You only need to count the number of MPVs you see out on the road to appreciate their popularity. And for the past few years this sector of the market has been relatively quiet launch-wise, with the Renault Espace and the Ford/SEAT/Volkswagen 'Sharalambaxy' triumvirate dominating. But times are a-changing and a host of fresh new metal has recently arrived, led by the Peugeot 807/Citroen C8/Fiat Ulysse and the new Renault Espace.
All come loaded with innovative features aimed at making practical desirable, such as electric sliding side doors and a child mirror which allows the driver to keep an eye on the kids in the back.
It is features such as these which make the difference in this sector now – just offering seven seats is not enough in today's ever more 'lifestyle' dominated market.
We have chosen two of the freshest models on the market – the Citroen C8 and Renault Espace – to compete against Volkswagen's Sharan, one of the oldest models on the market but still a benchmark for fleet operators and drivers alike.
Despite its age, the Sharan makes a convincing fleet case for itself, being the least expensive at the front end, still having a strong residual value forecast and offering the highest fuel economy and lowest CO2 emissions of our trio – and it has the Volkswagen badge on the front, which is always a draw for drivers.
In TDI PD 130 Sport trim, the Sharan easily leads the way here. Over three years and 60,000 miles, it will cost a fleet operator 31.62 pence per mile, thanks to having the lowest depreciation, fuel and servicing, maintenance and repair costs of our trio. Its driver will also be taxed at 22% of P11d value for benefit-in-kind tax purposes, leaving a 40% taxpayer with a monthly BIK bill of £161.
Second place in our running costs section goes to the new Renault Espace 2.2 dCi Expression on 34.45ppm, with fuel costs alone denting its challenge (the Espace returns 36.7mpg on the combined cycle). At the front end, it is the most expensive at £23,200 and its CO2 emissions are also the highest, leaving the same 40% tax-payer with a monthly BIK bill of £216.
In third place comes the Citroen C8 in 2.2 HDi SX trim, costing 35.85ppm. Although its front end price of £22,100 sits squarely between its two rivals, it has the lowest depreciation and servicing, maintenance and repair costs.
However, its CO2 emissions are lower than the Renault, leaving a 40% taxpayer with a bill of £191 a month for benefit-in-kind tax purposes. In terms of monthly leasing costs, the Sharan again leads the way, with an average quote of £408 a month, compared with £430 for the Espace and £442 for the C8.
So it's a convincing victory in this section to the Sharan, which despite its age is still leading the way in the areas that really matter such as depreciation costs and driver tax liability.
But the Sharan is the oldest car here by some margin, so will your drivers still be happy to opt for the Volkswagen or will they prefer one of the fresh faces on the market? The decision may come down to how they drive.
Citroen C8 2.2 HDi SX
PACKED with innovative features and powered by the trusty 2.2 HDi engine. Shares its chassis with the Peugeot 807 and Fiat Ulysse.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £22,110
CO2 emissions (g/km): 199
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 26%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 11
Combined mpg: 38.1
CAP Monitor residual value: £7,400/33%
Depreciation (22.89 pence per mile x 60,000): £13,734
Maintenance (2.83 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,698
Fuel (10.13 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,078
Wholelife cost (35.85 pence per mile x 60,000): £21,510 Typical contract hire rate: £442 per month
Renault Espace 2.2 DCi EXP
A FRESH look for the daddy of the MPV sector. Styling will divide opinion, but the rest of the car is first class. Cabin design in particular is excellent.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £23,200
CO2 emissions (g/km): 206
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 28%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 11
Combined mpg: 36.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £9,550/41%
Depreciation (21.20 pence per mile x 60,000): £12,720
Maintenance (2.70 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,362
Fuel (10.55 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,330
Wholelife cost (34.45 pence per mile x 60,000): £20,670
Typical contract hire rate: £430 per month
VW Sharan 1.9 TDI 130 Sport
IT has got the badge and the engineering, but the Sharan is starting to show its age now. However, it is still ultra-competitive on price, running costs and driver taxation.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £21,965
CO2 emissions (g/km): 178
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 22%
Graduated VED rate: £150
Insurance group: 12
Combined mpg: 43.5
CAP Monitor residual value: £8,850/39%
Depreciation (20.13 pence per mile x 60,000): £12,078
Maintenance (2.45 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,470
Fuel (9.04 pence per mile x 60,000): £5,424
Wholelife cost (31.62 pence per mile x 60,000): £18,972 Typical contract hire rate: £408 per month
Citroen C8 2.2 HDi SX
WITH innovative interior features and strong practicality, the problem for the C8 is how to distinguish it from its peers built at the same factory, the Peugeot 807 and the Fiat Ulysse.
