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Archive 41
Car Review



Stuart Bladon examines six cars which meet transport needs for the large family


R
ather unimaginatively, Mazda calls its MPV the Mazda MPV, although some buyers perhaps don't know what the letters stand for. It means, of course, Multi-Purpose Vehicle, implying the ability to carry lots of people, take the seats out and use it almost as a van, perhaps even sleep in it, and generally use it as a car for all functions. But most people are primarily concerned about the need to carry a large passenger complement - two adults with maybe three children and possibly friends coming along as well. There is also the problem of the growing family with prams, carry-cots and all the essential equipment that parents know about only too well. So the term MPV, to cope with all purposes, is appropriate.

  In our previous car review we looked at some of the smaller and more affordable MPVs suitable for young families. In this review we move up the scale a bit starting with the Nissan Almera Tino and moving up to the spacious Citroën C8, Renault Espace and Ford Galaxy. Things which they all have in common are ingenious seating arrangements, lots of interior space and high headroom, plus estate car versatility with an opening tailgate.

  We cover quite a wide price range here as samples of what is available - it's not intended to be a competitive group. As before, we show in a small data panel the essential features for each one. The fuel consumption (unless otherwise stated in the text) is the figure actually measured in our typical test conditions. Acceleration is shown as the time through the gears to go from rest to 80 mph, this speed being a better yardstick of car's performance than the oft-quoted 0-60 mph. There is no suggestion that this might be tried in this country (although 80 mph is being spoken of as a future motorway limit, equating almost exactly with the 130 km/h which applies in many countries on the Continent).

  Prices are those applying when this feature started running, but may become out-dated - always check with your dealer, who may be able to offer better terms.The vehicles are covered in ascending price order.

      
     

Vauxhall Meriva Design 1.8
Children are well catered for in family cars like the Meriva, where they can have a DVD player with drop-down screen mounted inside the roof over the rear compartment with the sound coming through headsets. They can be totally absorbed in a film while mum and dad travel along listening to radio or CD.

  Meriva is certainly designed for the family, with provision to recline the rear seats or to move them forward or back according to whether the need is for legroom or luggage space. Instead of the usual arrangement of dividing the rear seat width into two thirds and one third, in the Meriva they are divided 40-20-40, with the centre part serving as an armrest when there is no occupant there. Meriva has four front-hinged side doors and an easily lifted tailgate.

  Also, at extra cost of £100, you can add an item called the Travel Assistant which swivels forward from the load area serving as a kind of console with space for CDs, cup holders and general stowage. I fancy its main function may be to keep children apart! When not wanted it can readily be lifted out. Generous stowage space in the Meriva includes a large compartment on the passenger side which can be cooled by the air conditioning, a compartment beneath the rear floor, and a pull-out drawer beneath the passenger seat. An aircraft-style fold-up tray is fitted to the back of each front seat, and the front passenger seat can also be folded flat.

  Lively and responsive to drive, with good low-speed response in the 1.8-litre version tried, the Meriva is a bit spoilt by being too low-geared. I was always feeling the need to change up, even when in fifth. Higher gearing might have helped towards better fuel economy than the 33.2 mpg returned. This is confirmed by the fact that the five-speed automatic version using the Easytronic self-changing gearbox system is higher geared and more economical; latter versions cost £400 extra, and should be worth considering.

  The suspension is also rather thumpy and bumpy on poor roads, but directional stability and steering accuracy earn good marks, while the brakes are also very reassuring (discs all round). The rather blind front quarters with diminutive fixed quarter windows mean the driver must move the head around at junctions or roundabouts to be sure there isn't an approaching vehicle hidden behind them.

  In addition to the 1.8-litre petrol engine, Meriva is offered with a 1.6-litre in 8-valve or 16-valve form, and there's a very good 1.7-litre diesel with common rail fuel injection. The Design version as tested is the top model of two offered with the 1.8-litre engine (the other is called Enjoy). The 1.6-litre petrol and 1.7 diesel are also available with Expression and Life trim packages. The Design trim includes such features as electrically folding door mirrors which close in - handy when parked; but one needs to study the equipment packaging carefully, as Design didn't seem worth its £500 extra cost over the cheaper Enjoy version.

  Inevitably the goodies such as the DVD player (£1,250) add a fair bit to the price, and all told the test car's £13,690 was swollen to £16,925 by the time all was on board. Of course, you don't have to run to all these extras, but you'd better keep the brochure out of sight of the family!

