Renault will not let you take delivery of a Grand Espace until February, even though you could order one now. That is because production has only just begun. But as John Simister writes, it is a shame, seasonally speaking, that this extended Espace was not launched a couple of months earlier.

Popular people-carriers to date, such as the Ford Galaxy, the Toyota Previa and the normal Espace, contain one crucial flaw. Fill them with sufficient people to occupy all seven seats, and you have hardly any space left for their luggage. A narrow, vertical volume is left behind the rearmost seats, but that is not much use if everyone is bearing gifts or bringing home booty. Worse, when you open the tailgate, you will be assaulted by a collapsing pile of brightly wrapped packages.

So, let me explain why the Renault Grand Espace can prevent the blessedness of giving and of receiving from turning into a curse. It is very simple. The Grand Espace is longer, by 10.6in, 6.7in of which is between the front and rear wheels and the rest behind the rear wheels. It does not sound much, but it almost doubles the available space behind the third row of seats.

Alternatively, if you specify the grander of the Grand's two trim levels (RXE rather than cheaper RT-X), you will find, as in the top-trim standard- size Espace, that the five rear seats are mounted in channels which let them slide to the best position for the task in hand. In the Grand, those channels extend further back, so you can slide the seats correspondingly further back and gain extra leg room. Even then, the remaining boot space is still greater than you would have in a standard-size Espace.

The extra channel length opens up other possibilities. There is now room to open both rows of rear seats out flat to make a bed or two, though that will only work if you remove the middle seat of the middle row and reposition the outer seats further inwards to align with the two rearmost seats. And you can also fit all five seats along one side, provided they are opened out and then stored vertically, so there is room for a long load on the outward journey and space for people on your return.

Continuing the permutations, the seats can be reversed so passengers can face each other for picnics and other such social interaction, but you cannot travel with the seats thus disposed because the belts will be in the wrong position. Would it not have been possible to build the belt into the seat itself? It would, said the man from Renault, but the required reinforcement would make the seat much heavier and more awkward to move. That is fair enough; most people-carriers' seats are hernia-inducing enough already.

That also means that the middle-row, centre seat has a lap belt only. But there is an ingenious panacea to this problem - the belts for the rearmost seats are long enough to reach that centre seat and anchor its occupant correctly. If you are carrying six instead of seven, and you want all of them three-point-belted, you still have a choice of where to put them: two by two by two, or two by three by one which frees up a lot of extra cargo space because you can remove the redundant third- row seat.

The Grand's extended tail is also squarer, which gives extra rear headroom. And the extension does not do any noticeable damage to the Espace's road manners, although it would have done if all the extra bulk had simply been tacked on behind the rear wheels. Altering the wheelbase is a much more expensive solution, of course, because it has involved extensive redesigning of both body panels and understructure, but it was necessary to keep the Espace stable with big loads.

You are not particularly aware of the Grand's greater grandeur when you're driving it, apart from the fact that the rear window is noticeably further away. Performance remains adequate from the 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine with which it will be available initially (a notably quiet unit for a diesel), and will no doubt be quite spirited with the 2.9-litre, 24-valve, petrol V6 that becomes available in the autumn.

Otherwise it's regular third-generation Espace: long-life credentials from its plastic body and galvanised sub-structure, a space-age cabin with digital displays and cavernous storage boxes, and a quality of fit and finish wholly unrecognisable to anyone who has lived through the propensity for spontaneous functional disintegration that has plagued its forward- looking but flawed ancestors.

At last. A full-size multi-purpose vehicle truly worthy of the description, for just pounds 1,100 more than the regular article. A happy new era to you all.

Renault Grand Espace 2.2dT

Price: pounds 24,240 (RT-X), pounds 26,340 (RXE). Engine: 2,188cc, four cylinders, 12 valves, turbodiesel, 115bhp at 4,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front- wheel drive. Performance: top speed 111mph, 0-60 in 14.2sec. Fuel consumption: 31-36mpg.


Chrysler Grand Voyager: pounds 24,995. Austrian-built, American-designed with big V6 engine and ample space. Lacks quality feel, and seating less versatile than Espace's.

Mercedes-Benz V230 Ambiente: pounds 25,240. Based on Spanish-built Vito van, and feels

it. Cavernous but crude, with very heavy seats. Not Merc-like at all.

Toyota Previa GL: pounds 24,086. Biggest of the mainstream MPVs, old design but still deservedly popular. Capable of seating eight; no passenger exit from right-hand side.