French firms bring élan back into MPVs

Some within the motor industry predicted a while back that the emergence of the SUV as the family car of choice for a majority of, erm, families would spell the death-knell for the venerable MPV, which had traditionally been the choice for couples with two or more children.

The Renault Grand Scenic

The MPV, of course, has not died a death, fulfilling as it does a huge variety of family needs, and while many may roll their eyes and tut-tut vigorously at the mere thought of such an outdated thing in an age where the SUV has become king in both five and seven-seat modes, the people-carrier still has the appeal and the practicality to make it a saleable and profitable prospect.

It might not be hip, but it sure gets the job done and the French, of course, have had a long standing affaire d’amour with the MPV. That is probably because they helped make the idea a winner in the first place, with back-in-the-day radical motors like the Renault Espace, even though it was the Americans and Germans that pioneered the concept as far back as the 1930s.

While many manufacturers still make MPVs, their popularity has certainly wilted in the face of the SUV onslaught and sales levels are now far from where they once were and consequently the amount of resources being poured into their development has all but dried up.

The French however, continue to persist with the format and two new contenders come under the Examiner Motoring microscope this week.

It is a little unusual for us to do comparison tests — for the good reason that they are largely a waste of time and effort, what with one man’s meat being another man’s murder — and I am not going to really do so here, but having driven the new Citroen C4 Grand Picasso and the new Renault Grand Scenic back-to-back, it seemed like a good opportunity to expound on how new life is actually being breathed into the segment by cars such as these.

In times not so distantly past, the MPV probably got a bad rap as a boring and dull, if trustworthy and practical, machines which did nothing for your street cred and certainly did not flag you as a quintessential hyper-modern forward-thinking paragon.

Despite such brickbats, the MPV still very much has a place in the lives of families and, in the case of both the Renault and the Citroen, it has to be said that both cars are smashing looking eye-catchers which represent up-to-the-minute ‘wow-ness’ both in terms of their design, practicality, ability to appease smaller passengers with a range of technologies as well as offering decent performance and huge comfort levels.

One potential downside in the current anti-diesel climate is that if the French like MPVs, they also like diesel engines, and both of these cars are thus equipped with oil-burners — a trend which is not exactly being replicated across the motoring universe right now as we see a big shift back to petrol.

That said, diesel is not quite six feet under yet and the French are doing their best to keep it alive.

Citroen Picasso

BOTH engines on offer here are fairly small capacity — the Citroen being a 1.6 TD and the Renault a 1.5 — and both have reasonably modest power outputs with 120 and 110 bhp on offer respectively.

Such figures might be largely irrelevant to family buyers, but what is relevant is both qualify for an annual tax bill of €190 and will return similar economy figures in the region of 4l/100km which is just over the 70 mpg mark and will have a greater impression, I suspect, on potential buyers than any 0-100km/h time.

These units demonstrate good pulling power and decent pace without being world-beaters and you’d have to say that is all their owners will want from them.

On the road, the Citroen is probably the smoother of the two, although inclined to be a little bit jittery on poorer surfaces.

It was a very impressive town companion and terribly polished on smooth roads, while the Renault was more prone to understeer. The latter also has rather large 20” alloys (very attractive things in their own right) which do not particularly appear to lend themselves to improving handling traits.

If Citroen was a definite winner in the handling and ride department, the two cars are evenly matched in terms of interior comfort, practicality and connectivity matters. Renault’s R-Link infotainment system, which incorporates SatNav, is great to live with and use.

Citroen’s version is a little clunkier to use, but equally proficient.

Passenger comfort in both is excellent with terrific chairs all-round. However, the Citroen is probably more practical as there are three individual seats in the second row which can be moved around to accommodate almost any combination of passengers and cargo, while the 60:40 split system on the Renault is not quite as functional.

The rear pair of seats in both cars are for smallies only as only multiple amputations will allow an adult fit back there.

Both of these cars are terribly swish and stylish to look at and have probably re-written the rules for MPVs as a genre — especially when compared to such as the VW Touran, which must be one of the most boring looking cars ever made. These two are far from boring and will decorate any driveway with aplomb.

There is not much to separate the C4 Grand Picasso and the Grand Scenic on many levels and there is not much to separate them on price either (although the C4 just sneaks it by a couple of hundred quid) and so the choice for buyers will come down to personal preference. Both are very decent and modern contenders in the MPV segment and both will fulfil the needs of any family.

If I was forced to make a choice, however, I would fall on the side of the Citroen for its ever so slightly bolder styling and a couple of design tweaks which set it apart — how about that moveable roofline and the crazily panoramic windscreen — and the smoothness of the ride, which is hugely impressive.

In any event, these two top drawer machines, have breathed life into what was in danger of becoming a moribund market segment.

Colley’s verdict

The Cost: Citroen — €32,820 as tested; Renault — €33,300 as tested.

The Engines: Two very economic diesels.

The Specifications: Not much to separate these two on kit levels — both have spare tyres too.

The Overall Verdict: Excellent MPVs, with the Citroen just getting its nose in front at the wire.

Rating: Renault 3.5/5 Citroen 4/5

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