Tom Ford21 September 2012

First drive: Ford B-Max

The next big thing for small families comes with exciting slidey rear doors as standard

The basics aren't likely to get you particularly hot under the collar. The B-Max is a small MPV extrapolated from Ford's basic B3 Fiesta platform, but pushing Focus size by being 110mm longer than the supermini that spawned it. So it's - unsurprisingly - slightly smaller than the C-Max, but shares the gently edgy family face and general architecture: five seats, very upright stance, lots of headroom, decidedly practical profile. Think competition for the Vauxhall Meriva and forthcoming Fiat 500L - daily family transport for those who still appreciate a car that's easy to slot into a standard urban parking space.

The B-Max does have a significant USP, though, the Ford Easy Access Door System, which lends itself to a handy acronym that nobody seems keen to use. While the front doors are conventionally front-hinged efforts, the rear doors (on both sides) slide rearwards. Nothing too exceptional in that, you might think, until you realise that they do so independently of the fronts and leave no space-sapping B-pillar. The strengthening structures necessary to stop the B-Max from folding itself into a pair of dimensions at the first roundabout are secreted in the door structures themselves and in the wide sills. Sounds a bit like a gimmick on a car this small, but it works surprisingly well. Once you've opened both sets, you're faced with an unbroken - bar the front seats themselves - one-and-a-half metre gap and an ostensibly open-sided vehicle.

I know this doesn't sound like groundbreaking news, but shuffle the B-Max into a tight car-parking space and try to undock a toddler from a high-sided child seat, and the rear sliding doors and lack of a B-pillar really do make a difference. There's also a surprising amount of space left free for securing said children into boosters without the usual spine-snapping contortions. And, if you've got slightly older spawn to corral, you'll find that leaving your front door open and opening the rear leaves you a decent controlled area to disembark bouncy, unwittingly suicidal, small people.

Apart from the slick doors, there are the more usual helpful touches. The rear bench doesn't slide, but the rear seats split and fold flat with a one-handed action, as does that front passenger seat, meaning that you can stick something 2.35m long into the space without a problem (and, yes, we are thinking flat-pack wardrobes). There's a tonne - metaphorical, not literal - of storage space in the doors, a double-deck bootfloor, storage nets, bins and cubbies. It might not have a great deal of surprise and delight, but it's all intuitively easy to use and feels up to the job of being pawed by little hands coated in the sweetie equivalent of nuclear waste. None of the various elements are particularly revolutionary, but all of it is useful.

The car we're driving is a reasonably humdrum 88bhp, 1.4-litre Duratec in Zetec trim, which frankly makes the B-Max feel slightly heavier and less sprightly than the excellent suspension is capable of dealing with. And yes, the B-Max really scores with the way it drives. On these Zetec-spec 15-inch alloys, it initially feels a little stiff, but, after a couple of speed bumps or decent potholes, you realise that the car is firm but not hard, and unlikely to make anyone seasick - a real issue for kids in very softly suspended people carriers. It also means that the B-Max (whisper this quietly) is actually a little bit of fun to drive in what some call a ‘spirited fashion'. It feels like a much bigger, more expensive car, helped by the fact that it's extremely quiet both on pimply UK B-roads and thrumming at 70mph on motorways.

This is also from the very specific perspective of this rather dull, small, naturally aspirated 1.4 four-pot. It punts the little B-Max along adequately, but the lack of torque doesn't bode well for a properly full load. The engine range consists of four petrols, made up of four-cylinder variants in 1.4 or 1.6 flavours, and two versions of the 1.0-litre three-pot with either 98bhp or 118bhp, or a pair of diesels - 1.5 (73bhp) and 1.6 (93bhp). All come with a standard five-speed manual gearbox. If money were no object, we'd be immediately more tempted by one of Ford's excellent EcoBoost engines, and the fastest 118bhp, 147lb ft version of the 1.0-litre is sprightly (11.2 seconds to 62mph), frugal (57.7mpg) and full of helpful turbocharged torque in the areas where the basic naturally aspirated four-pot gets a bit breathless. Mind you, the trick triple only comes in Titanium spec (16-inch alloys, cruise, leathery bits on wheel and gearknob, better stereo, heated seats and the like), which pumps the price to a rather stiff £18,195.

At the other end, this 1.4 is the only engine available in the most basic Studio trim, which includes all the essentials (electric windows all round, electric mirrors, ESP, EBA, IPS with front, side, knee and curtain airbags, remote locking), but if you manage to keep fingers from the option buttons, the basic B-Max in this format weighsin at £12,995. Which is Fiesta money,and therefore cheap.

It's a good effort, the B-Max. It may not be a dream car, but, specified with restraint, it's cheap, useful and has a genuine USP with that door set-up. The only problem? Fiat is soon set to launch the 500L into the same sector, and that's likely to be a bit more fashionable - even if it doesn't have the super-practical doors.

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