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Ordinarily, we don’t fill our pages with cars you can’t buy in the UK. Not beyond an occasional sampling of America’s latest wheeled oil-rig fire. But the Espace? That’s a European household name, a transporter of generations. And four decades after it basically invented the MPV segment in Europe, the Espace has not only ditched the van-with-windows look, it’s shunned the UK too. No right-hand drive this time, and no UK sales. Mon dieu.
In fairness, such has been the rampant success of the crossover that the last Espace was guillotined in 2012. Renault’s bosses insist image-savvy UK buyers simply aren’t interested enough in seven-seat people carriers to justify tooling the new one for right-hookers. We’ll get a seven-seat SUV (think Kia Sportage fighter) spun off the same all-new platform in a few years instead.
Except, the new Espace doesn’t look like a regular people carrier, does it? It’s swallowed some crossover Viagra and gained wider wheelarches housing rims up to twenty inches across. Ground clearance is up 40mm to 160mm, and the glasshouse is critically narrower, tastefully outlined in a sinewy chrome pinstripe. Forget the old Ford S-Max’s token gills – if there’s any MPV you could potentially label attractive, it’s the quasi-SUV Frenchie.
The interior is impressive. And clever. There are still seven (very comfortable) seats, and although they can no longer be removed for an impromptu picnic, the second and third rows are electrically stowable. Boot-mounted keypads and the ace 8.7-inch dashboard touchscreen let you pick ’n’ choose the combination you’d like auto-folded. Or, flatten the lot, and there’s a ballroom of cargo space. The rear two are only suitable for children, but there’s more room than, say, a Landie Disco Sport back there. No sliding doors, though, so watch those parking dings. It takes a while to put your finger on exactly why this Espace ‘feels’ less spacious than its father, but eventually the finger of blame points toward the stylists. Chunky pillars and trimmed windows ruthlessly eclipse the light expected in an MPV. The optional full-length glass roof is a must-have for casting light on Renault’s best interior ever.
The build quality’s sadly suspect in places – trim panels in our test cars creaked when braced against – but the overall design is lovely. The floating centre console and free-standing tablet-like screen reek of modernity. Tesla-aping portrait touchscreen design is surely a future trend in car cockpits, and the Espace nails it: the Android-like menus are intuitively arranged and respond swiftly to our impatient jabs. If lethargic infotainment is enough to almost ruin life with our Range Rover Sport lifer, it’s a major factor in enjoying life aboard the Espace. Good thing too. Despite throwing l’évier cuisine at the Espace’s drivetrain and chassis, and scooping out 250kg of flab versus the lardy old model, the result is an unresolved, disjointed drive.
Four-wheel steering. Tri-mode self-levelling suspension. Five driving modes. Variable steering weight, dual-clutch transmission response and engine mapping. Options to dial back the aircon for improved performance. We’re not listing a Maybach or Nissan GT-R’s specs here. All of these are talents offered by the new Espace. What a pity that, rear-axle steering excepted, the on-paper ideas are superior to the execution.
If you’re going to offer Comfort, Neutral and Sport suspension settings, (one of the former two surely redundant, the latter patently absurd), they must provide clear distinction. Not here. Whatever you prod on the touchscreen, the Espace clatters over ridges and cats’ eyes with a shudder. Larger undulations are dealt with adeptly on cushy damping, but the car will pitch laterally on its springs like a yacht bobbing in a harbour. Enough to feel seasick? No, but the Espace isn’t as car-like and composed as Seat’s Alhambra or Ford’s S-Max.
Don’t misunderstand – I’m not upset the Espace isn’t ‘fun’ to drive. It needn’t be. But its confusing array of ‘modes’ just upsets what could’ve been a pleasantly comfy compromise. And the Espace is a substantial car – marginally wider than a Ford Galaxy – so could sorely do without its steering’s alarming dead spot around the straight-ahead.
The RS Clio-pinched 197bhp petrol engine and more appropriate 1.6 diesel make a decent fist of shifting the Espace, but both are hamstrung by recalcitrant twin-clutch gearboxes. And our hatred for the aerospace-inspired gearlever knows no bounds – pilots would refuse to even taxi if they had to manage controls this illogical. It’s one of few features we wish had been left behind in the Initiale Paris concept car, which has bequeathed its name to the top-spec Espace and a plush new line of kitted-out, posh-priced Renaults. Sounds ambitious. No word on if or when they’ll be on sale in the UK, though…