Vauxhall Meriva Design 1.8 £13,690
Engine - 1,796 cc atmo indirect petrol injection
0-80 mph - 17.5 seconds
Maximum speed - 119 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 33.2 mpg
CO2 emissions - 196 g/km (tax band D £160)
Insurance - Group 6
Seats - 5

Nissan Almera Tino SVE 2.2 dCi 136
It's surprising that one of the smaller and less expensive MPVs we are looking at here should actually have - in the diesel version - one of the largest engines. Tino is offered with a 1.8-litre petrol engine starting the range at just under £13,000, or a 2.2-litre diesel in two stages of power output - 111bhp or, as tested here, 135 bhp. All three engines have 16 valves. Although we tend to favour diesels for this kind of car, it might be wise to shy away from the £1,350 extra cost of the diesel in this case and go instead for the petrol version. Although very lively and giving vigorous acceleration, the engine is one of the noisier diesels, with a lot of whirring sounds when moving off, and it proved rather jerky and difficult to drive smoothly at low speeds in traffic. High-speed cruising is very good, though the Tino generally is not a quiet car at speed. Although the engine becomes less obtrusive when cruising fast, one becomes more aware of tyre roar and wind noise.

  The relaxed cruising pace of the 2.2 diesel is helped by a six-speed gearbox, which is standard for the more powerful of the two diesels. The change is easy to use with reverse alongside sixth, protected by need to lift a collar. Clutch action is on the heavy side, otherwise the Tino is easy to drive, with light steering and compact turning circle. The brakes are very effective, being discs at all wheels with internal venting at front. Not so good is the suspension giving a rather buckety ride on poor roads with a lot of thump and clatter from the wheels over bumps.

  Well-shaped and upholstered in stitched grey leather edging with suede-type wearing surfaces called Alcantara, the seats are comfortable, and the driver has rotary hand-wheels to give a small measure of height adjustment. Three individual seats are provided in the second row, each arranged to fold backrest to cushion and then, if needed for extra space, tip forward. The seats can also be reclined or removed, and there is an ingenious roof-mounted provision for the centre occupant to have a proper lap and diagonal seat belt.

  The SVE trim as tested adds £2,000 to the cost compared with the SE, but as well as including the superior seat upholstery, an electronic stability programme and leather-trimmed steering wheel, it features as standard a very effective and easy-to-use navigation system. A full-colour map is provided, and for those who can't cope well with maps it can be converted into a bird's eye view layout making it easier to understand which way to turn. When reverse is selected, the screen automatically changes to give a closed circuit TV picture of what is behind, making reversing safer with less risk of hitting a hidden post or protrusion.

  The same arrangement as on the Nissan Primera is used to give several functions to the control keys below the navigation screen, so the mode has to be selected first - audio, ventilation, trip computer, or navigation - and then the buttons control the relevant functions. At first it seems a little strange when you wonder, for example, how to select a different programme on the radio, but one soon becomes familiar with the arrangement, which certainly cuts down on the number of different switches and buttons needed. The computer stores mpg readings for several journeys, but the actual figures were disappointing, seldom above 40 mpg.

  Interior storage space is good, with a drawer under the front passenger seat, covered rear stowage compartments with lids, and there are pull-up folding tables on the backs of the front seats. Small pockets are fitted in the rear doors, which are conventionally front-hinged to open outwards.

  A sunroof is £400 extra on the basic S model, but standard on SE and SVE. Some may not like the heavily tinted rear and back windows which tend to obstruct rear vision through the mirror. Tino is a capable family car with good accommodation and perhaps less of the van about its design and driving position.

Nissan Almera Tino SVE 5-door 2.2 dCi £17,350
Engine - 2,184 cc turbo diesel direct injection
0-80 mph - 19.5 seconds
Maximum speed - 116 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 38.1 mpg
CO2 emissions - 181 g/km (tax band C £155)
Insurance - Group 9E
Seats - 5

Mazda MPV 2.OD
First launched in 1990, the Mazda MPV was given an extensive face-lift last year but remained much the same as before in all mechanical respects. A 2-litre diesel engine became available in 2002. This engine was in the test car and is strongly recommended since it pulls smoothly and with immediate response, while also remaining extremely quiet. However, it is not as fast as it seems, since the speedometer is nearly 5 mph optimistic at 80 miles per hour.

  In a necessarily rather short test period it was not possible to carry out accurate measurement of fuel consumption, so the figure given in the test data at nearly 40 mpg is the makers' claimed figure, confirmed by the slow rate at which the fuel gauge dropped - but it has a usefully large tank holding 75 litres.

