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Motoring: The Independent Road Test: Spaced out in the top people's carrier: Renault's Espace will be even more popular in its turbo-diesel version, says Brett Fraser

HAVING created the so-called 'people carrier' or 'multi-purpose vehicle' (MPV) class with its Espace model in 1984, Renault is being pursued by a fast-flowing stream of imitators. So far, the Espace has swum ahead of the torrent, although Toyota's Previa is close on its tail. But a collaboration between Volkswagen and Ford to produce a people carrier (now in the latter stages of development), a similar project from Mercedes-Benz, and rumours of MPVs from Lancia, Peugeot and several others means the Espace is in danger of being swamped.

Renault has a replacement for the plastic-bodied Espace under way, but meantime is launching in Britain a turbo-diesel derivative, as what one might call a buoyancy aid. European markets have had the turbo-diesel for some time, but the market for diesels on the Continent is greater than it is here, and the price difference between diesel and petrol much bigger.

However, the UK diesel market is ballooning at the moment; in January diesels amounted to 17.9 per cent of total new car registrations, against 11.6 per cent in the same month of 1992. So the arrival of the turbo-diesel Espace is timely and allows Renault to broaden its line of defence.

If all this talk of people carriers - after all, don't all cars carry people? - has you puzzled, let me offer the following explanation. They are stylish vans with windows. At least, that is what they look like, although this rather simplistic description is likely to render marketing and public relations teams apoplectic. To be fair, most people carriers drive more like a car than a commercial vehicle, feature much greater refinement, and are equipped to saloon-car standards.

They are hybrids: part-estate car, part-minibus. In the case of the Espace, it is considerably more versatile than either of those categories of vehicle. Its flexibility is attributable to its movable seating. It can be bought as either a five- or seven- seater, and each seat can be removed and/or repositioned. This allows a variety of configurations beyond the obvious ones.

For instance, with five seats in place, the two fronts can be turned to face rearwards, two of the back chairs moved to the very rear of the passenger compartment, with the remaining seat fixed centrally between the pairs, and its backrest folded down on to the cushion to form a table. (It is not a good idea to try this while the vehicle is moving.)

With provision in all versions for three rows of seats, and each individual chair capable of sliding, reclining, folding flat into a table, sprawling out into a bed, being removed altogether and able to face backwards, the number of permutations is worthy of a bingo card.

The drawback to all this clever- cleverness is that when all seven seats are in place, there is little space for luggage. And when the seats are only five, there is no way to hide your worldly wares from those keen to redistribute wealth. Still, there is an alarm on the options list.

Turbo-diesel propulsion suits the Espace's role in life. Its performance is unhurried (101mph top speed, 0- 62mph in 15 seconds), but then, with a family aboard, who wants to be hurrying? Anyway, it will cruise comfortably all day, five-up, at 90mph. Many of the Espaces I see every day are being used for the school run, a task particularly suited to a diesel engine's characteristics. Diesels pull strongly at low engine speeds and are much more economical than petrol units for around-town tootling. Even when used hard, the worst fuel consumption figure you can expect will still be in the region of 28.8mpg.

Only when the engine is idling, or accelerating at full throttle, are you fully aware that this Espace is diesel- powered. Good soundproofing and a general improvement in diesel engine refinement over the years means drivers are no longer abused by the excessive noise and vibrations of the diesels of old. On the motorway the turbo- diesel Espace is quieter than its 2-litre petrol-engined counterpart.

For the moment, the turbo-diesel is available only as the pounds 17,595 RTdT, which is Renault-speak for mid-range trim. This gives you power steering, electric windows all round, remote- controlled central locking and an excellent six-speaker hi-fi.

Among the more desirable options are anti-lock brakes, an alarm and air- conditioning - the standard ventilation system is hopeless for an interior so large.

Of all the current people carriers, the Espace is the pick of the pack. And if outright pace is low on your list of requirements, the new turbo- diesel is the pick of the Espaces.

(Photograph omitted)