Motoring: Everyone can sit tall in a Sharan

Roger Bell reckons that it's a close finish between VW's Passat estate and the Sharan
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TRADITIONAL ESTATE or trendy MPV? The question has been exercising buyers' minds since Renault invented the Espace, the first multi-purpose vehicle, or people carrier. Competing here, providing some answers, are VW's Passat estate and Sharan MPV (cloned with Ford's Galaxy and Seat's Alhambra). To level the pitch, both are 110-horsepower diesel automatics.

MPVs are packaged like stools at a bar: the taller you sit, the less leg room you need. Space is created not by stretching the body, but by raising the roof. So, although shorter than Passats, Sharans are roomier inside - they seat up to seven adults, two short of a typical van-based minibus - though the Carat version on test is a six-seater.

Its individual recliners can be juggled around or removed altogether - if you have the knack, strength and storage space - underlining the MPV's superior versatility - to see the Sharan solely as a people carrier is to diminish its role as a freighter.

The Passat is a conventional five-seater. Surprisingly, rear-facing kids foldaways - available on some other estates at the expense of virtually all luggage space - are not an option.

With all six seats in place, there's little room for luggage in the Sharan, so open-plan you can swap places without getting out. Configured like the Passat as a fivesome, the Sharan has the longer goods deck. Its tailgate opening is also deeper, allowing the MPV to swallow bulkier loads. Remove all but its two front seats and the Sharan's platform stretches to 88 inches - much longer than the Passat's.

From a practical standpoint, then, the Sharan wins. Dynamically, though, the tables are turned. Because they are lighter and lower, estates are quicker than equivalent MPVs. The Sharan's top speed is 12mph down on the like-powered Passat's, acceleration to 60mph up by several seconds. More to the point, it is thirstier.

As a general rule the lower a car's heavy bits, the better it hugs the road, so MPVs are handicapped by their height. Not that you'd notice. The Sharan does not feel top-heavy. MPVs generally cost a little more than equivalent estates. The test Sharan is about pounds 24,000, the Passat pounds 21,000, though the difference is less between cheaper models.

Verdict? For comfort and refinement there's not much in it. For space, seating and versatility, the Sharan (from pounds 17,640) out-carries the Passat (from pounds 16,300). But the traditional estate is nicer to drive - and cheaper to buy and run. Horses for courses.

Scenic looks fine

RENAULT'S Megane Scenic, which qualifies as an MPV if not a real-sized people carrier, is Britain's best-selling monospace. As prices range from pounds 13,000 to over pounds 18,000, top-end models compete with lowly Passats and Sharans.

On performance, the petrol 1.6 RT on test splits the two VWs, but it is slower and thirstier than the 1.6 hatchback that spawned it. It also does less to the gallon than the two German diesels, the Passat being capable of over 40mpg.

As in the Sharan, you sit tall, all the better to see out. At pounds 14,050, the 1.6RT comfortably undercuts the cheapest Passat (pounds 16,295) and Sharan (pounds 17,640).