Tuesday 4 October 2011

Driven #43:- Renault Espace 2.2dCI Dynamique ('06)

One day soon I’m going to have to become a responsible adult. Settling down with a house will become the priority, choosing furniture and tiles will become my de rigeur weekend activity. I’ll have to put my plans for a Mercedes diesel powered Reliant Scimitar, or that night-club-owner-in-1986 spec C4 Corvette Convertible (red with white leather…) , even more on hold than they already are.

And then one day, depending on the potency of my loins and whether my other half is still willing to come anywhere near me without revulsion, I might end up rearing an offspring. It'll hopefully be a small scale operation, we certainly won’t be on a quest to repopulate Essex. But fertility is a funny thing, if sprogs keep popping out I might find myself having to make a terrible, terminal life decision.

I may end up needing a minivan.

Minivan, MPV, People Carrier, every nation has its preferred colloquialism for these beasts of burden. Bulky, boxy and unromantic, they wear their intention on their sleeve. “I’m here to carry your family”. You know, like a bus does.

MPV is the designation for them that I hate the most, it stands for Multi-Purpose Vehicle, but that’s a lie, isn’t it? It can be used for doing either of two things; carrying people or stuff, or a mixture of different proportions of both. The actual purpose of the vehicle never changes, it isn’t a boat one day and a spaceship the next. It is, always, a big, ugly van with windows.

There is much patriotic debate over who invented them, whatever we call them. In fact, I’m going to go all European and call them Monospaces. Essentially, a room on wheels in which the furniture can be rearranged for whatever task you’re looking to carry out. In silhouette they’re referred to as one-box designs, having no visually separate engine compartment or load area; all this is packaged together in one sculpted box. The concept goes back for years; Fiat did it with their 600 Multipla in 1960 and you could even argue that Buckminster Fuller did it with his Dymaxion in 1933.

But, in terms of marketing the concept and creating a whole new sales arena, it’s a battle between the USA with the Chrysler Voyager and France with the Renault Espace. I’m giving France the nod as pioneers because their concept vehicle was developed earlier.

Certainly, for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Espace became almost as synonymous with monospaces as Hoover was with vacuum cleaners. Until Ford, VW and Seat came aboard (sharing the same car) you could only choose a French, Japanese or American Espace. 

The Espace enjoyed a Range Rover-like paradigm shift during its life. The early models were big, family-proof vessels where practicality was the be-all and end-all. Later on, though, they became ever more luxurious, with some models becoming almost limousine-like. This was at a time where most of the non-premium executive cars, Renaults Safrane and Ford's Scorpio and many more had been mercy-killed, and heavily equipped versions of the Espace and Galaxy stepped directly into their shoes.

The car you see before you is a current-shape Espace. It’s a 2.2dci, a diesel. It’s what its maker calls a Dynamique, nominally the “sporty” model of the range. Well, being fair to it it does look kind of sporty, with the same assertive, rapid transit look as a high-speed train, shaped by the wind. It sits on a set of get-a-move-on alloy wheels, and is possessed of a rear aerofoil-cum-roof rack. It is, being honest, quite a good looking conveyance. It doesn’t scream “I’m too grown-up to enjoy myself”. 

Inside, it’s the usual enormous interior void with three rows of seats. Each of the seven can be variously folded, rolled or removed altogether depending on how much junk you want to carry as well as any human cargo. Of course, the usual compromise still stands; any seats you remove have to be stored somewhere, and with all seven seats in place there’s precious little bootspace. But it’s all presented so stylishly.

I guess the MPV tag does have some bearing; with its colossal panoramic glass roof, complete with electric roller-sunshade, the Espace has an absolutely vast glass area and would make an excellent place in which to grow tomatoes on the move. In these environmentally conscious times, and with plots of decent land for cultivation at a premium, it’s nice to see Renault making a contribution.

Perch atop the driver's chair and marvel that the dashboard has the look of a futuristic sideboard, a fitting discription when you take into account the volume of storage space it contains. The dials are centrally mounted and amount to a digital information centre rather than a traditional binnacle, and the stereo and HVAC controls appear to not exist at all, until you find them.

The stereo is in the front of the storage chest, its invisibility is irrelevant thanks to steering column controls and a display built into the instrument panel, but the HVAC cluster is quite imaginatively built into the door. Driver and passenger enjoy their own separate control over the front row temperature, but the drivers panel is the dominant one; he gets to set the fan speed, the air stratification and whether your farts are recirculated or fresh air drawn from outside. At night, the display on the door combined with the distant central speedometer and tacho make for a spacey, futuristic cabin feel.

