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Archive 39
Car Review

Stuart Bladon compares six cars offering a lot of
space for not a lot of money

As cars are so different, it's sometimes hard to identify the boundaries of a particular group. But for the comparatively recent and ever-increasing category of the mini-MPV, the essential features seem to be that it should have five doors, with the rear one being a vertical or near vertical tailgate, and above all that it should have plenty of headroom inside. It is this, above all, that makes the difference from an ordinary estate car and gives the impression of roominess inside.

   We have a fairly random selection here covering a wide range of engine sizes and prices; and obviously they are not intended to be a competitive group - rather a selection of what is available. There are many others that could have been featured, such as the Ford Fusion or C-MAX, Vauxhall Meriva and Nissan Almera Tino.

   The standard data for this feature in Gear Wheels includes the maximum speed and the acceleration time from standstill to 80 mph, this being a much more informative figure than the oft-quoted 0-60 mph time. It equates almost exactly to the 130 km/h which is the limit speed in many Continental countries such as France. Whether petrol or diesel, there is surprisingly little differences in this acceleration time, all except the Renault Kangoo Trekka being within two seconds of each other. The Kangoo is penalised by the added weight and resistance of its four-wheel drive system.

   Prices shown are those applying in early autumn 2003; but bear in mind that prices do change, and that special offers or competitive terms from dealers may be available.

   In their own way, each of these six MPVs is excellent for its main purpose as a multi-function car to cope with all the varied demands of family transport. Especially appealing are the CitroŽn Berlingo Multispace with its ingenious interior, the Fiat DoblÚ, and - with its unique four-wheel drive advantage - the Renault Kangoo Trekka.


Vauxhall Agila 1.2
In spite of its high and rather topply-looking build, the Agila behaves well on the road with not too much roll on corners, and the electrically-powered steering disguises the fairly marked understeer on corners; the Agila feels stable and steers positively.

   Engine choice is a three-cylinder 1-litre unit or, as tested, the four-cylinder 1.2-litre. It's a bit snarly and growly when working hard, but gives the Agila lively performance and quiet, effortless motorway cruising. The five-speed gearbox has reverse located opposite fifth, and a long lever locates the gear knob conveniently close to the steering wheel. There's no adjustment for steering wheel position, but the height adjustment of the seat allows the driver a fairly high position giving a good view forward.

   To the rear, the headrests are obstructive and had to be removed to allow safe rear vision, but this is partly because of the height of the back seat, which will be appreciated by those travelling there, since it also gives a good view. The back seat is centrally divided and is ingeniously arranged to fold flat, with the cushion sliding forward, to form a level extension of the necessarily rather short load space.

   The tailgate opens very high for easy loading, and there's a see-through clip-on fabric cover to keep possessions out of sight. Conventional front-hinged side doors are fitted.

   Provision of storage space for small items is generous, with a pull-out tray under each front seat (optional on passenger side), large door pockets and cup recesses ahead of the gear lever. Front windows and the door mirrors are electrically operated. A neat and very clear display at the top of the facia panel gives outside temperature, time, and date - with this changing to audio display when the radio is turned on. It's a good audio unit, with six pre-sets and a single CD slot (on the Design model - cheaper Club specification has a cassette player). A large but rather crowded speedometer is paired with a same-size rev counter.

   Service is required only every 20,000 miles or 12 months. Optional extras include a slide/tilt glass sunroof, anti-lock brakes and air conditioning.

   Agila is roomy for its size, and easy to drive, but its suspension gives a rather bouncy, clattery ride with a lot of tyre roar on most surfaces. The test car was on the optional Klťber 165/60 R 14 tyres. Longitudinal roof rack rails are standard on the Club and Design models - optional on the basic Expression version.

Vauxhall Agila 1.2 Design £7,995
Engine - 1,199 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 27.7 seconds
Maximum speed - 96 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 37.3 mpg
CO2 emissions - 156 g/km (tax band B £120)
Insurance - Group 3E

Mazda2 S
One of the most recent additions to the mini-MPV market is Mazda's small car, given the confusing name Mazda2 with no space between the make name and the model designation. But there is space in the car - in fact it's generously roomy with high roof and a lot of useful load space for its size. Like the Agila, the Mazda2 has four conventionally hinged side doors instead of sliding rear ones, and a top-hinged tailgate.

