The New Untouchables (1)

On DTW, we have touched upon the slow and largely un-mourned death of the MPV recently, but a small footnote in Autocropley caught my eye and leads me to consider how things got so bad for the ‘people carrier’.

venga auto trader
More red squirrel than guinea pig – the near deceased KIA Venga (Source: Auto Trader)

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. I have owned two MPVs in the last 20 years, both of which served me well – in one case, as I have written before, all too well. Both were purchased to carry my family and their stuff around in their day-to-day lives without taking up too much space on the road or on our driveway.

Interestingly, when it finally came to finding a replacement for our Xsara Picasso, I bit the bullet and bought a considerably longer estate car (Octavia). I did this mainly on the basis that I wanted a larger boot, but, if I am honest, I think a narcissistic piece of me couldn’t put up with the idea of buying a type of vehicle so out of vogue as another MPV. Forgive me Father, for I am weak and vain.

Interestingly (to me at least), I recall that when MPVs were all the rage (hard to imagine now, but true), the argument then was that a decent estate car did the same job and yet enjoyed the benefits of a lower centre of gravity, a less bluff shape and so better fuel efficiency, etc. I read the same points about estates these days as to why they make a more rational alternative to SUVs.

citroen
2008 C3 Picasso. (c) Carmagazine

The rise of the SUVs has, of course, been the Darwinian downfall of the MPV and not a resurgence of the estate car. Whereas real men wouldn’t have been seen dead parking up at the office or taking the boys out for a night out in a Toyota Picnic, it’s quite acceptable to be taking clients out in the latest RAV-4.  I think this, simplistically, is the nub of the issue: SUVs provide the higher hip-point and, hence, more commanding view of the road which is generally well liked by women (and which most MPVs fulfilled), with an Action Man Jeep-a-like profile, wheel-arches and details which appeal to their more alpha partners in life.

Apologies everyone, that last paragraph probably upset the gender sensitivities of most of the known world these days with its gross generalisations. At least some of it is based on comments made recently by the (male) CEOs of a few, large car manufacturers, so please, don’t shoot the messenger.

Here’s Land Rover’s latest Discovery … or is it? (Source: Car Magazine)

The ultimate stimulus for this particular stream of consciousness was a glib description of a car which I have oft been known to defend or even to promote on these pages – the KIA Venga (are those stifled groans, yawns or titters I hear out there?). You see, Autocar (to give it its more formal title) was publishing that occasional edition-stuffer, ‘Our 50 Best Cars’ (Alpine 110, in case you were interested, or even following this), and could not resist adding as a footnote, a throwaway ‘Our 10 Worst Cars’.

I realise that you have already arrived at my intended destination, but, there, in the top 5 was the noble Venga. I don’t have the exact excerpt (it’s possibly still lying in shreds on the newsagent’s floor), but the Venga’s two main sins were deemed to be that it is now an aging model (‘decrepit’, I think) and, holy of holies, an MPV.

Oh, and apparently it looks like a guinea pig. So, nothing actually bad dynamically, or poor about the packaging, or to do with the engineering, emissions, or safety: let’s just leave it at, ‘nothing rational’, shall we?  The main crime, really, is being an MPV which (apparently) looks like a chubby rodent.

Thing is, I would place a bet that, on any rational basis, latest infotainment and driving aids aside, the Venga is at least the match of, if not better than, the newer, SUV-lite Stonic. Size-wise, the Venga sits closer to a Fiesta than a Focus, but manages a larger boot than the latter, and as much leg room and better headroom.  The rear bench slides to give a choice between more/ less boot-space.

The handling and ride are a decent compromise. The petrol engine is one of those old-fashioned four-pot NA items which we seem to have put up with until very recently …, OK, I’ll stow it now and trust that you get my drift.

However, the point here is not to drive myself into a froth about my pet car (again). No, the broader point is that The Autocar’s cheap jibe seemed to mark the death-toll for the MPV in my mind, and that makes me a little sad.

Part two follows.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

14 thoughts on “The New Untouchables (1)”

  1. I read recently on the Autocar website that Ford was updating the Galaxy and S-Max, which surprised me as I didn’t realise that that both were still in production. Who buys them these days, apart from Airport private hire operators?

    Ford was onto something when it introduced the S-Max alongside the Mk2 Galaxy. It tried to project a more dynamic image with its lower roofline, and the S-Max found favour with private buyers while the Galaxy sold primarily to companies:

    I do admire the practicality of MPV type vehicles but with one reservation: their monobox shape encloses a large volume of space between driver and windscreen, space that is practically unusable, and the double A-pillars, particularly on the driver’s side often create blindspots.

    1. Regarding blind-spots, I tend to agree, and we saw Citroën in particular try to address this by introducing a very slim advanced A pillar with a broader, more load-bearing secondary one in an area less critical to three quarter vision. The C4 and C3 Picassos both had this feature.

      I would add, though, that most modern cars suffer from very thick A pillars. I had expected our FIAT 500 to be considerably better in this regard than our old Picasso, but actually it’s just as bad.

  2. The (european) Ford Fusion suffered a similar fate back in its days, even though it made a lot of sense and offered plenty of value.

