From Auto Express
Confession time. I've never been a fan of MPVs. To my mind, cars should allow you to get away from screaming kids - not force you to sit in an enclosed space with them. So when I was handed the keys to the Focus C-MAX - Ford's all-new people carrier - I was concerned.
But after a month behind the wheel, I've been converted, as the C-MAX isn't the archetypal family fun bus. From the outside, it looks like a fatter and taller Focus. No roofbars, no chunky rubbing strips and no sliding doors. It even has a tiny roof spoiler.
But while I love the fact that the Ford doesn't resemble a theme park on wheels, there's a certain blandness to it. It's not as striking or interesting as the standard Focus and none of my friends has even noticed I've changed cars. Given how radical some of its rivals are - think Fiat Multipla and Renault Scenic - I wonder if the designers have gone too far the other way. Time will tell.
The interior is another matter, though. If Ford's brief was to make the C-MAX feel more upmarket, then I think it has succeeded in virtually every area. Starting from the back, the boot is brilliant. As a photographer, I carry more kit than the average Formula One team. I only ever use 10 per cent of the gear I take to shoots, but I need to bring it all for those 'just in case' moments. The good news is that the C-MAX is already making morning load-ups easier. The floor is wider than that of my old Nissan X-Trail, so my two plastic lighting cases can sit side-by-side instead of on top of each other. It's a tiny detail, but this would clinch a deal for me.
The boot's load lip height is great, too. It's far lower than the Nissan's and makes all the difference when lugging flight cases and ladders. There's also a thin piece of protective plastic trim on the top of the bumper that's already saved the paintwork. Why doesn't every manufacturer fit one of these?
The rear seats are very well designed, too, although I've yet to make full use of their features. As I don't have kids, I've had the chairs in their forwardmost position, turning the car into a luxurious four-seater. I'm not sure how many families would value this, but for someone like me, it's perfect.
Further forward, the C-MAX is even more impressive. Sure, the dash layout is a bit predictable, but I can't fault the quality and feel of it. The Sony stereo looks and sounds terrific. It's a clever move by Ford, as this is the kind of thing that persuades badge snobs like me to part with our money.
The driving position is spot-on, too, although the huge screen and deep dash make parking in tight spaces difficult. After the Nissan's boxy bonnet and lofty perch, the Ford is taking some getting used to.
But in terms of driving, the C-MAX is far better than I expected. It's based on the next Focus and is even more sophisticated than the current car. While the higher centre of gravity makes it feel top-heavy, the body control and ride are second-to-none. I haven't driven VW's Touran much but, from what I remember, it's neither as agile or well balanced.
Yet the biggest treat is the engine. The TDCi is the best diesel I've ever tried. With stacks of low and mid-range pulling power, motorway cruising is simplicity itself. Add a 450-mile range and near-silent running at speed, and you have the perfect powerplant. My only gripe concerns the gearshift - I love its raised position, but it's not as rewarding to use as the current Focus's floor-mounted lever.
I'm really looking forward to the next few months with the C-MAX. The winter may bring some lousy weather for photography, but the fact that every day will end with a comfortable, rewarding drive will more than compensate. An excellent start.