Ford S-MAX 1.6 TDCI - Long Term Test - FORD S-MAX: THE DESIGN STORY
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On the face of it, being a car designer seems like a dream job. Design studios are often in the nicest parts of the world, so that stylists can soak up the vibe. They get paid a lot and also have the satisfaction of seeing people using their products on a daily basis. That's the public image at least. Our long term Ford S-MAX has attracted quite a few compliments on its styling, so we thought we'd track down its designer, Claudio Messale, and find out just how hard it was to style a car like the S-MAX. Claudio's got quite a CV, having worked with Ghia before transferring to Ford, where he worked on several Ford products in the US before his name became better known in Europe with the Focus Mk2. The S-MAX represented quite a challenge, and one where a more dynamic and youthful approach was required to differentiate it from the usual slab-sided MPVs.
"There was definitely a need for this car to be attractive," he noted. "Many drivers would feel ashamed to be seen in a boring minivan. We wanted to create something that people would be proud of driving and which would be used by people who like sports and not just those with large families."
The S-MAX was the first car in Ford's family to feature the Kinetic Design styling, quickly followed by the Mondeo. We asked Claudio how they came to develop this design language. "Ford has had some ups and downs in its design history. A period of adventurous design tended to be followed by one of more conservative styling," he explained. "We had some very avantgarde cars like the Sierra and Scorpio. These were cars that we were pleased with at the time, but which didn't resonate well with our customers. The reaction to this was a very conservative model like the Escort. Then the other way with the New Edge designs of the first Focus and Ka."Body 2
When pressed on how Kinetic Design fitted into this cycle, Claudio was very clear on what the requirements were. "We needed more drama. Drama gets people involved. Customers can choose between so many vehicles these days that we needed to design something exciting that would be noticeable in the crowd. Kinetic Design was a distilled DNA that was fitting with Ford and was also exciting and different."
That's easy to achieve when styling a sports car, but a utility vehicle? "Yes, it's not easy to do with a relatively boxy shape," he agrees. "We wanted something that looked like it was made to drive fast on the autobahns. The lines show dynamics. It looks like it's moving, penetrating the air like a jumping animal. It had to have athleticism. We lowered the roof a little in the back and kept the nose low for a more fluid silhouette that's like a high speed train."
Claudio's really on a roll now. "We are attracted to athleticism in human bodies; that mix of the softness of flesh and the hardness of bones and muscle. That's what we tried to create with the S-MAX. Strong shoulders, rocker, undercut, careful use of shadow and light. We analysed the most successful cars of the past from a styling perspective and they all have certain elements in common, namely sculpture, proportions and drama."
I'm beginning to see why I would never have made a car designer now. The best ones are thinking on a plane that most just wouldn't appreciate when they look at a car. Claudio chuckles and makes an admission. "Designers often design for themselves. They exaggerate. This exaggeration is hard for customers to digest. We worked to avoid that on S-MAX." As well as the initial car that debuted in 2006, Claudio also developed the 2010 facelift model. "Ah. That wasn't easy to change , but Kinetic Design was moving to larger lower trapezoidal grilles. We also made the front signature a bit more high-tech with LED stripes. We actually got away with more than usual. We convinced management that the tail lamps needed to be more stretched and this meant there needed to be body changes, such as the tailgate which then had a lot more sculpture put into it."
When asked what he's most proud of, there's a pause. "Probably the S-MAX's unique feel. I like the way the muscular wheelarch gives an athletic stance and the aggressive and dynamic headlight and grille intersection and the non-conventional foglamps. Yes, pretty much the side and front three-quarter views."
Given that it's been such a huge success in its sector, it's perhaps surprising that more rivals haven't popped up, attempting to emulate its formula. "Well, they've tried in their own ways, "Claudio notes. "Citroen tried with minivans but they were uniquely French. Volkswagen have a very subdued design approach so they couldn't really jump on Ford's success. The S-MAX has the highest conquest rate of any Ford model, with many buyers coming from premium brands, something that's reflected by the fact that there's a big percentage of Titanium models in the sales mix and buyers like to option many gadgets in. There's a danger for Ford if premium manufacturers jumped in, but they are prioritising SUVs."
I, for one, am quite pleased that the S-MAX stands alone in the marketplace. It makes our long term car feel that little bit more special every time I drive it. Six years after it first appeared, that's quite something in such a rapidly changing marketplace. I guess good design is timeless and good designers worth every penny.
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