Ryan Bubear spends a little time with the Ford B-Max 1.0T Titanium...
Newsflash: there are practically minded buyers out there who prefer a traditional MPV to an in-vogue SUV. Not many, admittedly, but some.
And Ford Motor Company of SA is now catering to this relatively minor segment of the local market, having finally decided to bring the B-Max — a vehicle available in many other markets since 2012 — to South Africa.
Of course, the local arm of the Blue Oval brand — which continues its seemingly relentless product offensive — can certainly afford to do so, as it has its crossover bases firmly covered by the awfully popular EcoSport and the highly polished Kuga.
But the Ford B-Max isn't exactly conventional. Indeed, with the sort of rear sliding doors one expects to find on a chunky minivan, the subcompact MPV has few direct competitors in South Africa.
In fact, other than the somewhat awkwardly styled Fiat Qubo, the Fiesta-based B-Max is the only vehicle in its segment to employ this useful configuration. And since the Opel Meriva (with its rear-hinged back portals) seems to have quietly exited stage left, that leaves the flexible Honda Jazz as perhaps the Ford's most natural rival.
But the B-Max's clever entry-exit system is more than just a gimmick. In fact, swinging the hinged front door fully open and sliding the rear door all the way back results in a gaping aperture measuring more than 1.5 metres in width.
Yes, that means there's no pesky B-pillar hindering access, which makes a world of difference when plonking your precious progeny into their child-seats. We found the system particularly useful in tight parking spaces, as we could still comfortably reach in to load or unload our one-year-old.
But just how safe is a vehicle — and one with a clear focus on family, no less — that's missing the structural support of a pair of B-pillars? Well, the Dearborn-based automaker has thrown a fair amount of ultra-high-strength steel at the problem, adding serious heft to the door-frames, while also including heavy-duty door latches.
And this approach appears to have pleased the safety powers that be, as the B-Max — with its front seatbelts attached to the seats themselves — scored a full five stars in its Euro NCAP crash test (although this evaluation admittedly took place back in 2012, before the test became more rigorous). Other standard safety features include seven airbags, ABS with EBD, and IsoFix child-seat anchors.
The Ford B-Max boasts a surprisingly spacious cabin, with plenty of head-room (even with a panoramic sunroof fitted) all round and ample leg-room (even for six-foot adults) in the rear. In fact, it feels noticeably airier inside than the 127mm-shorter Fiesta, despite the fact that they share a 2489mm wheelbase.
The luggage compartment, which features a handy false floor, can handle a respectable 304 litres (28 units more than the Fiesta), or up to 1372 litres with the 60/40 split folding rear bench dropped flat. In addition, there are a multitude of storage solutions — from netting pockets to cup-holders and hanger-hooks — scattered around the cabin.
The B-Max's only real failing inside is its ageing fascia. While other recently updated Fords have been relieved of their button-heavy dashboards, this mini-MPV soldiers on with what is an overcomplicated setup. Still, fit-and-finish is impressive, and the range-topping Titanium model we tested — which boasts nifty kit such as leather upholstery, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, and a reversing camera — feels almost premium inside.
Each of the three models in the local range is powered by the brand's well-known 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine (although the base Ambiente derivative makes do with the lower-powered 74kW version). In all cases, drive is sent to the front wheels via a pleasingly precise five-speed manual gearbox.
Of course, we've become quite familiar with this 999cc turbocharged three-cylinder petrol mill — which generates an impressive 92kW at 6000rpm and 170Nm from 1400rpm all the way through to 4500rpm — over the past few years, having sampled it in the likes of the Fiesta and Focus. It's punchy, tractable, and downright easy to use. And in the B-Max, despite the extra weight, the turbo triple is no different.
But, as we've found before, it's not nearly as frugal in the real world as it is on paper. Ford claims a combined consumption as low as 4.9 litres per 100km, but the best we could manage over a week — even after employing a light right foot and generally avoiding fuel-sapping traffic — was a fairly bloated 7.1.
It likely doesn't help, however, that the B-Max is unexpectedly enjoyable to drive, thanks chiefly to its Fiesta underpinnings. Like its B-segment hatchback sibling, the little MPV isn't exactly averse to cornering, and serves up confidence-inspiring levels of grip and poise without a trade-off in ride comfort.
So, in many ways, the Ford B-Max comes across very much like a taller, slightly roomier Fiesta with a pair of genuinely useful sliding doors. Although it's been around since 2012, it's still a very practical option for small families.
Interestingly, in terms of price, the B-Max competes head-on with the likewise Fiesta-based EcoSport. But comparing pricing to similarly equipped Fiesta models reveals a premium of R23k on the Ambiente, R37k on the mid-range Trend, and a whopping R42k on the top-of-the-range Titanium we tested.
This leads us to conclude that the bare-bones Ambiente-badged B-Max (even with its slightly detuned powerplant) provides the best value, allowing the buyer to take advantage of the increased space — and, of course, those party-piece sliding doors — without too much additional outlay over the price of a Fiesta.
The country's SUV-mad buyers likely won't be convinced, but the Ford B-Max provides a viable — and rather more practical — alternative to the ever-growing crop of subcompact crossovers.
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See page two for specs and pricing.