A motorised womb with a view

Roadtest: Toyota Picnic

Imagine the scene: a group of Japanese car executives are sitting around, deciding how to market their latest people-carrier. First off, a bright spark suggests that it should not be known as an MPV, like the Renault Espace, Ford Galaxy and VW Sharan. The new Toyota is an FFV. Go on, work it out yourselves. Give up? Family Fun Vehicle, of course.

But even a Toyota FFV needs a jazzier title - so the executives went back and sucked their pencils a bit more, and came up with the Picnic. According to the press blurb that accompanies the new car, now on sale in the UK, the name was "specially chosen for the European market as it is distinctive, memorable and easy to pronounce in all European languages, and has positive associations with leisure and fun".

Which is true enough. However, there is something about the word when used in relation to a car that invites ridicule. Which is a terrible pity, because when the managers back in Japan had their think-in they were trying to put a name to a damn fine car, sorry, FFV.

An extended trial, to Cumbria and back for Christmas, showed the five Blackhursts - well used to being squashed together in their robust and pragmatic VW Passat estate - what they are missing. Not once in the 660- mile round trip did any of the three children complain of being elbowed or of knees clashing. Not once did we have to raise our voices. If they wanted a drink, we passed it back and they put it in the special holders thoughtfully provided. No spillages, no mess, no angry words, no aggro - a dream.

You have to hand it to the Japanese: they may be hopeless at choosing serious names but they know how to get inside the psyche of the car-driving family, how to iron out those niggles that can make any journey, long or short, with kids in the back absolute hell.

The Picnic was no bigger, lengthwise, than our Passat. The mystery and wonder, therefore, is how they managed to make the car seem so airy and spacious. A higher roof helps, giving the Picnic a shape that is somewhere between that of an MPV and a standard estate. The usual ploy with MPVs, of cutting back on the boot space to fill up with seats, also applies to the Picnic. In truth, apart from the once-a-year holiday, this is not a problem. To squeeze in the presents for our trip to Cumbria we removed one of the rear seats. It was light, manageable and easy to put back, just as promised.

One clever trick on the part of those Toyota boffins is to have resisted the normal MPV configuration of seven seats. The Picnic has six, in three rows of two. The result is that there is an aisle all the way from the dash to the back. That, plus the fact that the gear lever on automatic models is on the steering column rather than the floor, creates an all- round feeling of space.

Children have more room than they need. All the seats had three-point seat-belts, so nobody had to make do with the less safe lap-top version.

The two-litre engine was fine: smooth and quiet. Those executives who sat around devising a name left nothing to chance when it came to the specifications: twin air bags, a radio that clipped out easily and hid a tape-deck, an alarm, two sun-roofs, seats with an infinite variety of positions, heated mirrors, central locking, air-conditioning - you name it, we had it.

There were some niggles - such as the fact that the rear seats have head- rests, so visibility is not brilliant. These, though, are trivialities.

Other touches, such as the power sockets in the rear to allow passengers to play their personal stereos, show real genius. The grown-ups loved it, and the children loved it - to the extent that when the time came to hand it back, they burst into tears.

Driving the Passat again took some getting used to. The estate felt sluggish and old-fashioned, and, on our first journey, those familiar moans started up again. Harry could not get to sleep because Daisy's elbow was in the way, Barney kept on hitting Daisy - the usual thing.

Come back the Picnic, all is forgiven. Even the silly name.

Picnic GL pounds 18,110; 2.0 litre, 126 bhp petrol engine; top speed 109 mph; 0-62 in 11.7 seconds; 29.1 mpg

WHAT THE FAMILY THOUGHT

Lynette Blackhurst

(mother and principal car user):

The children really wanted to ride in this car, so the mad dashes between school, home, friends and clubs were almost pleasurable. The back seats were heavily contested, but all occupants enjoyed uninterrupted space and views. Getting people in, belted, and out, was brilliant - no stooping, climbing or shoving. It was an easy drive once I'd got used to the gear lever positioning. Like the Tardis, it feels bigger than it is. Parking and passing in our crowded roads weren't a problem, though the front and back margins are harder to see than in an estate, and I used the side mirrors more.

Harry Blackhurst, aged nine:

It has got all sorts of gadgets that other cars don't have, like drink- holders which fold out, air bags and a hidden tape-player behind the radio. All the controls were on the steering wheel. It is a really big car with lots of space. The two front seats at the back can fold down to make tables. There is a really good pocket on the back of them. It's high up, and a bit comfier than our Passat.

Daisy Blackhurst, aged eight:

It was good because it had six seats and they were very comfy. There was plenty of room and my brothers did not get in my way. I liked the way it had space down the middle. In the back, the arm-rests lifted up and you could put things in there. It had two sun-roofs and automatic windows, but Daddy kept locking them.

Barney Blackhurst, aged four:

I did not like the lever to push the chair back, which was hard to work. I liked the arm-rests and having lots of room, and the drink-holders. Daisy didn't annoy me.

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