The New Untouchables (2)

S.V . Robinson concludes his lament for the MPV.

02_renault_espace motor research
The pioneering Espace (in face-lifted form) – love the period wheels (Source: Motor Research)

I have spent 4/5ths of my life growing up with the MPV. Over 40 years, we have seen some memorable cars. In the main, they have stood out for either their styling (the pioneering, TGV-aping Espace, the ovoid Xsara Picasso, the lovably grotesque Multipla, to name a few), or the innovation of their packaging – the latter really being the point and purpose of the genre.

We have had MPVs which have front seats that can turn around to face passengers in the rear to create a mobile meeting space. Rear seats which can fold, tumble, be removed entirely, or disappear into the rear floor. There have been five seaters which enable the middle rear perch to fold away, providing greater elbow stretching room for the remaining pair of passengers. We have had at least two six-seaters which have put three at the front and three at the back.

tech-boot-b01-varioflex-roomster-yeti-01 en-skoda-auto-ua
A masterclass in packaging ingenuity – Skoda’s Varioflex seating in its Roomster (Source: en.Skoda-auto-au)

Storage cubbies have been found in the floor, in the roof, in seat-backs, in the doors, on top of dashboards and under boot floors (obviously!). We have even had pointless foldaway, plastic shopping trollies come as part of the packaging (I’ll have whatever they were imbibing at the time, thanks).

And then of course, a multitude of door configurations: normal hinged, reverse-opening hinged, sliding, central-pillar-less sliding, and even gull-wing opening (is the Model X an MPV or a SUV? – I have always thought it swung both ways).

2015-Ford-B-Max-sliding-doors - TTAC
The genius of the Ford B-Max’s pillar-less, sliding rear door arrangement (Source: The Truth About Cars)

In short, lots of clever innovation in order to differentiate MPVs one from another. In the world of SUVs, innovation usually focuses around the size and shape of the grille. OK, that’s unfair, I suppose they do come in five or seven-seater forms. As an aside – having mentioned seven-seater SUV’s – am I alone in thinking the latest Discovery is more than a little redolent of the original Ssangyong Rodius?

And yet, MPVs are so out of fashion that Renault decided that its latest Espace and Scenic models needed to be MPVs with an SUV twist (sales still seem to be poor, in the UK at least). Furthermore, it seems obvious to me that Vauxhall/ Opel and Citroen caught the joint-development of their replacements for the Meriva and C3 Picasso mid-flight and redesigned them as small SUVs. The resultant Crossland X is a truly confused and awkward looking thing, clearly unsure of its own genre. The C3 Aircross is, to my eyes, a more confident outcome, but is less cohesive and satisfying than its predecessor.

vauxhall-crossland-x-hatchback-magpie garage
The genre-confused Crossland X (Source: Magpie Garage)

Finally, I noted today that Citroen is even trying to position its latest Berlingo as an SUV in XTR form, so desperately does it feel the need to avoid using the letters M-P-V. And, let’s not give even a second glance to any Ford hatch or estate given the Active treatment, shall we?

So what can we take out of all of this? It seems that clever is no longer smart in the eyes of the buying public. Instead, the masses increasingly want over-sized, overweight boys(?) toys. Is this progress, or just another indicator of mankind’s descent into chaos and ruin? Please discuss.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

14 thoughts on “The New Untouchables (2)”

  1. Owning a 7 seat S-Max for the last 10 years, I feel it to be a compelling proposition if you don’t mind the unfashionable MPV looks (although 18″ wheels help it a bit).
    With 3 kids around, the independently adjustable seats in the mid row allow everyone of them to get confortable, and this while retaining a huge boot. On top of that, driving dynamics and composure are a match for many lower riding vehicles, not to mention most suvvies.
    On a pinch, it can even do duty as a “tent on wheels” as tested by myself during the 2012 Le Mans 24H…

    1. The S Max really is a terrific piece of kit, the first gen model in particular. The space inside is huge and flexible, and it’s great to drive… the generous glazing really helps engender a sense of well being.

