Good things come in compact packages
Parents looking for the perfect family car have more choice than ever as the range of multi-purpose vehicles expands to meet a buoyant market
Once, there was little choice if you wanted to move your family around in a degree of space and comfort. You either bought an estate car – maybe with an extra row of rearward-facing seats if you had more than three kids – or went a little left-field and chose something like a VW camper van.
Today there's a bewildering array of options. Although there are still estates – including the Mercedes E-Class, which can be ordered with extra seating – the diversity now facing Family Man or Woman is immense. From mini multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), such as the Vauxhall Meriva, to compacts such as the Ford C-Max, to full-size people-carriers in the vein of the Renault Espace, all the way up to the big 4x4 sports utility vehicles (SUVs), such as Audi's seven-seater Q7.
Sales are testament to the popularity of this expanding market. Experian reports steady growth over recent years, culminating in 38,041 people carriers sold last year in the UK, up 7.2 per cent on the year before and 2010 sales more than four per cent up over those of the previous year. The Vauxhall Zafira led sales, followed by the Renault Scenic and Ford Galaxy.
For city dwellers with growing families, however, a compact MPV generally offers the most flexibility. With summer (allegedly) around the corner and long family days out now an imminent prospect, you want something big enough to carry your family and their clobber in comfort, that can also be parked in a tight corner when you get home again.
Here's our selection of some of the best ranging from small, to compact, to give an idea of what's on offer.
It's sometimes hard to say what, precisely, constitutes an MPV, but the term is increasingly used for cars with just that extra bit of flexibility – like the Nissan Note (left). Considering its compact dimensions, it has a spacious, practical and carefully designed interior. Its relatively narrow body is offset by plenty of height and clever packaging, including a rear bench that slides on runners, letting you strike the right balance between passenger comfort and luggage requirements. There are also plenty of well-designed places to stash maps, bottles and various other bits of family paraphernalia. Light steering and fairly firm suspension make it more fun to drive than you'd expect – it even cruises quietly on the motorway, so no shouting in the back, please. And at just over 4m long, it's a cinch to park, You'll need to upgrade to the Acenta models for touches like air-conditioning and powered rear windows. From £11,300.
Vauxhall Zafira Tourer
The Zafira was the UK's best-selling people-carrier last year and now, with the addition of the more upmarket, swisher-looking Tourer version (above), Vauxhall are rightly expecting a fresh rush of buyers. Although the plain old Zafira remains on sale, the Tourer is aimed at those with a slightly larger budget who want a slightly larger vehicle. The first-ever Zafira was a pioneer, offering clever foldaway seating and the spacious new Tourer has improved on that. The middle row of seats comprises three individual chairs, each of which slides independently, allowing passengers varying amounts of legroom. Getting into the third row is easy too. The cabin is smart, with nicely supportive seats up front. Five engines are on offer with two petrols and three diesels, so choice is no problem. From £21,010.
Ford Grand C-Max
One of my favourites, thanks to its sharp looks and the crisp way it drives and handles; it's certainly no hardship giving up your hatchback for this one. Pop up the rear fold-flat twin seats and you have a seven-seater (even if the centre middle row seat, which folds away for even better access to the rear, is a little narrow). Fold them down again, slide the middle bench seat forward and you have a massive boot. There's also plenty of leg and head room, while other goodies include sliding rear doors (great for access), a smart, nicely-finished cabin, a firm but pliant ride and a range of engines to choose from, including 1.6 petrol and diesels, as well as the choice of a six-speed automatic box. A fine car for town or touring. From £19,800.
Not just an MPV, but a "Supermini MPV" and owners repeatedly attest to the fact that they love the reliable quality of this purposeful-looking car, along with the surprisingly spacious and adaptable cabin (left). So what else makes it special? The steering is light and extremely good around town, likewise the ride. Every model manages more than 50mpg – important with soaring fuel prices – and you can even plump for the "clean" Hybrid version, although at £16,300 it's substantially more expensive than its petrol and diesel-sipping siblings. So do your figures carefully. In terms of practicality, the boot – with its multi-functional parcel shelf that can be positioned in at least four different ways – is marvellously versatile and it's possible to move the double-folding rear seats with only one hand. As we say, all very practical and easy to live with, which is what MPVs, even small ones, are all about. From £12,600.
There's only one problem with Peugeot's current range, remembering which number means what. The 3008 is the smaller of the two, with seating for five. The 5008 is slightly longer and has seven seats, with a pop-up row in the rear. The versatile 5008 is among the most practical MPVs around and is very refined, making it a pleasure to drive, not least thanks to the economical HDi diesel engines. The ride quality and handling are good, so it's great for long distance spring and summer breaks. The cabin looks particularly classy and the three full-size middle-row seats all slide and recline. You can also fold all five seats away to provide a load space of van-like proportions. Range-topping models get the panoramic glass roof for an extra touch of luxury. From £18,145.
Billed as the "family SUV that drives like a sports car" and with What Car? saying it "should be on your shortlist", this is Mazda's brand new entry into the field (below). With class-leading rear legroom and a big boot, it's aimed squarely at the family market and is particularly light on its toes – and therefore fuel-efficient – thanks to Mazda's "Skyactiv" engineering. It has a nicely designed cabin with plenty of soft-touch material. Mazda hopes that the CX-5's sharp lines will attract buyers wanting something a little different, as will its fun-to-drive character and four-wheel-drive capability. There's a choice of 2.2-litre diesel engines producing 148 or 172bhp, alongside a 163bhp 2.0-litre petrol (which is not available with 4WD). If you're moving on to a family vehicle from something more sporty, then this could be the one that makes the switch just a bit easier. From £21,395
It's something of a giant in this company but – especially for London audiences – it's hard to ignore Volvo's beefy XC90. They're a common sight in the capital, so you'd be forgiven for thinking they're breeding. Is it a people carrier, is it an MPV or a 4x4? No one's sure, but it goes about its business in a rather dignified manner, despite being 10 years old. It carries seven in comfort, although the rearmost seats are best reserved for kids. I recently drove one from London to Innsbruck in around a day and still emerged smiling. The ride is good, it's quiet and comfortable. Best of all – once you've reached the perfect spot for a riverside picnic – you can raise the boot lid, lower the cleverly designed tailgate, and take a seat to admire the views from a place of shelter – even when it's raining. From £35,175.
Last year's pick of the MPVs
What did other UK motorists choose last year? Here's Experian's list of the 10 top-selling people-carriers, large, small and in-between. It's interesting to note that four makers – Renault, VW and Citroen and Ford – managed to scoop not one but two of the top 10 places.
1 Vauxhall Zafira
2 Renault Scenic
3 Ford Galaxy
4 Renault Grand Scenic
5 Volkswagen Touran
6 Ford S-Max
7 Citroë* C4 Grand Picasso
8 Volkswagen Sharan
9 Toyota Corolla Verso
10 Citroë* C4 Picasso
Life & Style blogs
Plus London's buy-to-let hotspots and a new property portal
Guest post by Richard Sexton, business development director of e.surv chartered surveyors
Plus lateral thinking and living on London's waterways
- 1 What, let gays get married? We must be bonkers
- 2 Rocky Horror star Tim Curry 'suffers major stroke'
- 3 Exclusive: How MI5 blackmails British Muslims
- 4 EDL marches on Newcastle as attacks on Muslims increase tenfold in the wake of Woolwich machete attack which killed Drummer Lee Rigby
- 5 Farewell, Shameless. Your heirs have work to do
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.