Back in the distant days of June 1997 when Tony Blair looked young for his age, Renault – as it is prone to do from time to time – invented a new market sector.
At the time of the launch of the Scenic, and therefore the launch of the compact MPV sector, Fleet News reported that the 'Scenic is the most significant new car for years' and that it was 'one of the most accomplished cars we have ever tested'.
And it is with a barely concealed smug grin that we can say we were right. The Scenic has changed the face of family motoring over the last few years, and with Tony Blair now looking older than his age, Renault's compact MPV has undergone a facelift and internal reworking, the first of the sector to do so.
However, the market is not in its infancy as it was in 1997 and the Scenic does not get everything its own way. Its early rivals included the Vauxhall Zafira, Citroen Xsara Picasso and Fiat Multipla.
And now the sector could probably be termed adolescent, due in part to a growth spurt this year with new arrivals from Ford (Focus C-MAX) and Volkswagen (Touran) both adding plenty of competition to the sector. There should be space for them all, as the popularity of compact MPVs begins to eat into sales from both upper- and lower-medium cars.
The most popular model so far this year is the Zafira, with 37,378 units sold, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The Xsara Picasso, last year's top seller, has sold 30,366 so far this year, with the Scenic hot on its heels at 28,405.
One of the questions the panel will look at is numbers of seats and the bearing this has on buyer choice. Ford and Citroen only offer five, Fiat has six, while Vauxhall has seven as standard with Volkswagen and Renault offering this as an option.
Drivers might very rarely need seven seats, but does not having the option impact on the final decision? The driving experience is also a key factor. Often drivers opting for one of these cars are moving out of something lower to the ground and more dynamic, but practicality and a family overtakes the need for speed and style. Ford is pushing the message that its Focus C-MAX, built on the platform of next year's new Focus, is the choice for those drivers who still enjoy cornering when the kids are at school.
The Touran is sat above the underpinnings of the Mark Five Golf, while the Scenic II is on the Megane platform.
None of these cars is a wobbly box on wheels like many of the first large MPVs were, which partially explains why the sector is becoming so popular so quickly.
Operations director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'The Megane Scenic wasn't the first on the market but it was the first to offer the space and flexibility in a compact, yet attractive, package. It could be hard to justify the price difference over a conventional hatch, but they all have their own unique features, and the more upright seating position offered in a compact MPV allows a much better view of the road, which is a major benefit if transporting your offspring.
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'This is a keenly-fought sector, with an increasing number of manufacturers trying to produce the most cost- effective, ergonomic and family- friendly vehicle. This month's basket illustrates the diversity of models available aimed at the executive who wants a business car through the week and family mover at the weekend. The Fiat Multipla offers great seating and good performance but is affected by its bizarre looks.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'Versatility is key and practicality a must, from family days out to the school run. Compact MPVs need to be adaptable and affordable to run. Vauxhall's Zafira has reigned for four years with its various seating combinations but the new Volkswagen Touran could easily set the standards for MPVs in the future. The Citroen Xsara Picasso was the best-selling MPV in the class in 2002 and has the lowest front-end price.'
Commercial director, Alphabet
'Compact MPVs epitomise the widening crossover between private and fleet users' priorities. We are encouraged to think more about work/life balance and these models certainly allow drivers to fit in more family life when off-duty, without detracting in any way from their working environment by day. Diesel seems the natural choice in this class, as much for its mid-range torque as for the extra fuel economy.
Head of UK & international sales development, Arval PHH
'This is still very much a growth sector, hence the new entrants. It's critical these days for this category to be represented on fleet choice lists. As the sector has matured you don't have to sacrifice looks for practicality and the driving experience has become credible. Demand ensures that residual values are maintained. This sector will continue to develop with further innovation in both design and desirability.'
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Average monthly rental rates
Citroen : £296
Average maintenance costs (3years/60,000 miles)
Citroen : £1,578
RV forecasts (3years/60,000 miles)
Citroen : £4,304/27%
CO2 emissions (g/km and tax band)
Volkswagen (Euro IV): 162/16%
Citroen : 147/18%
Citroen : 51.4
Citroen Xsara Picasso 2.0 HDi 90 Exclusive
McMahon: 'Good discounts and the cheapest to buy. This car has plenty of space and an adequate boot. However, interior quality is not the best. Company car drivers will benefit from low emissions but when it comes to selling, owners can expect the car to lose 60% of its original value over three years.'
Pout: 'Aggressively priced and well supported. The Picasso is a popular vehicle on fleet choice lists and that's because it offers practicality, economy and a good driving experience. The diesel version presents it at its best for an all-round package.' Schooling: 'The Picasso wraps a stylish body around a full complement of MPV virtues, along with a very good engine.'
Cope: 'The Picasso has established itself as a good value compact MPV, offering a high standard of specification with reasonable build quality. However, it is starting to look dated.'
Brown: 'Combines low pricing with a credible product. Not cutting edge and maybe half a class down in comparison, but when you can have a compact MPV for the price of a Focus hatchback it is not hard to see why it is so popular.'
Average monthly rental £296
P11D price £16,055
Average net price £11,642
Average maintenance £1,578
Average RV £4,304/27%
Arval PHH £302.80
Lloyds TSB autolease £296.00
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £636/£1,156
2003 VED bill: £110
Fiat Multipla 1.9 JTD 115 ELX
Schooling: 'Fiat's radical take on the MPV concept is practical and enjoyable to run, with plenty of luggage capacity despite being a six-seater. CO2 emissions put it at a slight benefit-in-kind tax disadvantage.'
Cope: 'The Fiat hit the market in a blaze of controversy but its rather bizarre looks put most potential buyers off. However, those who have driven it have been very impressed with its all- round performance.'