  Also very impressive in the Mazda MPV is the suspension, which absorbs bumps well and gives little road roar. It's resilient enough to iron out our neglected road surfaces, and does allow a bit of body roll on corners, but this gives no problems - it handles reassuringly and the Mazda is easy to drive. One soon feels at home in it, enjoying a good view forward from the high seating position. The only slight difficulty is to judge how far the sloping nose of the vehicle protrudes forward.

  The driver's seat has two big handwheel adjusters for height of each end of the seat cushion, adjusting the angle, and there's another big adjuster for backrest angle - but the passenger has only a lever release for recline adjustment. All seats - three on the centre row, and two at the rear - are individual, and fold squab to cushion forming a small table, which can then be tipped forward for extra space.

  The only aspect of the MPV which disappointed was the arrangement to remove the passenger seats: even armed with the handbook, I was unable to remove any of them easily. When folding, the headrests must be removed first, and can then be repositioned in holes at the back of the seat cushion, which become the upper part when the seat is tipped forward. A very good provision is the ease of adjusting legroom, and the backrest angles are also adjustable.

  Stowage space is quite good, with a large locker ahead of the front passenger, a small pull-out drawer beneath the passenger seat, and roomy door pockets. At the rear of the MPV a carpet-covered lid lifts up to reveal a convenient out-of-sight storage area, and there are bottle recesses in each of the rear side doors.

  A special feature of the Mazda MPV is its rear sliding doors, which are easy to operate, and when open make it much easier for a parent to load in children and shopping. A map pocket is provided on the back of the front passenger seat, and there's a small locker in the left side of the load space. The spare wheel is full size on a steel rim, and mounted in a wind-down cradle beneath the rear floor.

  Easily opened, and secured by the central locking, the tailgate has a hand grip on the right for pulling it down, and a light mounted in the tailgate itself gives a good spread of illumination, backed up by central roof lights to facilitate loading operations in the dark. Footwell lights in the front doors illuminate the ground when the doors are open.

  Well-equipped, the Mazda MPV has electric action for the mirrors and all side windows, and there's a glass tilt or slide sunroof with blind. The audio unit is effective and easy to use, including a CD slot, and is mounted conveniently high up. Rotary controls beneath the audio unit regulate the ventilation and heating, and a good feature is a supply to the rear compartment, controllable by the driver using a switch at the bottom of the console. Air conditioning is also by switch.

  The instruments are a model of clarity. A rear wiper has intermittent action and the front wipers have variable intermittent. When switched off, the front wipers park one above the other in the centre, and sweep a large area of the big windscreen. Mazda's MPV is a very functional and pleasing vehicle, and although the diesel version costs £1,500 more than the petrol one it seems worth the extra because this diesel is so lively and efficient.

Mazda MPV 2.0 £20,000
Engine - 1,998 cc turbo diesel direct injection
0-80 mph - 22.3 seconds
Maximum speed - 109 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 39.8 mpg
CO2 emissions - 188 g/km (tax band D £165)
Insurance - Group 11E
Seats - 7

Renault Espace 2.0T Expression
With sloping front and high roofline, MPVs are an ideal shape for towing a caravan, tipping the air up and over the trailer; and a Renault Espace used to tow an Avondale Rialto caravan certainly provided some of the easiest towing ever enjoyed. Often only the view of it through the mirror reminded one that the caravan was still there, while the width and well-placed door mirrors made it easy to negotiate narrow gaps.

  Especially for use as a towcar one should go for one of the three diesel engines offered: 1.9dCi, 2.2dCi, or the 3.0 dCi which was claimed to be the first V6 diesel offered in an MPV. However, there are also three petrol engines - a 2-litre 16-valve with or without turbocharging, and a beefy 3.5-litre V6. For this test we had the 2-litre turbo petrol engine which delivers 165 bhp and has a six-speed gearbox as standard. Although this is a big vehicle, the turbocharged engine gives it vigorous performance and returned a commendable fuel consumption of 26.9 mpg. It also coped very capably with the caravan, though sometimes needing a change down to fifth on a slope, and gave 18.5 mpg when towing.

  Impressive features of the Espace are the comfortable ride and good steering with little effect from side winds. There's a lot of understeer, so it has to be pulled fairly firmly through roundabouts, but the feel of the handling through bends is always reassuring. The brakes are very effective - discs at all wheels, vented at front - and a special feature of the Espace is the lack of a parking brake. At least, it has a parking brake, but it operates entirely automatically, both on and off without thinking about it. This is particularly convenient when there is need to make a restart on a steep gradient while towing - just engage the clutch and accelerate without having to manipulate a handbrake lever at the same time.

