Up until the last six months, the large MPV sector had been quiet for a while. Manufacturers were busy offering workmanlike vehicles which were employed in scooping up children and pets, but were not particularly noticeable and frankly, not very exciting.
But this year will see the introduction of four new models into the sector. The legendary Renault Espace gets a transformation for its fourth generation, the Citroen Synergie becomes the C8, the Peugeot 806 becomes the 807 and the Fiat Ulysee becomes the ... Ulysee, developed on the same platform as the Citroen and the Peugeot.
The Volkswagen Sharan and Ford Galaxy are unchanged. The two vehicles, along with the Seat Alhambra, share the same platform in order to save on development and manufacturing costs. The Chrysler Voyager is the only individual platform in this survey.
The MPV is on the rise. While saloon cars' share of the executive sector has dropped from 65% in 1995, to 45% in 2002, the MPV has increased its share from 16% to 27%. In the UK, the Ford Galaxy is by far the biggest seller, with 10,927 units registered last year. The second best-seller is the Chrysler Voyager at 4,795, with the outgoing Espace placed third.
Fleet business is the mainstay of sales for these vehicles. The likes of Peugeot, Citroen and Renault state that about two-thirds of their MPVs are purchased by fleets, and it is imperative that their new models are attractive to company car drivers to succeed.
But, of course, they need to be attractive to the rest of the family, which is where practicality and desirability come in. If the kids decide the vehicle is uncool, there is a fair chance that the driver will end up looking elsewhere.
The new Citroen C8 and Peugeot 807 are packed with practical touches and share possibly the most easy-to-use seating adjustment system. The Galaxy and Sharan share underpinnings, but are distinctly their own brands. The Ford takes styling cues from the Mondeo, while the Sharan's interior is typically top quality, like the rest of the range.
The Voyager comes packed with kit, while Renault would like to think the new Espace is a cut above the competition, and is the first MPV that male drivers will not be embarrassed to be seen in.
Sales director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'The recent influx of new and refined models such as the Citroen C8, Peugeot 807 and Renault Espace makes for tough competition in this rapidly growing niche sector. The main selling points are space and practicality, although the user is unlikely to compromise on performance. A view to spending time with the family means the in-car entertainment package is one of those extras that is rapidly becoming a necessity.'
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'MPVs are very much an acquired taste among company car drivers. With a similar footprint to a large estate car, they offer packaging advantages for the driver who needs to accommodate a large family and its associated paraphernalia. All of the cars in this survey are a compromise, however, offering less luggage space than a standard estate car unless the rearmost seats are removed.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'This month's survey considers the trade-off between function and form. Drivers in this sector are more concerned with practicalities such as ease of access, seat and boot capacity and fuel economy rather than how good it may look, or for that matter, handle. Given those criteria, there is no winner, with the Sharan gaining from good mpg but losing out to the Citroen C8 with its excellent electric side doors.'
General manager sales operations, Alphabet
'The juxtaposition of a falling birth rate in the country with soaring demand for MPVs is still a defining phenomenon of modern motoring. Now that the market for seven seaters is getting more fashion-conscious, it is harder for fleets to pick potential residual value winners. Used buyers showed signs of losing some interest recently but the new entrants should help reinvigorate the class as a whole.'
Head of LeasePlan Fleetline
'Fifteen, maybe even 10 years ago the Renault Espace dominated this market with very little notable competition. However, over the past decade the volume manufacturers have recognised the potential of this market sector and has reacted accordingly. The winner here will be the vehicle that has managed to capture the many requirements of the large MPV user – a difficult combination.'
Chrysler Voyager 2.5 CRD LX
Cope: 'The latest Voyager is well-equipped and features sliding side doors to aid entry. There is very little luggage space unless you opt for the Grand.'
Schooling: 'It's one if the best looking and is the roomiest choice for seven adults but the Voyager still suffers unfairly from its predecessor's bad name for poor safety and reliability. High CO2 will deter a lot of drivers.'
Harnett: 'The Voyager has struggled to truly break the market. It has strong looks but unfortunately that is as far as it goes. Residuals are poor and maintenance costs are extortionate, which means that rentals are uncompetitive.'
Beet: 'A popular choice for those who want a large MPV that's just a little different from the crowd. Plenty of room for a large family and luggage. The diesel engine is underpowered but once under way it cruises well.'
McMahon: 'Despite this being the top-selling MPV in the US, it has not had the same level of success in the UK. A shame given the quality feel and cavernous boot. On the downside, it suffers from high CO2 emissions. Fuel consumption is also not up with the rest in the group.'
Average monthly rental £468
P11D price £22,120
Average net price £18,756
Average maintenance £2,330
Average RV £7,653/34%
Lloyds TSB autolease £438.67
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,363/£2,477
2002 VED bill: £160
Citroen C8 2.2 HDi SX
##C8 first drive--none##
Schooling: 'The feature-laden spec will appeal to the fashionistas – wait until the neighbours see the electric sliding doors. It drives well, too. Significantly cheaper than the Peugeot right now.'
Harnett: 'The C8 is a much-needed replacement to Synergie. However, it still fails to offer anything significantly over and above the competition. Maintenance costs are OK but the residual value still has the hangover from the Synergie.'
Beet: 'The new engine is a dream and will provide superb motorway cruising ability coupled to a respectable mpg and CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, the C8 brings nothing new to the sector and sales are never likely to be high.'