McMahon: 'It has unique looks and offers six seats. The width provides good interior space with plenty of rear legroom but it is the most expensive to insure and has a noisy engine.'
Pout: 'This was seen as the innovator when introduced, offering six seats, bags of room and quirky looks. It offers a competitive rental and performs reasonably well on the used market, but it's difficult to say if this will last against the new contenders to the sector.'
Brown: 'Fiat was maybe a bit too brave with this one but look past the styling and there is a cleverly-packaged car in there. Apparently due for a facelift next year, which may improve its appeal.'
Average monthly rental £319
P11D price £16,044
Average net price £11,956
Average maintenance £1,896
Average RV £5,626/35%
Arval PHH £333.73
Lloyds TSB autolease £334.00
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £741/£1,348
2003 VED bill: £130
Ford Focus C-MAX 2.0 TDCi Zetec
Cope: 'Ford has further developed the already sturdy platform of the Focus to produce a very attractive and dynamic car. Only time will tell if it will attract the right level of interest.'
Schooling: 'Ford's very promising compact MPV has the right ingredients to be a top seller, although the high front-end price and low-ish residual value prediction means wholelife costs are not the cheapest.'
Brown: 'The C-MAX is the smallest car in the group and probably the most closely related to its hatchback counterpart. However, this similarity does almost beg the question of whether it is different enough.'
McMahon: 'Ford finally launches its first compact MPV. It's nothing clever and sticks to the five-seater format. Solid build, good driving position and well-built cabin. One of the most expensive here.'
Pout: 'Ford has settled on a five-seat layout rather than going for seven, but the C-MAX has the remarkable benefit of 39 cubby holes to hide all your bits and bobs. It will sell well due to Ford's major slice of fleet business and has closed a gap in its model line-up.'
Average monthly rental £357
P11D price £17,085
Average net price £14,019
Average maintenance £1,415
Average RV £4,953/29%
Arval PHH £372.00
Lloyds TSB autolease £344.00
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £677/£1,230
2003 VED bill: £110
Renault Scenic 1.9 dCi 120 Dynamique
Pout: 'The origin of the species and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery this is a highly-praised model. The latest version is still seen as the benchmark in the category with good wholelife costs.'
Schooling: ' Scenic II steps up in roominess, versatility and road manners to meet the new entrants. Renault's pricing strategy promises predictable wholelife costs.'
McMahon: 'The inventor of the compact MPV idea releases its second generation. This year's model is longer than the previous version and will be followed in 2004 by a seven-seater. It should hold its value considering all the extras included as standard.'
Cope: 'Renault launched this sector with the Scenic and continues to develop its interior specification and design. The new Grand Scenic which is launched in in 2004 will provide a long-awaited seven-seater version.'
Brown: 'Nothing specifically new but a very effective update on the definitive compact MPV with major improvements to interior quality and driving position. Renault has struck a balance, creating an avant-garde feel that sets it apart from the crowd.'
Average monthly rental £313
P11D price £16,690
Average net price £12,966
Average maintenance £1,543
Average RV £5,633/34%
Arval PHH £314.74
Lloyds TSB autolease £316.00
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £661/£1,202
2003 VED bill: £110
Vauxhall Zafira 2.0 DTi Design
Brown: 'The Flex-7 seating system that sent most of the competition back to the drawing board offers a quick and simple choice between loadspace and extra seating without the need to lug heavy seats around.'
Schooling: 'Few can match the seven-seater Zafira for carrying capacity and versatility, although it is beginning to seem a little utilitarian in a class where stylish interiors have become an important selling point.'
Cope: 'The Zafira took this sector to another level with its ergonomically designed interior, catering for all possible usage scenarios. Unfortunately it is let down by its specification and lack of safety kit.'
McMahon: 'Clever seating options allow five, six or seven seats without the need to remove any chairs. One of two compact MPVs to offer more than six seats. Strong residuals, good discounts and well built.'
Pout: 'Thanks to some clever design work this was the first model in this sector to offer seven seats. It's very successful with user-choosers due to Vauxhall's competitive pricing. The very practical layout and flexibility of seating options makes it a great family vehicle.'
Average monthly rental £331
P11D price £16,415
Average net price £13,239
Average maintenance £1,437
Average RV £5,277/32%
Arval PHH £330.04
Lloyds TSB autolease £326.00
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £794/£1,445
2003 VED bill: £130
Volkswagen Touran 1.9 TDI 100 SE
Schooling: 'The Touran deliberately puts competence ahead of charisma but that is no bad thing these days when safety and solidity are primary fleet virtues.'
Cope: 'Volkswagen's first attempt at entering this sector has been long overdue and the Touran seems to tick most of the boxes on the check sheet. However, it comes at a high price.'
McMahon: 'The Touran is a good drive and brings a new quality to this sector and is expected to hold its value exceptionally well. Road noise is non-existent. Third row of seats cleverly folds flat into the boot floor.'
Pout: 'A recent entrant to this sector with all the benefits of excellent engineering and build quality that's expected from Volkswagen. The early signs are that this will take business away from Vauxhall and Renault in particular – thanks to the VW badge – although the rental does suffer from the higher front-end cost, despite the strong residual value prediction.'
Brown: 'May look a little bland next to the Picasso and Scenic but it has that reassuringly solid feel which attracts so many buyers to the Golf. From an image point of view it may have benefited from a closer association with the Golf.'
Average monthly rental £357
P11D price £17,065
Average net price £14,373
Average maintenance £1,698
Average RV £6,010/35%
Arval PHH £347.16
Lloyds TSB autolease £355.00
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £713/£1,297
2003 VED bill: £110