    1. I test-drove a Fusion back in 2005. We were looking for a practical, boxy second car and liked the look of it, more proto-SUV than MPV actually, with its clearly defined two-box shape. Unfortunately, we needed an auto and the Fusion’s CVT was truly awful, making a constant drone which was was amplified by the hollow interior with plenty of hard plastic surfaces. We went for a Skoda Fabia instead, which had a “proper” torque-converter auto. Very pleasant, if glacially slow, with 0 to 60mph taking over 17 seconds.

    2. I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment in favour of less aggressive designs, Jacomo. Of course, there have been numerous recent examples of unaggressive design, particularly with small cars, but these are often dismissed as “women’s cars” and shunned by male drivers. Prime examples would be the K11 and K12 Nissan Micra and the original “new” Beetle.

      However, there are other examples of sober, unaggressive designs that are not orientated towards female buyers. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I couldn’t imagine, for example, a Citroen C6, Peugeot 604 or Saab 900* being driven boorishly or recklessly. None of these could be characterised as “feminine” designs, inasmuch as men would be perfectly happy to be seen driving them.

      * Turbo excluded, of course!

  3. Gross generalisations indeed – I think many women are just as attracted by the implied aggression and assertiveness of an SUV over an MPV. Now, you might say that this is a defence mechanism against what is perceived to be a male-dominated and sometimes hostile world, but SUVs have large female fan bases.

    There is also ‘premiumness’ to consider of course (an ugly word for an ugly concept). For whatever reason, SUVs are considered more aspirational than a mere ‘people carrier’.

    So much of this is design semantics… the PSA group in particular has been adept at wrapping MPV formats in SUV clothes. A Peugeot 5008 or Citroen C5 is really an MPV with more bluff styling.

    However, it is true that the monobox shape does exacerbate visibility problems caused by today’s fat A pillars.

    1. As I wrote, my comments about what attracts women to SUVs come from the mouths of senior execs in manufacturers at Frankfurt. The point I am trying to make is that SUVs seem to be mutually acceptable to partners for different reasons – it’s a hypothesis, at least.

      Very much agree about the current 5008, 3008 and Aircross Citroëns, indeed it gets a mention in part 2 of the piece.

    2. Thank you, this is interesting.

      I am sure the industry exec you spoke to is relaying info in good faith, but I wonder if this is the kind of focus group insight that companies so rely on but sometimes hides a wider truth?

      Regardless, wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where customers expressed a clear preference for less aggressive, more friendly designs? Driving is increasingly resembling a skirmish for territory, where each combatant is vying for position.

  4. Top Gear are currently running a Vauxhall Combo Life (a van with windows) long-term.

    They rate it very highly – they find it versatile, roomy (can fit child seats 3 abreast) has useful features inside, a comfortable ride, etc.

    The only downsides seem to be short gearing and, apparently more importantly, its “dadsy image” – I quote directly.

    The Top Gear reviewer used the vehicle while holidaying in France and noted that MPVs seem to be quite popular, there. The Renault Scenic and Volkswagen Touran still do relatively well across Europe.

  5. “Rufty Tufty” beats “Mumsy” seems to be the message here, which is not that surprising really, as Mumsy probably alienates quite a lot of men in a way that Rufty doesn’t with women. Rufty also beats Estate with long travel suspension and good clearance for speed bumps, possibly shorter length for parking plus better vision/visibility (in part owing to a more upright windscreen?), plus easier ingress etc for the larger and older population. Further, Rufty can take a few knocks and it looks in keeping with his bit of a bruiser image; contrast that with the damage inflicted on the ovoid MPV form by supermarket car parks, let alone a real fender bender. Is it so very surprising that the world is now full of the blighters? They might not be my kettle of skipjack but, like a good pair of boots, they make a certain amount of sense.

    1. If they really had longer suspension travel and more ground clearance they might make sense on speed bumbs or pitted streets – but most of them don’t.

    2. “If they really had longer suspension travel and more ground clearance they might make sense on speed bumbs or pitted streets – but most of them don’t.”

      That’s the joke about most of these vehicles – they have the illusion of off road capability but not its substance.

  6. The denomination of this type of car is quite silly in my opinion as can use most cars for a variety of purposes. On the plus side the term is so common you know what it is. Same with the term multi-valve (officially used by the likes of Toyota and others in add campaigns in my country) and multi-cylinder engines. Two terms I’ve stumbled upon here recently.

    The success of the large MPV has always been a mystery to me. The average family size has decreased over time. If I look at the data that’s available in my country for the average car is occupied by 1,5 persons. And how often does one need the surplus luggage space? Most people would be better of by renting a van or hooking up a trailer on the few occasions one needs the space.

  7. “…the Venga’s two main sins were deemed to be that it is now an aging model (‘decrepit’, I think) and, holy of holies, an MPV.”

    That’s nothing. Have you seen the “worst cars” books published by any number of dipshit American authors? I know I’ve seen at least one include the Volvo 240 (not necessarily my cup of tea, but an all-time great car by any rational measure), for reasons I don’t recall, and one include the Renault 5, without actually saying a word about why they included it (probably for daring to be both inexpensive and European at the same time)!

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