Good: lovely ride and handling balance, improved interior quality, 1.5 TDCi engine now better than it was
Not so good: Bad: pricey in this spec, awkward touchscreen layout, rear seats need more space
I can still see that set of switchbacks on a dreary, damp Austrian hillside. It has stuck in my mind because of the sudden realisation that came to me regarding the car I was driving. I had been behind the wheel for barely 30 minutes and yet, I knew right there and then, that the first-generation Ford Focus C-Max had told me everything it was going to. It was a distressingly bland car, and its launch was only enlivened by observing the press-release-pretzels the Ford executives were attempting to twist themselves into, trying to justify why they were launching a resolutely five-seat-only car three years after Opel's first Zafira had reset the MPV standard to seven seats.
Thankfully, when time came to launch the second generation C-Max, Ford made no such mistakes. Yes, you could still buy a five-seat only version, but now there was a seven-seat 'Grand' C-Max (with sliding doors no less) and both were impressively engaging to drive.
Now, age and time have worked their dark magic on the C-Max range and it's time for an update. Most noticeable is the updated exterior styling, which now includes narrower, more aggressive headlights and the big not-at-all-like-an-Aston-Martin-no-sir-what's-that-over-there radiator grille. The rear styling has also been tidied up, but you'll struggle to spot it unless you actually work in the factory where the C-Max is made.
Inside, the changes are again a little less than obvious, but you do notice nice touches such as clearer, more expensive-looking instruments and a distinct boost in overall quality levels. Our test car came with the SYNC 2 touch-screen infotainment system, which, rather disappointingly on this top-spec Titanium model, was still a €500 optional extra. It's not the slickest system in the world, but in the Mondeo it does work rather well once you get into the groove of the menu. Here in the C-Max though, there's a problem - the screen, mounted close to hand and at a helpful angle in the Mondeo, is more or less bolt-upright and a longer stretch away. It makes reaching some of the touch-screen buttons rather trickier than it should do.
Still, comfort levels are pretty good (aside from the too-narrow seats in the front), but while space is decent, it's not exceptional. Rear legroom actually feels just a little tight and rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf SV and Citroen C4 Picasso have more stretching space for rear seat passengers. At 471 litres, the boot feels just a little small as well.
At least the driving experience has been kept at a staggeringly high level. Family cars - and their drivers and passengers - generally speaking don't need the sort of steering feel, cornering balance and body control that the C-Max displays, but thankfully Ford has decided not to let the driving enthusiast side down. Taken generally, it's rewarding to drive. By MPV standards, it's nothing short of astonishingly precise and entertaining. Even the ride quality is better than decent.
It also has a cracking engine. The 1.5 TDCi family, when first introduced in the Fiesta and B-Max, felt pretty dreadful to be honest. Refined, yes, but very short on torque and mid-range punch. Well, Ford's spanner-wielders have been busy because this 120hp version of the 1.5 TDCi engine has lost none of the smoothness but gained significantly superior through-the-gears performance. Decent economy too, so at last the 1.5 can hold its head (gasket) high among the competition.
A ringing endorsement? Not quite - those reservations over rear seat and boot space are pretty serious ones for an MPV to overcome, so the C-Max falls just short of greatness.