really not bad. Visibility out of the front and sides is good but the front and rear dive out of sight quite quickly, so if unless you want to engage in Parisian parking tactics, you might well find it a good idea to invest in the camera pack which includes front and rear parking sensors. The driving position is halfway between what you'd expect in a typical supermini and that of a small SUV and the way the B-MAX tackles corners is similarly halfway between how typical superminis and little 4x4s handle. There's the grip of a supermini as you turn in, but then comes the body roll and there's quite a bit of it. It's not badly controlled by any means, and it lets you know precisely the point that you've tiptoed from 'making progress' to 'shortly about to have your other half use your full Christian name'.
I tried the base 90PS 1.4-litre petrol version, an older Ford unit I wasn't expecting much from. Actually though, it's a very willing powerplant, making sixty from rest in 13.8s on the way to a top speed of 106mph, more than adequate for most potential buyers.
Design and Build
And this car's shape? Well, there are aspects that undoubtedly work effectively. Remember the big metallic strips on the sides of many MPVs where the door runners went? Ugly weren't they? Now try spotting them on this B-MAX. You just get a tiny little indent at the back. That should tell you a great deal about how wide these doors open.
The so-called Easy Access system lives up to its billing. By doing away with the pillar between the front and back doors, Ford has created a car that's incredibly easy for anyone of any age to get in and out of. There are a couple of caveats. One is that the side impact beams on each end of the rear bench are a bit bulky, especially when you're trying to manhandle a child seat in. The other is the weight of the doors. There's an alarm fitted which lets you know if you're pulling away with the rear doors ajar, but should you brake suddenly, they'll fly forward and close with unstoppable momentum.
Once inside, there's plenty of room - it's one of the best in its class for space. The acid test is whether a tall adult in the back can sit behind another in the front and there's really no great problem in that regard with the B-MAX. What's more you can get three adults in the back, but it'll be a bit cosy. The boot isn't huge as a consequence of prioritising the passenger cell, but you do get 318 litres of luggage space and the loading floor is a decent shape.
Market and Model
It's all very well for motoring journalists like me to tell you that the version of this B-MAX you should choose is the 1.0-litre petrol EcoBoost, but that car retails for well over £16,000, an awful lot of money for a compact family car, even if it's a very clever one. Buy your B-MAX in base 1.4-litre petrol form as tested here however, and the sticker figure is a far more acceptable-sounding £13,000 or so, if you choose the base 'Studio' variant. That is a little spartan though, so many buyers will want to shake their piggy banks a bit further to find the extra £2,600 that'll see them in the same car with plusher 'Zetec' trim.
That gets features such as Hill Start Assist, 15-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, front fog lights, a heated windscreen, air conditioning, a height adjustable front seat, leather trim for the steering wheel and gear lever and trip and fuel computer. There's also a stack on safety equipment that's available from the base model up. It's good to see electronic stability control, traction control and brake assist on even the cheapest B-MAX. Factor that in when you're looking at rivals as many shamefully try to cut costs here, which is inexcusable on a family-oriented vehicle. There are also front, side, curtain and driver's knee airbags on all versions and ISOFIX mountings.
Cost of Ownership
If you do choose this petrol 1.4 over the higher-tech 1.0-litre EcoBoost version, here's where you'll lose out a bit. The 1.4 returns 47.1mpg on the combined cycle - as opposed to 55.4mpg for the EcoBoost. And the 1.4-litre model's CO2 return is 139g/km as opposed to 119g/km. Still, you are paying a lot less up-front to start with.
Otherwise, there don't seem to be any skeletons in the B-MAX's closet that are likely to present you with big bills. Options pricing isn't unreasonable so it's hard to put so much kit into the car that the residuals value are shot to pieces. Insurance bills aren't going to leave too much of a mark, the B-MAX's premiums being governed by groupings that start at 5. The three year/60,000 mile warranty though, has been eclipsed by many rivals and is something Ford probably needs to revisit to remain competitive but there is also a one year roadside assistance service thrown in for new buyers.
The Ford B-MAX isn't one of the headline grabbers in the Blue Oval's canon. It's a support player, but it's one that has probably taken the biggest step forward over its predecessor than any Ford since the original Focus launched. It's almost as it we've skipped two generations of vehicle from the dowdy Fusion and arrived in the future. A future where cars have sliding doors and brilliant engines the size of shoe boxes. The ingredients that go to make up the B-MAX seem weird and initially unpromising, but spend a few days with the thing and you begin to realise it all hangs together really, really well. Not what I expected at all.
The entry-level 90PS 1.4-litre petrol engine surprised me too. Here's a unit that still has plenty of life in it, even if the running cost figures pale against those of the comparable 1.0-litre EcoBoost unit. But there's a big premium for that, so I'd suggest that potential B-MAX buyers take a long hard look at the financials before opting for one or the other. Either way, the decision buyers have to make in the supermini MPV sector just got a lot tougher.