McMahon: 'A great looking MPV with a spacious, modern and welcoming interior. Benefits from electric rear sliding doors. It also has a good boot capacity and fuel economy.'
Cope: 'Citroen is synonymous with value-for-money and the C8 is no exception. It is loaded with kit and features the excellent 2.2 HDI engine.'
Average monthly rental £450
P11D price £22,110
Average net price £17,938
Average maintenance £1,953
Average RV £6,412/29%
Lloyds TSB autolease £428.97
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,167/£2,123
2002 VED bill: £160
Ford Galaxy 1.9 TDI 115 Ghia
Harnett: 'The Galaxy is a good middle of the road performer and the additional entertainment packages are also class-leading. However it fails to offer the driver anything over and above the competition.'
Beet: 'An excellent vehicle – well equipped and has the option of an entertainment pack. Surprisingly quick in acceleration and the six speed gearbox means that it goes well.'
McMahon: 'A big improvement on the previous model in both look and feel, supported by high equipment levels. The Galaxy also benefits from good fuel economy and is reflected in the low tax charge. However, the engine is the least powerful and like the Sharan the rear doors open like a conventional estate.'
Cope: 'One of the oldest models in the panel, but still selling strongly new and used. Galaxy is well-equipped and features a stylish and well-built cabin, although it is more cramped inside for seven people than the other contenders.'
Schooling: 'Good looks, decent handling, pleasant to drive and pole position in fleet MPV sales. To the extent that MPVs are still about practical people-moving, you won't go far wrong with this one.'
Average monthly rental £438
P11D price £22,565
Average net price £18,305
Average maintenance £1,738
Average RV £7,282/32%
Lloyds TSB autolease £440.19
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,080/£1,963
2002 VED bill: £150
Peugeot 807 2.2 HDI GLX
Beet: 'A refined version of the 806, the rear suspension has been redesigned and there is a vast improvement on space. The ride isn't excellent but the interior is well-equipped and all models come with electric rear doors.'
McMahon: 'Good equipment levels with electric sliding rear doors and the option of eight seats should make this a strong contender. However, it is let down by unfavourable discounts which make the rentals less attractive than its competitors.'
Cope: 'Like the C8, the 807 feels much more car-like than traditional MPVs, although it still has little room for luggage with the rearmost seats in place. Sliding rear doors are a boon in tight spaces.'
Schooling: 'A big step forward from the 806 in every department. I can't see fleets preferring it to the C8, though, simply because of the pricing.'
Harnett: 'If you can get past the van-like looks the 807 is a well thought-out, functional car. Specification is strong but unfortunately the residual value reflects the uncertainty with this 'new' vehicle, which means uncompetitive rentals. Still some way to go.'
Average monthly rental £475
P11D price £22,310
Average net price £18,689
Average maintenance £2,020
Average RV £6,678/30%
Lloyds TSB autolease £460.61
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,276/£2,320
2002 VED bill £160
Renault Espace 2.2 dCi Expression
McMahon: 'The latest incarnation of the Espace has a real presence that few in this group command. It also has the most powerful engine and the second lowest rental in this group. However, it is also the highest on tax.'
Cope: 'The Espace has the strongest image here and the highest residuals. Espace was the original MPV in Europe and in its latest incarnation is still the best. Pricey for company car drivers, with a tax charge of 28% in 2003/04.'
Schooling: 'It's fair to say that the old warhorse was getting a bit jaded by last year but the new model puts the Espace back at the front. The powerplant and package are excellent and Renault's love-it-or-hate-it styling seems to be winning a good few friends.'
Harnett: 'The Espace has set the standards for a number of years and still continues to do so. Renault continues to evolve the Espace to match current trends and the latest version is no different. Residual values are class-leading.'
Beet: 'Still regarded by many as the benchmark for this sector. The diesel engine is very powerful, the car is well designed and the look is excellent with styling cues from Renault's innovative design team.'
Average monthly rental £417
P11D price £23,200
Average net price £18,053
Average maintenance £2,006
Average RV £8,127/36%
Lloyds TSB autolease £428.59
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,429/£2,598
2002 VED bill £160
Volkswagen Sharan 1.9 TDI PD 115 Sport
Cope: 'Impeccable build quality and class- leading diesel engines. The Sharan boasts the lowest tax charge of the group. Not quite sure about the validity of a 'Sport' badge on an MPV though.'
Schooling: 'I'd take the VW over the Ford even without the Sharan's price advantage. The Sport pack gives it car-like handling and the TDI PD motor is a marvel of flexibility.'
Harnett: 'The Sharan is, like the Galaxy, a good, solid performer. It has a good level of specification and is very comfortable but still fails to distance itself from the competition. Rentals and CO2 are competitive which means it will be at the top of most lists.'
Beet: 'An excellent vehicle. The Sharan boasts the most car-like ride in its class. The level of luxury is comparable to a saloon and all models come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard.'
McMahon: 'Strong residuals combined with reasonable discounts ensure this vehicle has the lowest monthly rental. It is also the most tax-efficient MPV with good fuel economy. In its latest incarnation the Sharan also has a real quality feel.'
Average monthly rental £408
P11D price £21,965
Average net price £16,965
Average maintenance £1,846
Average RV £7,333/33%
Lloyds TSB autolease £408.38
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,085/£1,973
2002 VED bill: £150