A great little mover

The Renault Megane Scenic fits the bill for a young family, writes John Simister
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Galaxy Man is the symbol of New Labour's new converts: affluent folk with the high-minded, high-value thoughts to match the high seating position of this most popular of multi-purpose vehicles. Those who drive MPVs (subtext: it's slightly naff to like cars, so I drive something practical and useful that isn't obviously a car) perfectly represented the key to Labour's success.

But there's something not quite right about all this. A Ford Galaxy, a Volkswagen Sharan, a Renault Espace, a Toyota Previa - they're all rather big, bunging up the pavements as they disgorge their contents on the school run, guzzling rather more gas than is truly green in this caring, sharing future of ours. Besides, when did you last see an MPV with all seven seats sat upon?

Out of this vacuum of MPV doubt emerges the Renault Megane Scenic. It's a sort of three-quarter-scale Espace that does everything a full-size MPV can do, apart from carry seven people. To compensate for this possible shortcoming, you get a car that is more manoeuvrable and easier to park, that uses less fuel, and that even gives you slightly more luggage space. It is also cheaper than the average magic bus.

People don't buy MPVs purely for space and seating capacity, though. They buy them for the high seating position, which children particularly enjoy, and for their versatility. The Scenic fills these needs perfectly, and takes the versatility yet further. It's based on the under-structure of a regular Renault Megane, but has a higher, secondary floor. The space between the two floor layers, space normally wasted in MPVs. is filled with storage compartments in the Scenic. Your offspring could lose a teddy bear for years if they tried hard enough.

Then there are the rear seats. These fold flat, tumble forward out of the way or can be removed altogether, as in most MPVs, but you can also remove just the middle seat and move the outer ones closer together, so they can recline fully past the rear-wheel housings. With all three seats in place, you can move the middle one further forward so that a child sat thereon is closer to its parents in the front, or so that three adults in the rear row don't rub shoulders. This middle seat can fold into a table, too; and if you fold down all three rear seats you can reposition the rigid (very strong) rear shelf lower down to align with the folded seats. You'll then have a flat load area, with some storage space left beneath. Alternatively, you can store the shelf on the floor, or take it out completely when your Scenic is being a van.

Top-model Scenics can be had with every seat in a different colour, to brighten an otherwise grey interior and, no doubt, encourage regular occupants to claim "their" seats. Whoever opts for the centre rear seat is not short- changed on safety, either; there's a proper three-point belt, which retracts into the roof when not needed. Its metal end is prevented from swaying around by a neat, roof-mounted magnet.

With its solid rear shelf and small external size (more or less the same as a normal Megane, apart from the height), the Scenic is more adaptable than most MPVs to the multifarious needs of everyday life. It's also surprisingly entertaining to drive, because the relatively small size makes it more agile than the average MPV. It leans more in corners than an ordinary Megane hatchback, of course, but it retains most of that car's ability to make bends flow together, without causing the occupants to be flung around. You sit high, but the Scenic does not feel unwieldy or top-heavy, just relaxing and very comfortable.

There are two petrol engine sizes on offer: 1.6 litres, which copes adequately but can struggle when every cubic inch of the ample carrying capacity is in use, and 2.0 litres, a better bet because it makes what Renault UK terms its "Multi Activity Car" usefully more active. You can also have a 1.9-litre turbodiesel, but it's a fairly gruff machine. Trim levels begin at RN - an RN 1.6 costs pounds 12,995 - and progress through RT to the sybaritic RXE which, with the 2.0-litre motor, is yours for pounds 16,595.

You should try one. Move over, Galaxy Man. New Labour, your chariot awaits.

The Scenic's success in mainland Europe explains why its British launch has been delayed; the car should have been here in February. Now that it's available, maybe the same scenario will unfold here, and Renault will clean up while other car-makers hurriedly hone the rivals. Here's what they have in store:

Citroen: The Xanae concept car, which did the motor-show rounds a couple of years ago, had huge, chevron-like glass panels in the roof (the idea was to echo the company's badge) and a side-window treatment that made the Xanae look like a giant eye. A production version, based on the ZX replacement due this autumn, would look less bizarre but would still obviously be a Citroen. A Peugeot variation is likely, too.

Fiat: The Multipla, a six-seater with a cage-like tubular chassis beneath simple body panels, goes on sale in November next year. It's no longer than a Scenic, but wider, with very upright sides and slim doors to make room for two rows of three seats. It has a strange, double-bubble body design, with the windscreen occupying a separate bubble from the bonnet beneath, and a fascia with a huge central speedometer and a beehive-like air vent.

Ford: The family of cars that will replace the Escort for 1999 will include a Scenic-like version, to be built at the Halewood plant on Merseyside. It's a vital car for Halewood, threatened with closure recently. The "Escort MPV" will have a curvy profile but sharp-edged detailing, in line with Ford's "edge design" look already seen on the Ka.

Mercedes-Benz: The A-class will be launched this summer, a radical, "one-box" design with a double-layer floor designed to deflect the engine under the passenger compartment in a crash. Prices should start at about pounds 15,000, which will bring Mercedes into a new market. Engines will be 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre petrol units, and a 1.7-litre turbo-diesel, and the styling is truly striking, with a very short nose, a waistline rising in a curve to the roof, and a wraparound rear window.

Vauxhall: A new Astra will be launched at the Frankfurt Show in September, featuring many lightweight components in a bid to reverse the recent trend of new cars to be heavier than those they replace (the result of more complexity and safety equipment). The Astra range will include an MPV slightly larger than the Scenic, with sliding rear-side doors and the snub nose and extra front quarter-windows of larger MPVs.

Volkswagen: This autumn is a busy time in the hatchback class, for as well as replacements for the ZX and the Astra we'll see arguably the most important of all, a new Volkswagen Golf. A year later comes the five-seater Golf MPV, which will be the most egg-shaped of all the Scenic-inspired cars, while still keeping a Golf "face". As well as the usual four-cylinder engines, the Golf will steal a march on rivals by including the company's new 2.3-litre VR5 engine in its line-up.

Japan is behind Europe in the mini-MPV game at the moment, and hasn't truly latched on to the concept of individually foldable and removable seats, but currently offers the Daihatsu Grand Move and the larger Toyota Picnic and Mitsubishi Space Runner. Some would say, though, that Honda invented the MPV breed with the Civic Shuttle of 1984. Pity the designers didn't think harder about the seating plan.


Price (on the road): pounds 16,595.

Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 115bhp at 5,400rpm; five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: top speed 115mph, 0-60 in 10.9sec.

Fuel consumption: 25-30mpg