A car that has often been credited as one of the most important trend-setters of modern automotive design, a car that became synonymous with being the first of what we Brits like to call ‘People-Carriers’. One word only ever springs to mind, and a pang of dread is soon to follow as this machine, the Renault Espace, has become an everlasting symbol of unimpressive blandness, and what could only be described as a middle-finger to anyone with a desire for something fun, safe, or interesting to drive.
When the car was launched in July 1984, opinions started off much the same, with only nine cars sold initially, but slowly this feared flash-in-the-pan became a major part of the road-going scene, and pretty much every family in Europe and the UK had bought themselves one by the end of the decade. The idea of the Espace was originally concieved of in the late 1970’s by British designer Fergus Pollock, a man who had previously worked for the Rootes Group and the likes of Hillman and Humber. His design was for a car built onto the same platform as a regular contemporary saloon, but with a greater number of seats fitted to carry as many family members as possible. In conjunction with Chrysler UK, the successor to Rootes Group, and the French company Matra, the prototype that resulted, the Matra P18, did look very promising, seating 7 and looking very space-age. He would later move on in 1983 to work for Jaguar, and design many other beautiful machines such as the facelifted XJ6, XJS and the XK8 of the mid-1990’s, but he wouldn’t be with his baby when it eventually went into production. In 1978, Chrysler sold its European assets to Peugeot, and plans were for the car to be badged as a Talbot. However, the financial instability of the company following the turbulent times of the 1970’s meant that Talbot were not willing to put it into production for fear of making a loss. As such, Matra took the design to Renault, who gave it a look, loved the idea, and put it into production from 1984. The design was based on a fibreglass body mounted upon a galvanised Steel Chassis, replacing the very pretty but somewhat unsuccessful Matra Murena sports car on its Romoratin Production Line. Engines ranged from a 2.0L Inline-4 to a 2.9L V6, which didn’t make the car particularly fast, but just enough to get it moving.
As mentioned, upon its launch the car was slow to start, but found a market for itself as people found contemporary SUV’s to inefficient and large, and family saloons too small. The car was first sold here in the UK in August 1985, and attempts were made to sell the car in the United States, with the result of negotiations falling through between Matra and AMC after the latter was bought by Chrysler. Throughout the 80’s the car was lauded for its internal space, with chairs that danced and folded and could be shifted in every concievable direction, ranging from bedrooms to conference rooms to living rooms, it was something unreal and had very quickly kicked off the People-Carrier trend of the 1990’s. Toyota, Mitsubishi, Vauxhall, Ford, Volkswagen, everyone wanted a slice of the action, not taking into account the one fatal flaw of the People-Carrier, everything about it!
The biggest, most utterly jarring problem with the People-Carrier concept is that it’s not only very dull both internally and externally, its also slow, heavy, inefficient, uncomfortable, unsafe, and generally the most unpleasant driving environment in the entire world! You may think me quoting Jeremy Clarkson endlessly, Lord knows many of my points of contention with the People-Carrier are on par with his, but they are very big problems that can prove fatal. Firstly, the safety, which is very, very low. Indeed the car has a lot of modern day features for front and side impacts, but in order to fit 7 seats in the car, two of them have to be in the boot, with about two or three inches separating them from the tailgate. In the even of a rear impact, especially a serious one, anyone occupying those seats will not be getting off lightly!
Next, the performance, which I feel hasn’t been updated since 1984 because nothing about this car’s speed, handling, comfort, ride quality or fuel efficiency appears to have changed. I once borrowed a 2006 Espace from my university to drive some friends around in, and it was by far the worst car I’ve ever driven bar none! It would barely accelerate, put your foot down and after about 5 or 10 seconds of thought it would consider getting the car moving. Then there was the handling, which was so heavy I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t driving the RMS Titanic whilst pulling the Olympic and Britannic at the same time! Ride comfort came in the form of translating every bump, pothole and disfigurement in the road surface right through the seat and into your spine, it was like driving on a dirt road! Also, for all its space, it’s terrible for carrying large objects and people at the same time. When driving in this particular instance we had many bags and baggages with us, none of which could fit in the boot because people were sitting there, and thus we had to carry our huge cases on our laps!
Today the Espace is still with us, though from 2012 it’s no longer sold here in the UK. I will give the Espace a few points though, but not unto itself but what it spawned. It did spawn the Avantime, a ‘Sports People-Carrier’, which is one of my favourite cars of all time because it takes the sheer size of an Espace, and does away with its boring interior, its underpowered engine, its heavy steering and horrible, unsafe seating plan, and replaces it with something comfortable, fun and easy to drive. At the same time it has spawned many other People-Carriers which have seen the flaws and faults with the Espace and redressed them to make much more popular and much more enjoyable family cars such as the Ford Galaxy and the Vauxhall Zafira.
It can be said that at least Renault have finally decided to improve the breed by changing it from a large People-Carrier of dull proportions to a luxury People-Carrier in similar fashion to the Avantime, with a sheek and sporty look about it as opposed to the horribly dull styling of the previous generation. As for the previous Espace generations, I hate these cars, I hate everything having to do with them!
Just imagine making a sandwich…
…and then putting nothing in it!