   Engine choice is mainly a 1.4-litre petrol, the 1.25 petrol tested here, and a 1.4-litre diesel. There's also a 1.6-litre Sport but this seemed to be moving the model out of the class. Of them all, when driven at the launch, I preferred the diesel, but was also impressed by this one with 1.25 Ford-derived engine producing 75 bhp. It's a smooth and quiet unit, and copes well until it comes to hill climbing, when the rather restricted power output is evident; but it doesn't lack for acceleration, and can more than hold station on a motorway.

   Steering is accurate with a compact turning circle and the car is easily held tidily in-lane on a motorway. The wheel adjusts only vertically, and has a rather hard plastic-trimmed rim, but it is convenient having audio controls on the left side of the steering wheel cross-bar. Handling is reassuring with the car feeling well balanced through corners, and good marks are scored for the overall ride comfort, although there is a fair amount of thump and tyre roar.

   The brakes respond well to light pedal loads, and anti-lock control comes as a package including side airbags for £450.

    Impressive appearance of the interior and its console is a bit spoilt by the yellow patch over the digital display which gives time and audio selection, and although the radio looks very comprehensive, with a CD button, in fact there is no CD on this model - it's a cassette player. But the way in which it is fully integrated is good and must make life difficult for radio thieves.

   Unusual seat trim is black cloth with red stitching and scattered numbers on the centre parts. A ratchet lever beside the driving seat raises or lowers the back part of the seat cushion, and there is a rotary knob for squab angle adjustment. The rear seat is divided 60/40. To fold, tip the cushion first, then remove the headrest and drop the backrest down. Although the resulting extension is not very level, it's quite a space-efficient system.

   A search for the electric window switches revealed that there aren't any - this model with the basic S trim has winding windows; but it does run to two map lights and remote central locking with a concealed release for the tailgate. There is intermittent action for the rear wiper, and a light is provided over the load area. A full-size spare wheel is in the well under the floor, and it's handy that all four doors have pockets for oddments.

   There's much to appeal in the Mazda2, especially at the modest price of this 1.25 version; but if one goes to the diesel with top TS2 trim at £11,500, it is getting to seem rather expensive for this class.

Mazda2 5-door 1.25 S £8,765
Engine - 1,242 cc atmo petrol indirect injection
0-80 mph - 26.2 seconds
Maximum speed - 101 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 48.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 149 g/km (tax band A £100)
Insurance - Group 2E

CitroŽn Berlingo Multispace
Engine choice for the Berlingo starts with a 1.4-litre petrol, then at £500 extra there's a 1.6-litre 16-valve unit which was the one chosen for this test. You can also get Berlingo with choice of two diesel engines: the older 1.9-litre atmo unit is still available, but not recommended because the other, a 2-litre turbocharged HDi, is so much better. As tried, the 1.6 performs well, with good low-speed torque so that there is not a lot of need for frequent gear changing. Fifth gear gives quiet, relaxed cruising.

   A particularly good feature of the Berlingo is the comfort of the ride, with good absorption of big bumps, little tyre roar, and not a lot of thump over bumps. In contrast to the van-like appearance, it's a very comfortable car. On corners it tends to lean over slightly, but goes round well and feels easily manageable. Steering is precise, with a tight turning circle, but the wheel adjusts only vertically.

   Effective brakes are fitted - vented discs at front and drums at the rear - but the handbrake needs rather a hard pull up to apply it firmly. A safety pack is available for £650 extra, providing a front passenger airbag, lateral airbags, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution.

  There's no height adjustment for the driving seat, but the standard seating position is reasonably high. The rear seats are divided and fold squab to cushion then tip forward. The front seats need to be fairly well forward to allow the rear seat headrests to clear them, and then they can be moved back.

   A lot of thought has gone into the design of the Berlingo with its ingenious roof structure providing a lot of stowage space, plus room at the front above the visors, and there are also two lockers in the floor as well as pockets in all four doors. There is also stowage space at the bottom of the console, with the useful feature of a 12-volt power point in addition to the cigarette lighter socket. The rear doors slide, with easy action, and a good safety feature is that all doors lock automatically with a loud 'clunk' as the car moves off.

   There was no air conditioning in the test car, but it is available at £600 extra. Rather ugly but effective 'grenade' air outlets in the facia make it easy to adjust and direct the face level cool air supply.

   Careful study of the price list will be rewarded, revealing such oddities as the fact that the safety pack includes a pull-out drawer beneath the passenger seat, and that there is also a comfort pack as standard with the Desire model as tested, which features front folding armrests, aircraft-type tables on the backs of the front seats, and the Modubox. I rather liked the Modubox, which unclips from the right-hand side of the rear load space and quickly assembles into a useful shopping trolley on wheels. In fact I rather liked, also, the whole car.