But it is, sadly, a universe of plastic in here. Everything is doubtless durable and kiddie-proven, but the drawer lids and cubbyholes are all in the Tupperware league of interior furnishings. There isn’t any reward to be had from probing too hard with your fingers; everything is far nicer to look at than to fondle. I suppose that goes with the territory, but it’s a shame considering the not insubstantial price these things sold for.

Best not think about it. Just get your load secured in the back and get the ordeal of driving it around over with as soon as possible. The car’s doing a job, you’re not expecting to be entertained. And then you’re pleasantly surprised.

Admission time: I’ve always loved the Espace, especially since the early ‘90s when Renault realised that it could be all things to all men with a few little spec tweaks. They released a V6 version, which was novel for the European market as we previously had no inkling that a barge like this could be made fast or fun; and a 4wd version, the Quadra, was released - meeting squarely with the speedboat ‘n camping aspirations of many upwardly-mobile ‘90s families.

The Espace has always been decent to drive. I mean, in outright handling terms it’s nothing mind blowing, but the sense of relief that it’s not completely horrible helps to make it feel better than it actually is. The way it copes in corners is more than acceptable for a car, let alone a bus of this scale. There’s no excess of body roll, there’s no particular pitching or lurching moment and it feels like there’s decent grip.

Of course there are limits, and they’re not high. It’ll understeer from a lower threshold than conventional cars, but you’d never know if your style of driving is in the moderate to sporty percentile. If you’re a determined high-speed cornering enthusiast, or hell bent on exploring the limits of every chassis you ever sample, you’ll find the truth sooner rather than later. Other than that, you can just enjoy driving it as you would any other car. It certainly out-handles the pleasure-boat of cornering emotion that is my Rover 825.

As a practical transport solution for an entire family, the Espace basically has everything covered, and if your kids are really spoilt, you can smother them in executive jet comfort in the top of the range Initiale, and do so at indecent cruising speeds if you go for the 3.5 V6, legendarily fast, legendarily thirsty.

In fact, as an aside, the Espace is so good you wonder why the monospace market is dying on its feet. There is talk that Renault won’t bother replacing it when production of the current model ceases. Alas, image is everything and this is where the current crop of seven seat SUVs score heavily. The Land Rover Discovery is the current darling of the multiple-kiddiwink brigade, those with more cash (or more of an appetite for finance and debt) plump for the Mercedes-Benz GL. Ironically, these two are less capacious, substantially worse to drive, and massively more expensive to run than an Espace ever was, but the sad truth is that monospaces, sadly, just aren’t fashionable any more.

It’s hard to see a time when they ever will be. You’d think that the spiralling fuel prices, economic turmoil and political unrest that we deal with would send people appreciatively chasing the sensible option. But people just won’t be told; they’ll continue to spend until the credit runs out, and they’ll spend on the product that makes them feel good. And in a world where the celebrity is king, fame is everything and looking good is seen as the key to confidence, seeing your reflection in a shop window is more appealing when you’re in a big, look-at-me SUV.

The Espace, then. It’s time has passed, even though we need it now more than ever.


  1. Chris, I don't know too much about the European market minivans, but I would guess you guys (at least) get the Routan (or is that a "US ONLY" VW abomination? the Chrysler T&C appears to be about the same size as the Renault covered here, yet offers every luxury one could imagine (only things missing from our company version is the multi-screen DVD entertainment system). However it does have a 4.0L gasoline V6 with a 7 speed auto/manumatic transmission that is considerably quicker than one would expect a 17' long people carrier to be, it also has "Stow & go seating" so that all seats fold flat in to the floor (middle row is 2 captain's chairs, 3 seat rear bench) so, probably not as comfy for adults on longer journeys as the seats pictured in the renault, but my wife and I drove it for "vacation" last year (vacation in quotes because it was really "go take as much stuff as we wanted from her dad's property consolidation with the new wife") and it was a magnificent vehicle allowing us to sleep in back on the way up (we tried to go over night, couldn't stay awake) and bringing back a ridiculous amount of stuff on the way home. all the while, returning a combined (up and back) 27 m.p.g. (american miles, american gallons... I hear they're different... not sure about the truth to that... but yeah)

  2. Nah, we don't get the Routan here, if we did I imagine that it would have to be diesel or nothing. I've spent some wheel time in the 2008 generation Grand Voyager, the machine that lies beneath the surface of the Routan, but I've yet to try the latest model.

    The layout up front feels quite a lot more like a conventional car than in the Espace, but as a car for passengers it's excellent. We see a lot of 3.0 CRD models used for executive hire, airport taxis, that sort of thing.

    The Voyager is extremely good at what it does, but is let down a bit by not feeling special enough inside; quality is more Kia Sedona than Mercedes R-Class. If the latest G V can solve this, it'll be interesting to see. i assume that the Routan interior was "Germanized" as a matter of course!