ROAD TEST Renault Espace
On the outside, it's soft and malleable, on the inside impregnably hard. No, not a hazelnut cream but Renault's new Espace, skinned with dent-resistant plastic bodywork over a galvanised steel shell. Put the boot in and the composite panels spring back into place, unmarked.

Kick-proof flanks are among several class-unique features claimed for the Espace by Renault, pioneers of the monospace MPV, or people carrier. The original 1984 Espace - the great mould-breaking car of its time - was always going to be a hard act to follow. That Renault has topped it with a successor of amazing versatility confirms that Gallic flair is still alive and well.

Other novelties you'll not find in any close rival include cavernous door and dashboard stowage, slimline digital instruments, individual left/right heater controls, two rear openings (tailgate or hinged window), pre-tensioners on six seat belts, and railed rear seats that can be positioned as you want them (or removed altogether). Cars don't come much funkier than this.

Other than in size and concept, the new Espace owes very little to the old; the engine, for instance, is no longer set longitudinally, but slung across the nose to save space. Unlike some rivals, Renault has not tried to make its family seven-seater feel like an ordinary car from the driver's seat. Far from it. You sit a long way back, separated from the distant screen by a vast expanse of dashtop plastic. To reach the air vents, you have to lean so far forward that your head brushes the wheel.

Even the heating/venting controls are beyond arm's length. Speed is indicated by a central digital display that is far to the left of your normal sightline.

The explanation for these and other ergonomic anomalies is simple: packaging. Renault has sacrificed convention, even convenience, in its unbridled quest for space to stow (and lose) the paraphernalia of family motoring.

Weird though it feels at first, the far-back driving position is different rather than bad. Lofty (and very comfortable) seating that affords a panoramic view through big, slim-pillared windows helps to overcome any initial feeling of awkwardness. So do rear headrests that can be retracted to clear the view aft (head-rest obstruction is a major problem when reversing, in some other MPVs). There's nothing van-like about the ride, steering or cornering powers of the new Espace. Dynamically, the new Laguna-suspended model holds its own against the best MPV opposition.

A decade on from its launch in 1984, the old Espace was still the best- selling MPV in Britain. Since then, sales have declined as rivals - notably the Ford Galaxy/VW Sharan twins have proliferated. Renault has not so much conceded defeat as bowed to pragmatism; the new Espace cannot compete on volume so it's being aimed at affluent buyers seeking "the most original and innovative MPV available".

Nearly half the 2,200 Espaces Renault expects to sell this year will be manual turbodiesels. With an average consumption of more than 35mpg, these 12-valve oil-burners are much more economical than the alternative 2.0 and 3.0 V6 petrol automatics. Better security has resulted in lower insurance costs, too, says Renault. If the new Espace inherits the old one's low depreciation, strong resale values will also remain a major selling point.

Prices range from pounds 18,995 for the 115bhp 2.0 RT to pounds 26,695 for the 3.0 V6 auto RXE. Even with the cheapest RT trim you get two airbags, electric mirrors/windows/central locking, and six-speaker, thief-proof hi-fi. Air- conditioning, anti-lock brakes and a CD player are included on the RT- XS.

Renault Espace RXE turbodiesel

Specifications

Engine: 2,188cc, four cylinders, 12 valves, 115bhp at 4,500rpm; five- speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: top speed 109mph, 0-60mph in 14.2 seconds.

Fuel consumption 35.3mpg.

Rivals

Ford Galaxy 1.9td Ghia, pounds 23,435 More conventional, less innovative and versatile than the Espace - but still the most car-like MPV you can get. Cloned with the VW Sharan and Seat Alhambra. Good to drive, classy styling. 2.8 petrol. Ghia pick of the range.

Peugeot 806 1.9td SV, pounds 23,640. Versatile, roomy cabin and seating, drives and handles well. Van-like in appearance, lacks design flair. Said by Renault to depreciate in value faster than the Espace. Cloned with Citroen Synergic.

Toyota Previa 2.4 GL, pounds 23,819. Petrol-only Previa with out-of-sight under- floor engine, strong on performance, accommodation and build quality. Ovoid shape too Thunderbirds for some tastes. Holds value pretty well; has no clones.

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