This is mainly done through the exterior styling (65% of exterior panels are unique to the C8), which is given the Citroen 'family' face, while the rear light clusters are high alongside the tailgate glass, rather like the C5 estate.
The interior styling is impressive, with many hidden storage spaces and a bold arch across the dashboard with the main instruments housed in a central binnacle. Warning lights are in a binnacle visible through the steering wheel. The gearstick, which proved to be a little sticky and obstructive, is mounted on the centre console, allowing extra free space.
Not only is the C8 the only car here to offer sliding rear passenger doors, in SX trim they are electrically-operated and can be opened remotely using the key fob. Like the electric windows they are fitted with an anti-pinch function to avoid those little accidents with small digits or limbs. Speaking of children, there is an additional mirror above the rear-view mirror so adults in the front can keep an eye on kids in the back.
Although the 2.2-litre HDi engine is a version of a unit we are familiar with, in the C8 it has never been louder or more intrusive, particularly when starting from cold. It never really settles down until fifth gear is engaged and you set off on the motorway or A-roads. However, it pulls well enough, with only marginally less torque than the Renault.
It also seems to handle indecently well – although the steering is rather vague, it is reasonably weighty and body roll is always kept in check.
Renault Espace 2.2 dCi Expression
THE Espace continues Renault's radical styling strategy and while its appearance makes it by far the most modern looking of the cars tested, it will divide opinion. Like most of the new Renaults, it is perhaps the view of the rear that will be most unacceptable to those who dislike it.
However, it certainly stands out and inside the story is much the same. If the C8 is a leap forward for the cars based on the PSA/Fiat platform, the same can be said for the Espace.
Our Expression model uses the Renault Card access and ignition system, automatic parking brake (like the Vel Satis), front, side and curtain airbags, electric windows, air conditioning and a six-CD autochanger.
Its on-the road price is the highest of the three, but it offers a completely different experience from the inside – and let's not forget that its 2.2 dCi engine is the most powerful here.
You really get the impression you are travelling in a special vehicle and the engine is a gem. Quiet at all times, it moves the Espace along without fuss and offers maximum torque at 1,750rpm. The six-speed gearbox shifts easily and the Espace puts in a surprising turn of speed.
It's a shame Renault didn't decide to incorporate sliding rear passenger doors in the new Espace at a time when an increasing number of large MPVs are adopting this sensible and practical option.
And, as is often the case, if you decide to embark on a long journey loaded up with people, the problem of where to put all their luggage isn't truly resolved (unless you go for a Grand Espace for an extra £1,000). This would add to the already hefty benefit-in-kind tax bill caused by the relatively high carbon dioxide emissions and mediocre fuel economy.
Volkswagen Sharan 1.9 TDI 130 Sport
THE Volkswagen Sharan would always be facing a tough challenge in this test. It is the oldest car here, facelifted nearly three years ago following its launch in 1995.
New to the Sharan is the 128bhp version of the esteemed Volkswagen Group 1.9-litre pumpe duse turbodiesel, and it comes with a six-speed manual transmission. On the inside it looks more like a traditional car than the other two, and apart from the huge, flat dashboard top it is not dissimilar to the Passat.
The Sport model has sports suspension, alloy wheels, a six-CD autochanger plus radio/cassette player, but with dark interior trim the interior is far too sombre. Like the C8, the Sharan has the problem of trying to appear significantly different from the SEAT Alhambra and Ford Galaxy and from the outside the differences are less obvious than the distinguishing features of the PSA/Fiat crowd.
It drives rather well for an MPV – I was expecting it to be shown up by the new generation of vehicles here, but thanks to its sports suspension, the Sharan can be driven with gusto and it does not feel much slower than the Espace.
Where it could score highly is in the efficiency of its engine. It's the only car here to offer genuine 40mpg-plus fuel consumption – a factor that ensures it scores highly in the running costs arena.
Although the Sharan is a practical car, its age begins to hurt when comparing it to the other two vehicles in this test. It offers the lowest luggage volume with all the seats in place, and its interior features seem to lack the imagination of the other two. There is no child monitoring mirror, no electronic parking brake, no sliding rear doors and it is in these areas that the Sharan might suffer until it is replaced.
THE Sharan has a huge running costs advantage but ultimately its age counts against it. It is the oldest of our trio and it feels it. The C8 suffers from having the highest running costs but its practicality and innovative features outweigh this, leaving it in second place. Which leaves the Espace as the winner – it's great to drive, practical and it feels 'special', justifying the extra cost.
1. Renault Espace
2. Citroen C8
3. VW Sharan