Motoring: Take a long look at Grand Espace

RENAULT'S pioneering Espace people carrier is nearing 30. It was conceived by Matra and Renault in 1983 as a European version of what the Americans called a minivan.

To whit: the cabin space of a van with the driving pleasure of a car. The proto Espace was built on a Renault 18 chassis and powered by an engine from the Fuego, that futuristic coupe of the early Eighties which has all but vanished from our roads.

The 1984 production model was built on a bespoke chassis by Matra – with a flat floor, seats for up to seven. The rear seats could be removed. The front seats were more like chairs, and could swivel to face the rear for picnics. There were folding tables on the seat backs, seen on grand touring cars in previous times. It was a defining vehicle for the car industry and, in time, much imitated.

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Espace evolved, with Quadra 4x4 in 1988 (a press event involved scooting round a Scottish croft) and in late 1996 the Mk 3 which had a longer, Grand Espace version to address the problem of where to put luggage when all the seats were in use. It also allowed the seats to be moved up and down the floor on rails. I shared a press drive in that one from Las Vegas to Tucson.

Since late 2002 we have been in the fourth generation, and a replacement is overdue. More fashionable these days are the cross-over designs with a more sporty image.

Espace has been winning awards but not always high scores in reliability, so in 2009 it received a 100,000 mile (three year) warranty. It also holds one of the highest scores in the Euro NCAP crash tests. All models have eight airbags, plus electronics to maintain stability, steering and grip. The Grand Espace is some eight inches longer (200mm) and with the seats removed has a capacity of 3,050 litres. The minimum boot volume with the seats on board is 456 litres (regular Espace 2,860L and 291L).

There are 2-litre diesel engines giving 150ps and 175ps. Prices open at 25,315 for the Espace Dynamique TomTom with the 150ps motor. The TomTom 175 Automatic is 27,820. The equivalent Grand Espace models cost an additional 1,600.

My test model was the Grand Espace with the 175ps (172.6bhp) engine. On the road price: 29,420. Extras included a seventh seat (560), metallic paint (520), an opening window in the tailgate for versatile loading (330), panoramic sunroof (1,330), emergency spare wheel (75 well spent when you need one), plus audio upgrades and twin screen DVD system which added 1,910.

However, the standard vehicle is well-equipped, with dual zone climate control, cruise control and a speed limiter and, as the name implies, an integrated TomTom navigation unit which flags up speed cameras. A rear parking bleeper is a help.

There are sun blinds for the rear windows, automatic lights and wipers, 17-inch alloys, and push-button ignition. Roof bars are ready for excess loads in one of those must-have streamlined Thule boxes.

The Espace and its ilk (Galaxy, Sharan, Sedona, 5008) are really about capacity. There is not much point in one unless you need their passenger and/or luggage capacity. The Grand Espace actually works best as a five-seater, leaving stacks of rearward room for baggage. They make an ideal long-distance holiday car, where with, say, four seats in use there is lots of space for bags, prams, even a bike. Note that with the Espace the seats can be folded onto their bases or removed. They do not fold away into the floor. In the cabin per se there are numerous compartments for odds and ends.

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From the outside it looks imperious, with its sloping front pointing the way. The rear doors are hinged, so not as versatile or convenient as sliding doors, as fitted on the Sharan and Alhambra. A Renault keycard opens it all up. The diesel engine clatters into life and at tickover makes the instrument cowl vibrate. It is not an endearing image, and the motor, at least as tested, maintains a diesel drone after setting off. There is, then, a lack of refinement in the drive-train. Some clatter and patter over poorer roads is acceptable in big open-box of a car like this, and the handling balance is surprisingly good.

The TomTom navigation uses a screen which is smaller than some. Its repertoire includes giving the appropriate speed limit but, as with other such systems, it was not always accurate. It also gives warning of speed cameras and counting down the distance. Confusingly, the particular speed limit in force when approaching the camera would go off the screen until the camera was reached. Curious stuff. Additionally, another set of numbers would come up, typically 18 or 24. Odder still.

Despite these rumbles and grumbles it remained a useful vehicle, easy to drive, comfortable, elevated enough for a better view than in a normal car. A long motorway journey north from south London through the city was extremely comfortable – with increased hip room on the individual rear seats. It averaged 32 miles a gallon on this drive. A typical mixed route of towns and open road showed 40 miles a gallon – a match for its official average.

It is: Longer version of the Renault Espace people carrier.

How long: 191 inches (4.8m).

Motors: Diesel 2-litre 150ps six speed manual or, as tested, 175ps automatic.

Economy: Renault quotes 26.6mpg urban and 41.5mpg out of town, with 189g/km of C02.

Running costs: Renault offers a 3-year/30,000 mile deal for 349.

Footnote: A replacement for this Espace was the victim of the economic downturn when it kicked in a couple of years ago. The project is now up and running again and a new Espace, or its equivalent cross-over, should be seen in 2014.