Mani Shirazi wants a new or nearly new safe and practical car which has to do everything - the school run, plus a new baby, and his mum has to be able to get in and out easily. Mani hates underpowered cars and also squeezing big cars into and through tight spaces in London. An automatic gearbox is essential and the car will also be used on long-distance runs to Cumbria and holidays in France. It will need to seat over five and be cost-effective to maintain and insure. A tall order?

Luckily for Mani there is a breed of car that seems to have been especially created for him. It is the compact people carrier. Essentially invented by Renault with the Scenic, despite the flexibility and extra space the main disadvantage was that it only sat five.

Other manufacturers and Renault have addressed this problem and Vauxhall in particular with their Flex-7 seating layout on the Zafira, where the rearmost seats folded into the floor, set the standard. In the last few months there has been an outbreak of above-average, hatchback-sized cars that can seat more than five. They come with powerful, latest-generation diesel engines that should provide the urgency that Mani needs and also a remarkable economy.

But automatic gearboxes are not always available with diesel engines (so we may have to look at petrol options) or it is a very, very expensive option.

Access and comfort for Mani's mum should not be a problem. So what is on offer?

A car for the head

If money is not too much of an issue then Mani should seriously consider the best of the compact people-carrying breed in the shape of the Volkswagen Touran, capable of carrying seven with rearmost seats that fold cleverly out of the floor. Passengers have a useful amount of head and legroom and high levels of comfort. Trouble is, the Touran is one of the most expensive models you can buy. The 1.9 Tdi 1000bhp with 7 seats is £17,110 and Mani will have to pay £1,000 extra for the automatic gearbox.

The only good news is that Mani could get up to £1,000 off through UK brokers, which at least pays for the gearbox.

If money is an issue, then the Vauxhall Zafira is widely available at some low prices but this is an ageing design. A 1.8 Comfort automatic, which is only group 7 insurance compared to group 9 for the Volkswagen, costs around £7,999 for a 2001 example. Going for a top specification 2.2 Elegance automatic will cost just over £9,000.

A car for the heart

For refinement and a very comfortable ride Mani should look no further than the new Renault Grand Scenic. Although it may roll slightly more around corners than others and be a tight fit for seven, the rearmost seats flip up and fold away neatly and are best reserved for children. What Mani and his family should appreciate most is the supremely comfortable ride. The Grand Scenic will soak up bumps and for those long trips it will be a real pleasure.

At the moment there is no automatic gearbox option with the diesel engines. Alternatively there is the 1.6 or 2.0-litre petrol engine, although Mani should prefer the extra power of the 2.0. With an automatic gearbox it will cost £17,313, but a saving of over £1,000 should be possible. Insurance is group 8 for the 2.0 litre.

A word about the Fiat Multipla. This distinctive looking MPV was not to all tastes, but it is just about to be given a face-lift. It is a truly compact vehicle which sits three in the front and three in the rear, is nice to drive in petrol or diesel form, and second-hand ones are now below £8,000.

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