CitroŽn Berlingo Multispace 1.6 £10,450
Engine - 1,587 cc atmo petrol indirect injection
0-80 mph - 26.4 seconds
Maximum speed - 107 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 40.6 mpg
CO2 emissions - 175 g/km (tax band C £140)
Insurance - Group 5

Fiat DoblÚ
As first launched in 2001, Fiat's DoblÚ was available only with a 1.2-litre petrol engine or a 1.9-litre atmo (atmospheric, or not turbocharged) diesel engine, but in February 2002 a new common rail turbo version of the 1.9-litre diesel was added to the range. It raised the power output from 63 to 100 bhp and brought a big improvement in performance. With this engine, the DoblÚ is very quiet throughout the speed range and gives lively response as well as very easy cruising at around 80 mph. Original versions remain available - a 1.2-litre petrol, and the atmo diesel, but the turbo engine is recommended, being well worth the extra £635.

   Mounted high up, so that the gear lever knob is only a few inches from the driver's left hand on the steering wheel, the gear change is easy to use, and fifth gear is suitably high, giving a speed of 26 mph at 1,000 rpm.

   Although the ride in the front is comfortable, it's a bit bouncy for those sitting in the back, and there's quite a lot of tyre roar, but the suspension copes well with big bumps such as speed humps. Understeer on corners is quite severe, but the DoblÚ goes round well enough with the power steering helping to take the effort out of hauling the front round. Steering control is good for accuracy and the turning circle is small. The wheel adjusts only vertically. Brake response is good but fairly firm pedal loads are needed. Anti-lock control is available for all models, adding £564 to the price.

   Big mirrors on the doors with electric adjustment, and the deep windscreen with high seat position help to make DoblÚ easy to drive on today's congested roads.

   Front seats are well-shaped and comfortable with two release levers to alter height and angle of the driving seat. An odd problem was experienced with the passenger seat which, when adjusted to give a little more legroom, tended to go back much too far and then be difficult to bring forward again. The rear seats are divided in the usual 40/60 format and tip onto the cushions then roll over forward to provide a good extension of the already generous load space.

   Ventilation is simple but effective with a pull-out rotary switch for the air conditioning - again an option on all models, adding £651. Rear back windows open at the trailing edges.

   The rear side doors slide to open or close, but it takes a big pull on the handle to free them for closing - not easily done from the inside. Remote central locking also secures the large and deep tailgate which has a concealed release. Small compartments are provided in the doors, and there's a useful drop-down compartment below the huge air bag area on the passenger side. There is a useful full-width oddments trench above the windscreen.

   The Connect unit at £1,331 extra combines radio, CD, trip computer, and navigation system. The navigator worked well though made some mistakes (it suddenly found a non-existent roundabout on a motorway), and the map display is clear and well located above the console. The test car also featured a telephone, for which 'pre-disposition' as Fiat calls it, can be installed for £52.

   Other options are available including a high roof at £705 extra, making it possible to turn DoblÚ into an unusually well-equipped vehicle for the buyer prepared to add a lot of extras. ELX is the top trim level, the other being SX, some £1,044 less.

Fiat DoblÚ JTD ELX 1.9 £10,634
Engine - 1,910 cc turbo direct injection
0-80 mph - 25.9 seconds
Maximum speed - 104 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles (extendable to 100,000)    
                   - 8 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 46.1 mpg
CO2 emissions - 168 g/km (tax band C £150)
Insurance - Group 4

Peugeot Partner Escapade
The little van-based Peugeot Partner was put through its paces on appallingly rough tracks across the desert at a memorable launch in Egypt in 1998, which certainly demonstrated the strength of its structure and suspension. In this form it had four-wheel drive, though the UK importers decided against importing the 4x4 version, and since then it has gained stylish alloy wheels and protective grilles across the front and rear lamp units. It was tested for Gear Wheels in 2-litre diesel form, and although a bit harsh and noisy when working hard, the engine settles down to give quiet cruising in fifth. It also pulls well without snatch or roughness from low revs.

   Usually the gear change is easy to use, but occasionally it proved a bit sticky going into reverse, which would sometimes not engage first time. Reminiscent of the beating the earlier model took so well in Egypt, the suspension gives a reasonably comfortable ride and copes well with really bad surfaces. The Partner handles well on twisting roads, giving confidence through tight corners. The brakes have vented discs at the front, and respond well.

