The Grand Espace: It has the world's largest sunroof

How many chefs can you fit into the new Espace? Michael Booth investigates

Price £27,850-£33,150
Maximum speed 127mph, 0-60mph in 10 seconds
Combined fuel economy 37.2mpg
Further information 08000 723 372

Right now I am in France learning to cook. This isn't just one of those long weekends in Provence where you make a quiche, drink too much Côtes du Rhône, and flirt with divorcees from Surrey. I am studying at a grand culinary school in Paris, busy every day stuffing things into small creatures, making mushrooms look like flowers and doing unspeakable things to live lobsters. The chefs shout at us if we over-whisk our hollandaise, I have calluses on my fingers from chopping things into brunoise and sisolé and paisan all day, and my hands always seem to smell funny.

So, for a break, a bunch of my fellow students and I decided to take a trip to Champagne, and I promised to supply the wheels. Obviously we needed a people carrier, but which one?

This was easy. There are certain immutable truths in life. In the realm of food, for instance, I have come to the conclusion that the more splendid a nation's domestic kitchens, the worse its cuisine (Americans microwave their popcorn in grand, marble-lined showrooms; the French make ballotine de volaille à la mousse de foie gras in grubby, two-hob galleys). And, in my experience, glue never works, so I vote that we stop bothering with the stuff.

Meanwhile, if you want the best people carrier on the market, you should buy a Renault Espace. So I borrowed the new Grand Espace, the "stretched" version, which is now available with the world's most powerful 2-litre diesel - the Dci 175 from the Laguna. For 2006 they've given the Espace a makeover with new lights and grill, gadgets (such as a large-screen, Bluetooth 3D satellite navigation system), and the world's largest sunroof (2.2sq m).

But what our car lacked, I was dismayed to find as I picked it up from Renault's HQ in south-west Paris, was seven seats. "Our press fleet Espaces only come with five seats I'm afraid," shrugged the press man. To me this seemed about as logical as offering a sports car with no engine, or an off-roader with only two-wheel drive (which, now I come to think of it, has been known). Never mind. A quick detour home to pinch the sofa cushions sorted that, and two of our number had a great time lounging in the boot.

But how would an engine from a saloon car cope with hauling a gigantic bus loaded with seven proto-chefs, some of whom (OK, me) have overdone the crème Anglais recently? As it turned out, very well indeed. This is a fantastic diesel engine - quiet and smooth and (once it has struggled to get off the mark) possessed of ample mid-range thrust. Even packed to the sunroof with our United Nations Culinary Peace Force (with representatives from Brazil, the States, Japan, France, Costa Rica and the UK), we had no problem keeping up with the usual Death Race 2000 on the Périphérique, and were soon swinging through the gates of Moët et Chandon for a tour of their subterranean caves.

Here we had a fascinating insight into the production of the world's most sought-after beverage. As I understand it, they take white wine, give it a really good shake and then multiply the price by a factor of 200. You could argue that Renault employs a similar pricing strategy with the Espace, considering that our car is for sale at over £30,000 including all the fancy bits. But, as with their fizzy plonk, the French know full well that the rest of the world will always pay a premium for excellence.

It's a classic: Renault 900

The Renault Espace is now in its fourth incarnation, so it is easy to forget just how revolutionary the first one was when it was launched in 1984, with its amazing glasshouse visibility, seven seats and high ride.

But at Renault's Boulogne-Billancourt HQ, I came across a long-forgotten precursor of the Espace tucked away in a corner of its lobby. The 900 is a unique concept car designed as a possible replacement for the Fregate in 1959. It has its unusual V8 engine (two Dauphine engines stuck together) in the rear and its passengers apparently facing "backwards" - with the resulting comical back- to-front styling. The driver and front passenger sat above the front axle.

Actually, I should say "front passengers" as the 900 could seat three abreast. Unfortunately the 900's distinctive "cabine avancée" left front passengers feeling particularly vulnerable and, of course, allowed for no crumple zone in the event of an accident.

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