x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Renault's substance over style

In the early 1980s, it dawned on European car manufacturers that there was a market for a family vehicle that bridged the gap between a car and a van.

The Renault Espace set the benchmark for people carriers in Europe in the Eighties.
The Renault Espace set the benchmark for people carriers in Europe in the Eighties.

Today MPVs are one of the best selling types of vehicle in the world. They are beloved by men who convince themselves that they have made something of their lives by looking over rather than through a hedgerow. They are also the choice of mothers the world over who drive safe in the knowledge that the sheer bulbous bulk of an MPV will keep their cherished offspring safe inside whatever the next corner brings.

The fact that any animal, vegetable or mineral that is unfortunate enough to veer into its path is pulverised is, it would seem, beside the point. It is someone or something else's problem, as, we can only assume, is the sooty carbon footprint left from driving a car that is twice as large as necessary. But back in the 1980s everyone drove a saloon, unless we wanted to lug planks of wood or kitchen appliances about in which case you bought a Volvo estate.

It was a simpler, more frugal world where the lack of choice ensured a lack of fuss. If there were more than five passengers you would simply take the train. Then Renault introduced the Espace and life got complicated. In the early 1980s, it dawned on European car manufacturers that there was a market for a family vehicle that bridged the gap between a car and a van. Such a hybrid would fuse the utility and space of a van with the comfort and performance of a car. It would be a Range Rover for those without the inherited wealth, gravel driveways and adjoining stables of the prosperous provincial farmer.

We now know that such a concept was the motoring equivalent of sliced bread, but back in 1984, when Renault launched its revolutionary Espace, the public were not so sure and only nine models were sold in the first month. But then, as with every cunning invention, people realised that what they had previously considered a luxury was in fact an essential. Of course a family car needed a sliding moon roof and seats that rotated to enable an impromptu picnic. Doubt crept in where once there was cast-iron certainty, or at least, stainless steel cutlery. What were car makers thinking when they forced the fifth and sixth child to look out the back window from a makeshift bench in the boot?

So from inauspicious beginnings the Espace became a legend. Not a thrilling legend like the Court of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: more of a mundane, everyday legend like the myth that families grew their own sprouts in the war. A quarter of a century later and it is still in production and every inch an automotive icon. Latterly it has adopted delusions of grandeur that has seen V6 engines, multi-change CD players and head restraint mounted television screens elevate it to executive status, taking it out of the reach of the staunchly moderate, middle income families it was originally designed for.

There is an oft recited idiom that if something ain't broke then don't fix it. But car manufacturers fear being left in the wake of progress and in 25 years the Espace has morphed into several weird and wonderful derivations. Take, for example, the coupe, given the aptly odd name of the Avantime. An MPV coupe is, as we all know, an absurd concept. Taking away the additional space afforded an MPV by truncating the boot takes away its virtues and serves only to expose its vices. It just leaves you with an elevated driving position and that can be achieved with much less expense by welding a step-ladder to a lawn-mower.

But even the Avantime is trumped by what must rank as one of the zaniest car contraptions of all time: the Espace F1, an MPV that can reach 0-60 mph in less than 3 seconds. There is only one word. Why? tbrooks@thenational.ae