  Cloth upholstered seats have ratchet lever height adjustment for front passenger and driver, and for the driver only there is a rotary knob at the front of the cushion to alter squab tension. Behind the front seats is a row of three well-shaped and individual seats with a third row of two more behind. They are all folding and removable - but heavy when taken out.

  A cheery interior is provided by a large glass sunroof which opens moving upward and above a fixed glass area farther back, and there's an electric blind to make it look all part of the trim when closed. The sunroof can be open at speed with no problems of excess wind noise or air buffeting.

  Stowage space is generous, with a large centre locker which is cooled by the air conditioning system, and a smaller compartment in front of the passenger, plus two small upper lockers and big door pockets. The instrumentation is unusual, featuring a centrally positioned digital speedometer and graph-type rev counter. There is also a comprehensive computer display giving all sorts of information including average speed, fuel consumption, and when a service is next due. The only shortcoming is that I could find no way to switch the speedometer to km/h for driving on Continent.

  The Espace has a huge windscreen abutting large fixed quarter windows, providing a panoramic view, and although one sits rather a long way back from the front of the vehicle it is fairly easy to judge the width. There are four front-hinged side doors and a large, easily lifted tailgate.

  It is a very roomy and comfortable vehicle, and if more space is required, the extended wheelbase Grand Espace is available at £2,000 extra, with length increased from 4660 mm to 4860. A wide permutation of equipment packaging is offered under the names Authentique, Expression, Privilège and Initiale. Only for the top models - Privilège and Initiale - are the V6 petrol and diesel engines available.

Renault Espace 2.0T Expression £21,880
Engine - 1,998 cc turbo indirect petrol injection
0-80 mph - 16.3 seconds
Maximum speed - 127 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 26.9 mpg
CO2 emissions - 232 g/km (tax band D £160)
Insurance - Group 14
Seats - 7

Citroen C8 SX HDi
Some manufacturers have teamed together on MPVs, so that much the same product is offered under different identities. Ford, Volkswagen and SEAT, for example, produce their own variations of one version; and the Citroen C8 covered here is similarly available from Peugeot as the 807, and from Fiat as the Ulysse. The design of this MPV brings many interesting features, most notable being the fitting of electric sliding doors at the rear on all but the base model.

  The doors can be opened or closed using a button within convenient reach of the rear seat occupants, though this can be put out of action by the driver when required and, of course, is inoperative when the vehicle is on the move (unless the driver chooses otherwise). Additionally it can be operated by a button above the windscreen or by switches on the remote control locking sender incorporating the ignition key. If anyone doesn't understand about it and just pulls on the handle, that will also cause the door to open.

  The electric action is smooth, quiet and - to safeguard against injury - it stops and goes into reverse if any obstruction such as a child's arm gets in the way. It's actually less likely to cause injury than a conventional manually operated door.

  Engine size is 2.0- or 2.2-litre, with petrol or diesel, and I recommend the 2.2 HDi diesel which was fitted in the test car. It's extremely smooth and quiet especially when cruising. Only at the lower speeds is there awareness that it's a diesel. With this engine you can have SX, Exclusive, or Exclusive Captain Chair trim. The SX format in the test car would seem the most logical choice for the family, having seven individual seats all arranged to fold, serving as a table, or tip forward for extra load space. They can also be taken out easily. In the Captain's Chair version there are four sumptuous armchairs.

  Performance is lively, but certainly the more powerful of the two diesel engines offered is recommended. If automatic transmission is wanted, it comes only with the 2-litre petrol engine at £20,895. The C8 was tried as a caravan towcar and behaved very well with a 4.8m Avondale caravan hitched up, but it was noticed that much of the time there was no reserve power. Fuel consumption at a creditable 37.2 mpg when solo, dropped to 23.2 mpg when towing.

  The C8 has a five-speed gearbox with the change mounted high up on an extension from the console, bringing it conveniently close to the driver's left hand. The suspension gives a commendably level ride but with some bang and thump from the wheels over poor surfaces. The handling sets the driver at ease early on, and the driving position is good, helped by the ability to adjust the steering wheel in either direction. Stability and steering accuracy are excellent, and the C8 makes a very capable towcar. The brakes are also very effective, and location of the handbrake to the right of the driving seat allows easy access between the seats to the rear - a great asset for parents with young children. A fold-down panoramic mirror also makes it possible for either front occupant to keep an eye on them.

