road test: Ford Galaxy

Between them, Ford's Galaxy and Volkswagen's Sharan represent the latest interpretation of the MPV, or multi-purpose vehicle. They are built in Portugal at a factory jointly owned by the two companies, and each one manages to look convincingly Ford-like or VW-like thanks to clever use of company-specific embellishment.

MPVs, we are told, are really going to take off. The Renault Espace has had the niche to itself for a decade, with little serious threat from the several Japanese versions. But as well as the Ford/VW twins we are about to get triplets from Fiat, Peugeot and Citroen (part of another joint venture to spread development costs).

Most Galaxy buyers are likely to go for one of the 2.0-litre versions, which use Ford's own 115bhp, eight-valve engine from the Transit and the cheapest Scorpio, but there are also a 2.8-litre V6 (with Volkswagen's ultra-smooth, very compact VR6 motor) and, coming soon, a 1.9-litre, direct- injection turbodiesel (also from VW).

Like the Espace, but unlike many other MPVs, the Galaxy has four conventionally- hinged passenger doors to give it a normal, car-like feel. You can have five, six or seven seats, depending on the plushness level. They can be variously rotated, relocated or removed in the usual MPV manner or - front seats excepted - folded forward to create a table with built-in cup holders. There are two more of this essential accessory on either side of the front centre console. Picnics, here we come.

You sit high, which is one of an MPV's great attractions, but from the driver's viewpoint you might just as well be in a normal car. And a good one at that; no other MPV rides as smoothly while staying so level during cornering. The Galaxy is agile and easy to drive for something that is basically van-shaped, and its performance is smooth and civilised enough not to intrude on your awareness. You have to work the 2.0-litre quite hard to get some pace going, but the V6 version is very relaxed.

The Galaxy's other big attraction is that it is not at all expensive for what it offers. Prices start at pounds 15,995, which is cheaper than an Espace. The cheapest Sharan is yet more of a bargain at pounds 15,899: Volkswagen was "surprised" by Ford's low pricing, reconsidered its own strategy, and came back even keener in time for the Sharan's UK launch. But whether you opt for the Ford version or the VW variation, no MPV is currently a better buy.

John Simister

specifications

Ford Galaxy 2.0, from pounds 15,995 (Aspen) to pounds 19,450 (Ghia) Engine: 1998 cc, four cylinders, 115bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 110 mph, 0-60 in 12.0 seconds. Fuel consumption 24-29mpg

rivals

Nissan Serena 2.0 SLX, pounds 15,995 Utilitarian overtones, a narrow cabin and wallowy ride restrict the Serena's appeal.

Peugeot 806 2.0, pounds 16,000 approx Due here in September, the Peugeot-designed 806 appears also as a Citroen Synergie and Fiat Ulysse. Versatile, good to drive, but has dull styling.

Renault Espace RN Helios 2.0, pounds 16,490 The car that defined the breed has aged well, but newcomers outsmart it for space, comfort and build quality.

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