   It's rather surprising to find a cruise control on such a car as this. It was an extra on the test car, at £150, along with air conditioning for £600 and anti-lock brakes £380. The cruise control meant that there were no fewer than four levers beneath the steering wheel, the other three controlling wipers, indicators and lights, and the remote control satellite for the audio unit which has a CD slot and remote display at the top of the facia.

   A practical feature of the Partner is the fitting of sliding rear side doors, which certainly make access easy especially in confined spaces, but they are rather hard to operate and a bit noisy when they crash to for closing. The tailgate is also rather heavy to lift. It is secured with the remote-control central locking system.

   Divided asymmetrically, 40/60, the rear seats fold on to the cushion and then tip forward - an arrangement which reveals a good flat load floor, but is not too economical of space because of the loss of the rear footwell area, occupied by the folded seats. Bucket seats at the front are well-shaped and although there is no height adjustment, occupants sit fairly high, enjoying a good view. A pull-out drawer is fitted beneath the front passenger seat.

   Advantage is taken of the high roof to provide a compartment across the width, above the windscreen, handy for stowing such items as maps; and there are good door pockets, shaped to contain a bottle. Small door pockets are also fitted in the rear sliding doors. A roller blind covers luggage, and as an extra at £75, Peugeot offers a vertical restraining net.

   The Partner is a very effective small family car, though it perhaps needs a bit more than the lamp grilles to give it the panache suggested by its Escapade model name.

Peugeot Partner Escapade 2.0 HDi £11,095
Engine - 1,997 cc turbo diesel direct injection
0-80 mph - 28.8 seconds
Maximum speed - 97 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                   - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 46.3 mpg
CO2 emissions - 152 g/km (tax band B £130)
Insurance - Group 5

Renault Kangoo Trekka 4x4 dCi
Although first launched two years ago, Renault's Trekka version of the Kangoo has a lot to offer - notably a new and efficient diesel engine linked to permanent four-wheel drive, and an unusually generous specification including a glass panel over the driving compartment with an electric sliding canopy over the main compartment. The four-wheel drive system, evolved by Nissan, uses a hydraulic coupling which transfers drive to the rear wheels progressively if the front ones start to spin. The Kangoo Trekka is not a fully-fledged off-roader, but does have some of the attributes needed for tough conditions, mainly a protective skid-pan beneath the engine and transmission, resilient long-travel suspension, high ground clearance (200 mm) and short overhangs at front and rear to prevent grounding over sharp inclines such as ruts and ditches.

   Engine choice is a 95 bhp 16-valve 1.6-litre petrol engine, or as tried, the 80 bhp 1.9-litre common rail diesel engine. It's a rather harsh and growly engine, and some power losses and added weight of the four-wheel drive make the performance rather marginal - but this and slightly disappointing fuel consumption are the penalties of the go-anywhere ability which many such as farmers, fishermen and others whose work or sport take them through tough terrain will appreciate.

   The generous specification includes disc brakes all round, vented at front, with anti-lock control, giving very good response. The handling is rather prone to understeer, nosing out of roundabouts and sharp corners, and the steering, although power assisted, is on the heavy side. The suspension gives very good bump absorption and takes rough roads well, although with rather a lot of thump from the wheels.

   Sliding rear doors are fitted, and are easy to close, unlike the tailgate which feels heavy to open over its initial movement; but this perhaps brings the advantage that it feels as if it's locked, even when it is not. Seats are of generous proportions and comfortable - there is no height adjustment but the standard position is reasonably high. Divided 40/60, the rear seats tip down on to the cushion, then pivot forward revealing a level continuation of the load floor. When in use, the back seats are also comfortable and there is good legroom.

   The spare wheel stands vertically at the right, and the shelf covering the load space is neatly made in three parts fitting snugly around and over the spare wheel. The instruments are clear, and a good radio with CD slot has the usual Renault feature of repeater controls on a satellite within reach of the driver's right hand on the steering wheel.

   Surprisingly, there are no drawers beneath the seats although there is room for them, but there are two spacious roof lockers on each side of the main compartment, all four having self-fixing top-hinged lids.

   With its off-road ability - unique in this class - the Kangoo Trekka is also very competitively priced, and justifies Renault's claim that it is 'fun, practical, affordable and versatile.'

Renault Kangoo Trekka 4x4 1.9 dCi £12,650
Engine - 1,870 cc turbo diesel direct injection
0-80 mph - 40.7 seconds
Maximum speed - 88 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
              - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 38.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 181 g/km
Insurance - Group 5

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

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