2008 Ford S-Max

Your growing brood has you shopping for a people carrier, but that doesn't have to herald the death of driving fun. Granted, there aren't many cars in the United States that marry seven-passenger capacity and driving excitement, but if you look to the other side of the Atlantic, Ford offers a vehicle that's fun to drive, affordable, and able to haul the whole family. That vehicle is the S-Max.

Since its introduction in 2006, this minivan/sporty hatchback has snapped up awards quicker than a kid can shout "Yes!" to ice cream. The S-Max was even named the 2007 European Car of the Year. But why should Americans care about this Euro-centric Ford? Because CEO Alan Mulally is talking about bringing some of the company's European offerings to the U.S. market, and we think the S-Max should be at the top of his list.

The S-Max is available with a range of gasoline and diesel four-cylinder engines, but we drove the top model, which comes with a 217-hp turbocharged five-cylinder. This Volvo-sourced powerplant would be the best fit for American buyers, because it gives the S-Max abundant torque and impressive pace. Plus, the car we tested returned close to 30 mpg on the highway. Inside, the S-Max--which feels roomier than most SUVs--isn't as big as a Honda Odyssey; think of it as a bulging Mazda 5 with one more seat. Scanning the list of options, you might think that the S-Max wears a three-pointed star. From an adjustable suspension to ventilated seats to touch-screen navigation to a huge glass roof, this Ford gives up little to a Mercedes-Benz R-class.

But to truly appreciate the S-Max, you need to toss it through a few corners, where the Ford effectively resists understeer while giving the driver excellent chassis feedback, like a big Volkswagen GTI. Body control is impressive, and the dampers soak up cambered and lumpy roads with ease.

Despite our fondness for the S-Max, there are a few hurdles for Ford to jump before it could bring the car to the United States. At this point, there's no automatic transmission option with the five-cylinder engine, and the weak dollar no doubt would hurt the pricing strategy. More important, Ford would have to hire a brilliant marketing team--and maybe a hypnotist--to convince the typical American that a minivan can be cool and fun to drive.

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