  When parked, and perhaps having a picnic, the front seats can be swivelled to face to the rear. The outer seats can also be repositioned facing rearward. The rear seats slide to adjust for legroom or luggage space as required. As a no-cost option, the two individual back seats can be replaced by a three-abreast bench seat. Seating three in the back would be a bit cosy, but OK for children, and this option turns the C8 into an eight-seater.

  The front interior layout is unusual. Large circular instruments are centrally positioned - a bit remote, but easy to read - with an informative digital display beneath showing audio selection, time, outside temperature, and the readouts from the on-board computer giving fuel consumption and similar information. There's an extra deck above the instruments, with the windscreen sweeping down ahead of them. It's an enormous windscreen, no doubt expensive to replace, but it does provide a commanding view ahead. Small quarter windows are built into the front doors. The driver needs only to remember that the front of the C8 is quite a long way in front.

  Whether for use as a family car or executive transport, the C8, with its many storage compartments and versatility of its seating, is a very practical vehicle. It offers great space and comfort, and is much easier to drive than its substantial size leads one to expect.

Citroen C8 SX HDi 2.2 130 bhp £22,400
Engine - 2,179 cc turbo direct diesel injection
0-80 mph - 19.7 seconds
Maximum speed - 113 mph
Warranty - 3 years, unlimited mileage
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 37.2 mpg
CO2 emissions - 199 g/km (tax band D £165)
Insurance - Group 11
Seats - 7 (8 optional)

Ford Galaxy Ghia TDi
Much in the Galaxy is owed to the cooperation with Volkswagen, so its body is common with that of the Volkswagen Sharan and SEAT Alhambra, while the diesel power unit is also Volkswagen's - the 1.9-litre diesel delivering 115 bhp. In the test vehicle it was coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission with floor-mounted Tiptronic control, making for easy, relaxed driving.

  With this transmission system the selector can be left at the Drive position for fully automatic control, or it can be tapped across to the Tiptronic position, where a touch rearward gives a change down, and forward makes it change up, sequentially. The point to remember is that having gone into Tiptronic mode, the gearbox will change down to first gear on coming to rest, but it won't change back up again until the driver either moves the selector forward or reverts to full automatic control. Changes are smooth, but it's a bit jerky in low-speed manœuvring. The alternative transmission is a six-speed manual, £1,010 cheaper (total £22,895). The manual version (only) is also available with the more powerful 130 bhp version of the TDi engine.

  The Galaxy gives a pleasant ride, is not too bad for tyre roar or thump over bumps, and corners easily although with pronounced understeer. Accurate steering and good directional stability make it easy to keep the Galaxy neatly in-lane on a motorway even in cross winds, and the brakes - discs at all wheels with internal venting at front - are effective.

  Seating is in comfortable individual seats upholstered in leather, the two at front having armrests, and there is rotary knob adjustment for backrest angle. Behind the front seats is a central row of three individual ones, and two more at the back are provided with detachable coat hangers on the headrests. We had some difficulty when it came to trying to get the seats out: four of them removed easily, with the central one of the middle row almost falling out, but the centre left one proved immovable. It's suspected that a previous user had strained the mountings.

  In the backs of the front seats of the test car were video screens as part of the Multimedia system available at £1,700 extra.

  Stowage space is adequate, with two small compartments on the top of the facia, and a lower drop-down locker in front of the passenger, as well as generously long and wide pockets in all four side doors. The Galaxy retains front-hinged side doors, unlike some competitors which have gone to sliding doors.

  Very clear instruments are provided, and the Ford radio is excellent, with the central part of its push buttons removable for security, and a CD slot. Also inherited from Volkswagen is the very informative computer read-out giving fuel consumption, average speed and other data. Digital ventilation and air conditioning control is provided with temperatures separately adjustable left and right. There is no sunroof, but it's available complete with electric action for the rear windows, at £500 extra. A feature much favoured by Ford - electric heating and defrosting for the windscreen - is among the standard equipment for the Ghia.

  The Galaxy lacks the originality shown by some competitors, but is a capable, comfortable and easily manageable MPV.

Ford Galaxy Ghia automatic TDi £23,905
Engine - 1,896 cc turbo direct diesel injection
0-80 mph - 25.5 seconds
Maximum speed - 117 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 31.1 mpg
CO2 emissions - 211 g/km (tax band D £165)
Insurance - Group 12
Seats - 7

 


Please note that prices and specifications given in this
feature may change at short notice.

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