Although the title of innovator of the MPV or people carrier is open to dispute between Chrysler in the US with the Voyager and Mitsubishi in Japan with the Space Wagon, Renault can truly claim to have started the trend in Europe with the Espace.
The MPV was downsized with the Scenic in 1997 and other manufacturers followed. Both the large and compact MPV sectors are still strong, and Renault must be credited for maintaining a high level of sales with the sector growing exponentially as other manufacturers join in.
Now, 18 years after the first Espace, Renault has introduced the fourth incarnation of the car, and promises more comfort, technology and safety as well as the broadest range of petrol and diesel engines in its sector.
No longer built with a plastic body by Matra, the latest Espace uses aluminium for the doors and bonnet, with plastic for the front wings and part of the tailgate, to keep weight down.
Five-speed automatic transmissions offer a sequential manual change facility, the Espace uses the Renault Card system with which you can unlock the doors and start the engine simply by having the card about your person, and an automatic parking brake – as used in the Vel Satis.
While retaining a similar profile to the previous model, the new Espace takes many styling cues from the latest Renault models, including the Vel Satis, Avantime, Megane and Clio and, like the third generation Espace, is offered with a choice of two wheelbases and up to seven seats.
The Grand Espace is 200mm longer than the standard car and is available in all versions apart from the entry-level 2.0 litre petrol.
The UK will have the full range of petrol and diesel engines including a 1.9 dCi for the first time, and the 3.5 V6 petrol plus 3.0 dCi V6 diesel used in the Vel Satis. Renault is taking the Espace upmarket and with the Vel Satis and Avantime will offer three different models in the so-called 'E-sector'.
This will create some space below the Espace for a seven-seater Scenic which should appear a few months after the launch of the all-new five-seater Scenic next summer. The large MPV sector traditionally sells large volumes into fleets, with many going into daily rental as well as private hire and chauffeur companies.
Renault hopes the extended range of diesel engines will give the new Espace a broader appeal for companies with a keen eye on fuel costs.
Behind the wheel
LARGER than before, the new Espace certainly has impact with a striking front-end design and a steeply raked windscreen.
One of the few companies to retain conventional rear doors in the segment (Renault says its customers think sliding rear doors are more at home on vans than cars, as well as making access to the third row of seats more difficult) the glass area, although large, does seem busy with all the pillars and quarter lights.
Test cars on the launch comprised the two V6 models as well as the 2.2 dCi, the latter expected to make up 35% of sales in the UK with the 2.0 Turbo in second place on 23%.
Although prices and final equipment levels are yet to be decided, the Initiale models will have leather seats with electrical adjustment in the front and standard Carminat navigation which lives in a dashboard compartment shrouded by a cover. The cover lifts and acts as a good shade from the sun as long as the sun is in front, but rays from the sides obscure the screen.
Renault has used 'slush' texture materials for most of the dashboard, although some of the plastics around the vents and other storage compartments is still a little too hard for a 'luxury' car. The LED instrument display has been revamped and is easier on the eye than the orange of the third generation Espace in a cool blue colour with some red detailing.
The 3.0 dCi pulls strongly and is quiet and refined. It doesn't feel much slower than the range-topping 3.5 V6 petrol engine which has an incongruous spine-tingling six-cylinder howl to accompany hard acceleration. The big seller, the 2.2 dCi, is highly recommended. The diesel is muted unless revved hard and combined with the easy-going six-speed manual was responsive enough. However, most customers will probably choose this engine with an automatic transmission.
The Espace seems to handle better than before, turning in neatly and with less body roll. The ride quality is mostly comfortable but road noise becomes intrusive on the top models fitted with 18-inch wheels.
Facing up to an ever greater challenge from rivals, with the new Citroen C8, Peugeot 807 and Fiat Ulysse on the horizon, the Renault Espace – this year's winner of the Fleet News Award for best MPV – has sharpened up its act.
|Renault Espace fact file|
|2.0 (Espace)||2.0 T||3.5 V6 auto||1.9 dCi||2.2 dCi||3.0 V6 dCi auto|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||138/5,500||163/5,000||242/6,000||115/4,000||148/4,000||178/4,400|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||141/3,750||184/2,000||243/3,600||199/2,000||236/1,750||258/1,800|
|Max speed (mph):||121||127 (122)||140||112||118||127|
|0-62mph (sec):||12.5||9.9 (10.8)||8.1||13.2||11.5||10.9|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||30.2||29.3 (26.6)||23.2||11.8||36.9||29.9|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||224||232 (255)||292||183||206||252|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||83/18.3|
|Service intervals (miles):||18,000 (12,000 for V6 models)|
|Transmission:||6-sp man or 5-sp auto|
|On sale:||January 2003|
|Prices (OTR):||£19,500 - £34,000|