R.I.P vans with seats; long live… just what is the new Espace exactly? It started off so simply: the design of the first generation in 1984 made us understand that there was more space than a normal car, that the engine occupied a smaller space and that this probably wasn’t a driver’s car. Visibility was excellent, and inside we found more seats than usual. The first Renault MPV was a pleasant surprise.
That was mostly proportional and architectural association, before feature and form implied status and emotions. The new Espace has grown curves out of no-where and the rocker is now knee-height. This, a feature that was originally conceived to be stepped upon! But it does not matter, because the result is extremely impressive. The car needed to change, because the world changed around it. Customers now assume the versatility, so the design has to not just stand like a first-gen wall-flower, but engage and convince in a saturated market. This is not easy, and it is why Renault has propagated the crossover trend.
This used to be something rare: a Land Rover Freelander here, a Toyota RAV4 there. Now we live in a world where the Opel Adam Rocks channels the spirit of the Suzuki Vitara X90. How can Renault stand by and idly watch its flagship capsize without similar use of inflatables? For inflated is what best describes the shoulder. And the arches. It looks positively puffy next to the original, but then we all do next to our former selves. The effect of the raised rocker is to minimize the distance between it and the roof-line, making the car appear sleeker. Renault has also avoided the tendency to add too much wedge to the shoulder line, although children might find it rather high. Indeed the near parallel roof and shoulder elongates the car, suiting the styling to high speed stability rather than nimble acceleration.
Who would have thought a mainstream brand that focused on families could be a niche? Yet Renault has done it better than most, and a big part of the success is understanding the brand and executing those sculptural surfaces. These are forms that demand to be touched, encouraging a physical connection with the car, acting as metaphor for the intimacy of family. In a market where precision of creases is shorthand for premium, Renault has concentrated on curves, lending affordable cars authenticity in place of pretension.
But I feel a trick has been missed. The new Espace does much to justify its place in the Renault range and on the shopping-lists of families, yet the final push to Volvo XC90 levels of usability has been shied away from. This is ironic as the Swedish SUV was conceived to offer the flexibility of the French van. Renault might do well to raise the roof, increase accommodation and resurrect the Grand Espace.
Despite a world where even station wagons can claim classic status (I am looking at you, W123 TE), MPVs remain the last segment to be cherished as much as coupes et al. If that ever happens, don’t be surprised if it is the French leading the cause.
Robert Forrest writes about cars and design at thesilvercowcreamer