The army of back-seat drivers

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the vast and daft lexicon of motoring expressions, none is stupider than "people carrier". After all, apart from a single-seater Formula One racing car (a "person carrier"), all cars are people carriers.

What sets the "people carrier", sometimes known as the "Multi-Purpose Vehicle" or "MPV" (another daft one: which car is a single purpose vehicle?) apart from conventional cars is that, in the main, they can carry more people. A Renault Espace or a Ford Galaxy can carry seven, as long as they have no luggage. A Peugeot 806 or Fiat Ulysse can carry eight.

More of a distinction, perhaps, is that people carriers are universally "one box". Thus the French, who call them monospaces, probably do the best job of branding them. The French, after all, invented them - in 1984, with the Renault Espace. MPVs are now growing in popularity through Europe, North America and Japan.

They are a good and sensible type of vehicle. Who can argue with the concept of devoting most of the fore-aft length of a car to people, rather than to an engine or a usually empty boot? None is perfect, of course, or even close. They boast versatility in their seating arrangements. But will someone please invent a people carrier that has lift-out seats that are light and easy to extract? Thus far, no one has.

As it happens, I've driven just about all the major MPVs in the past month or so. The one I liked best was the new Renault Espace, follow-up to the vehicle that begat the breed. It is quite the most cleverly conceived and most versatile of all MPVs. All the seats are fore-aft adjustable - they swivel and fold and come out - and the new Espace is big enough, seven-up, to be comfortable and roomy.

Unlike most MPV makers, who try to make their products as car-like as possible so as not to scare off apostates moving away from conventional cars, Renault accepts that this is a new breed of vehicle that needs new solutions. While most MPVs have car-like dashboards - big, ugly planks of plastic - the Espace has a low, handsome fascia (swathed in fabric) containing a vast, lockable carrying compartment and a few small digital instruments. Switches are on satellites either side of the steering wheel, exactly where they should be. The low fascia greatly enhances visibility, and makes for a more pleasant driving environment.

I also enjoyed the Ford Galaxy. Along with its VW Sharan twin, it is easily the nicest to drive. It feels almost like a sports car at times, and is well made. But, as with many people carriers, I find the rear seats uncomfortable. In order to optimise leg-room for seven people on a vehicle the same length as a Mondeo, the bottom seat cushions are too short. The upshot is discomfort for adults on long journeys.

The Chrysler Grand Voyager that I used for a week certainly looked good, and loped along in that long-legged, Big Country American way. But it sucked through fuel, like a truck, and my rear passengers complained of car sickness owing to the roly-poly handling. That the rear windows cannot be properly opened did not help their queasiness.

I liked the Toyota Picnic - marketed by Toyota as half-way between car and people carrier. It certainly drives like a decent car, and you don't sit as high as in a normal MPV. Some people will like this; others, who enjoy the lofty driving position, will not. Still, the Picnic was nothing special.

The most surprisingly good MPV of the bunch was probably the Fiat Ulysse turbodiesel. It looks about as interesting as a cardboard box: a modern, bland, van-like thing. But there is such a pleasing unpretentiousness about it. It handles well, rides well, seems well made, is economical, and goes about its task in a no-nonsense way. It was refreshing to drive a car that has no trumped-up advertising-led image and doesn't pretend to be aggressive/sexy/individual/superior/fiery/sporty/caring or in any way anthropomorphic. It is just a vehicle, no more or less, it carries a lot of people, and it does a good job.

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