      It has one flaw though, in common with many other MPVs… the second row seats aren’t *quite* full size. Together with the high floor, they are great for kids or shorter adults but less comfortable over longer distances for taller folk.

      Some – but not all – SUVs do include proper grown up accommodation in the second row.

      I often wondered why Renault do not have a proper luxury spec Espace, with two rear captains chairs like some ‘full size’ trucks in the USA. These could be bigger and pushed back slightly, negating the effect of the high floor.

      Or, alternatively, underfloor storage cubbies could be removed to create a ‘foot garage’ as in the Porsche Taycan – although I have yet to read any reviews which mention the rear seat accommodation and whether or not this is an effective solution.

    2. The 4th gen. Espace was in fact not far from what you describe here, Jacomo. My brother had one in the long version, and normally it had exactly the issue you describe: a high floor resulting in bent knees and no thigh support for adults. But thanks to the numerous seat attachment points, it could be converted so the second row was pushed back and the seats positioned slightly inwards. They were not exactly lounge chairs, but comfortable enough and better than all the wooden seats in German cars. The roomy, airy interior with its clear shapes and the roof lights was also contributing to a sense of luxury and wellbeing, all without making use of any ‘premium’ tinsel.

    3. Jacomo, would the luxury spec Espace not have been the wonderful Avantime?

    4. A car with large luxury interior is the VW Multivan Business, complete with seats taken from Bentley

  2. I note that Ford describes the Focus Active* as a crossover in its UK television advertisements, so desperate is it to cash in on the current zeitgeist. The Ka+ Active is just embarrassing in its inauthenticity. If a small hike in ride height and some plastic cladding is all that’s needed to make a crossover, I’m off to Halfords to get some bits for my Boxster…

    *With due apologies for disregarding your sensible request to ignore Ford’s “Active” versions of its regular models.

    1. Will let you off – I just stopped because the article was in danger of just becoming a full scale rant. There’s one of those Ka+ Active things that lives around the corner from me … and people scoffed at the Rover Streetwise!?

  3. I didn’t know the B-Max was pillarless- that is exceptional. In fact, that could be a very useful van format, with removable front seat for very easy tool/materials side-loading/customer-serving/mobile-retail/ice-cream van capability.

  4. Hi S.V,

    I enjoyed reading the piece. It’s incredible nobody ever talks about the fact Ford called their MPV ‘Galaxy’ a decade after Renault introduced the ‘Espace’. The affront of it all. Mitsubishi did come up with the ‘SpaceStar’ too but nobody in Europe was interested in that car. Renault and Ford had other ‘coincidences’ with some of their other names: Ford Sierra —-> Renault 21 Nevada (Savanna in the U.K, always wondered why they couldn’t use ‘Nevada’ there) and Ford Transit —-> Renault Trafic

    1. ….And yes I’am aware Ford sold a car called Galaxie back in the olden days

    2. Apologies to Mitsubishi in mixing the name up of their MPV. It was the SpaceWagon and not the SpaceStar as I mentioned above (interestingly, for me anyway, it’s also called ‘Chariot’ !)
      It was one of those things when you wake up at night, realise your error, and then go back to sleep straight back. Maybe those moments even have a name. I was fast asleep last night, woke up suddenly thinking “that’s a Space Wagon not a Spacestar NRJ !” and went back to sleep straightaway.

    3. I do that all the time – my wife forgives me for disturbing her because at least it’s not as if it’s the names of women that are coming to me in the middle of the night!

    4. The reason I find the other name of the SpaceWagon interesting is because for the same car, but for different markets, Mitsubishi went for 2 radically different ideas of transportation: on the one hand we have a ‘chariot’, used as far back as 2000BC (thanks Wiki) to transport people and goods. On the other hand we have a ‘SpaceWagon’ which is so futuristic it doesn’t even exist yet.

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