The people-carrier - or multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) - has become a stylish, streamlined, sharp-handling, powerful and graceful mainstream vehicle. By the end of this year, the forecourts will have seen new MPVs from Peugeot, Citroen, VW, Fiat, Chrysler and Mercedes, adding to the existing attractions from Renault, Toyota and Nissan.
Ford's Galaxy is the company's first foray into MPV territory. Unlike Mitsubishi (with its lower, neater Spacewagon), Ford hasn't tried to sell the Galaxy on aesthetics. It is high-built and slab-sided, like a golf- cart at the front and a delivery van with windows at the sides - but if it looks like a utility vehicle, its an impression that ends when you drive it. For a start, the 2.8-litre versions are very quiet. A quiet Ford? That is the first significant departure from traditional assumptions, a change brought about by increasing co-operation across the industry. Just as the Ford Maverick off-roader is really a Nissan Terrano, or vice versa, so the Ford Galaxy is really a Volkswagen Sharan. Our test car was equipped with VW's wonderful V6 engine, and it showed in acceleration, flexibility and pulling power, while the handling was sharp and sensitive.
All MPVs tend to roll a little on cornering, but this one controls it better than any other of comparable size. Volkswagen has designed the front-wheel drive set-up as well, and the engine transmits its message smoothly to the driving wheels via the fluent five-speed Ford Mondeo gearbox. With all seven seats erect, luggage space at the rear isn't generous, but the five rear seats can be removed, or folded flat. Remove them, and you get 71 cubic feet of loadspace.
All this fiddling with latches to remove the furniture isn't something you'd want to do often, but it allows you to appreciate the interior's elegant, uncluttered lines. All seats bar one have three-point seatbelts, and there's a driver's airbag. But big headrests and thick rear pillars restrict the view behind, and the steep slope of the nose can fool you as to just where the front bumper is.
In general, the Galaxy is roomy and flexible, pleasant to drive in its cheaper forms and delightful with the V6 engine. Since the range starts at under pounds 17,000, it's also highly competitive. If you're in the MPV market, check it out.
GOING PLACES: Flexible, responsive engines, VW-built. The V6 is the quietest and quickest at approximately 10 seconds at 30-70mph overtaking. Smooth transmission, good gearchange.
STAYING ALIVE: Car-like handling and ride, taut steering on twisters; airbag; three-point belts on all but middle-rear seat; anti-lock brakes.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Excellent cabin; comfortable seating; flexible use of interior space. Quiet with VW engine, noisy but effective with Ford version; many storage devices; electric sunroof and mirrors; good steering- and driving-height adjustment; automatic option available.
BANGS PER BUCK: High specification; reasonable fuel economy in four- cylinder versions, though not on the V6. Long service intervals, six-year anti-rust warranty, one year unlimited mileage mechanical warranty. Price: pounds 21,945.
STAR QUALITY: Class-leading handling and performance. Versatile.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: Awkward seat removal. Four-cylinder versions noisy. Poor rear visibility.
AND ON MY RIGHT: Renault Espace RXE V6 (pounds 28,682) - expensive, but almost as good to drive; Toyota Previa GX (pounds 25,848) - spacious, not as crisp to handle; Mitsubishi Spacewagon 2000 GLX (pounds 16,749) - compact to handle but spacious inside, not so refined, but excellent value.