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Click to view picture gallery“MPVs are bucking
  the trend! While sales
  of most cars are down,
  MPVs are doing very
nicely, thank you.
  Especially Renault’s
  Espace and Grand
  Espace range —
  check out the 2007
  models which have
  benefited from a
  radical makeover...”

MPVs OR 'PEOPLE CARRIERS' continue to prove popular with UK customers, thanks both to the fact that they come in small, medium and large and also because of their ability to efficiently combine seating and load carrying options within one complete package. So far this year the MPV sector of the new car market is the only segment to have shown a growth in sales — up by a substantial 25.6 per cent in August and 6.6 per cent for the year to date. All the better when you consider that the overall new car market in the UK is down by 4.6 per cent so far this year, proving that MPVs are definitely bucking the trend.

While the sporty-looking new Ford S-Max has recently cornered most of the media coverage about MPVs, it is established people carriers like the Renault Espace that have stood the test of time. For more than
20 years now, the Espace has always been the benchmark vehicle in the large MPV market, with well over a million of them having been sold worldwide since it was launched in 1984.

Since then the Espace has gone on evolving. It still retains it's core rationale — seating for up to seven passengers in a 2+3+2, three-row seating configuration. Renault's stylish MPV is available as the Espace or, with a slightly longer wheelbase, as the Grand Espace.

Early this year the Espace range received another radical makeover with significant enhancements to the styling, improved interior specification and a revised line-up of engines. Sales of the new 2007 Espace models opened last week.

The changes include a revised specification for their mid-range 'Dynamique'-specced models which is the most popular trim and spec-ification level out of the five on offer. The Dynamique is also offered with five engine choices: one petrol and four Euro IV diesels. The fact that Renault only offers one petrol engine reflects the fact that 90 per cent of Espace customers choose diesel.

The new Dynamique Espace and Grand Espace specification models range in price from 23,945 to 28,175.

Just by chance, as Renault announced details of the 2007 Espace and Grand Espace changes, I was in custody of a 33,275 Grand Espace Initiale 2.0-litre dCi model with a price tag. That is still not the most expensive model in the range — that honour goes to the 35,545 (and to my mind, somewhat superfluous) 3.5-litre V6 petrol model.

My test car had the latest Renault 2.0-litre diesel unit — also used in the revised Laguna. It produces 175bhp and, more importantly, 266lb ft of torque at a low 1,750rpm, making it a fast and very responsive new-generation turbocharged diesel power unit. It also has an FAP emission filter with CO2 at 200 g/km, which still puts it in the high Band F for VED rates: 195 per annum for this model.

Mated to this engine in my test car was a six-speed manual trans-mission that proved to be really smooth and precise to operate, with really well sorted gear ratios. So many times — and done purely to provide low emission ratings — we see very high fifth and sixth gear ratios that, even with high-torque diesel engines, make them pretty unsympathetic to drive and requiring lots of needless changing up and down the gearbox. Not, happily, the case here.

Like the well-appointed lounge of a luxury home on wheels, the Grand Espace Initiale has it all. All seven seats are full sized and well uphol-stered, and the middle and third rows of seats can be left up, folded down, turned around or taken out entirely to create multiple seating or seating/low carrying combinations. However, because these seats are very comfortable and of a proper size they are heavy to lift in and out.

Admittedly there are cleverer MPVs on the market today that allow
for folding seats down to create a flat load floor without the need for removing them. Buying an Espace is, more than anything, about owning a vehicle for carrying seven people. If you don't have that specific need, look for something else. With all seven seats in place, the luggage room is limited to 456 litres of load space. Take out the five rear seats and this goes up to a mammoth 3,050 litres. In fact, it does exactly what it says on the label: it is a people carrier; not a people and load carrier.

Generally, the interior seating and legroom room is good for all pass-engers and it is relatively easy to get to the rear third row of seats through the hinged — not sliding — rear side doors. The Initiale version also has the benefit of a lift up tailgate, but — a neat feature — for small items, the tailgate window can also be lifted open separately.

As to the fixtures and fittings, there are too many to list with the Initiale. Suffice to say you get everything, including anti-whiplash head restraints, multi airbags, sunblinds, CD player with Bluetooth satellite navigation system, front and rear air conditioning with independent controls and full leather upholstery. As I said earlier: a stately lounge on wheels.

There is no getting away from the fact that, following the major
styling revisions introduced earlier this year, the Grand Espace is a sleek and somewhat prestigious looking vehicle with a full five-star
Euro NCAP safety rating.

I would best describe the overall road dynamics of the Grand Espace
as designed for comfort over sharp handling. It copes pretty well with bends and the ride is compliant and absorbs bumps and potholes, making for smooth journeys. It comes equipped with anti-lock braking, an electronic stability and handling programme and traction and understeer control, so there's no doubt but that it's an accomplished vehicle.

The new 2.0-litre power unit was a revelation. It is eager to please and very quiet in operation. The week-long test, over all types of roads, although, I have to admit, not with seven passengers, saw an average of 34.4mpg — not far off the officially-quoted 37.2mpg. From the long list of engine choices this is the unit I would select — probably with the less expensive but good enough Dynamique specification at an all-up price of 27,975.

So, for those motorists who need seven seats for seven real-world people the Grand Espace delivers, so long as not everyone aboard is taking a full complement of luggage. Should you want to make good use of the huge load space by removing the seats, remember that they're heavy and difficult to remove. Nit-picking, the plastics on the sweeping dashboard are not up to the quality of the rest of the car. Other than that — and a high-ish retail price — its all good news: Luxurious specification, roomy and flexible seating for seven people, elegant exterior styling, a high safety rating and a comfortable ride. C'est la vie. — David Miles

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Renault Grand Espace Initiale 2.0 dCi 175
| 33,275
Maximum speed: 127mph | 0-62mph: 10 seconds
Overall test MPG: 34.4mpg | Power: 175bhp | Torque: 266lb ft

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