The Espace Race Is Over For Renault’s Big MPV

By Andy Bannister

10.26.2008

In another sign of the changes to come in the new car market, Renault is abandoning plans to replace its Espace, the long-running model which single-handedly brought the MPV concept to the attention of Europeans 25 years ago.

Faced with plunging sales of the current Espace and Renault’s other larger models, the Vel Satis luxury car and the Laguna executive model, the company has signalled an abrupt change of direction. According to media reports it has cancelled next year’s planned fifth-generation Espace at a late stage in its development and has indicated the Vel Satis will also die with no successor.

While the end of the Vel Satis is no great loss, the demise of the Espace is a huge blow to Renault’s prestige, having for years cultivated the image of it as the ultimate premium MPV. The Espace has until recently been an extremely fashionable vehicle and the automatic choice of wealthy large families from across the continent, despite a plethora of rivals from other manufacturers.

The current model has been around since 2003 but has recently fallen foul of higher fuel prices and the onslaught of new taxation based on CO2 emissions, not least in France itself. An added problem is that, unlike most of its rivals, Renault doesn’t have any North American sales to shore up its bigger models.

The company has also admitted changing times are gravitating against its flagship model. The huge glassy cabin – an Espace trademark – is seen as increasingly unpopular, with today’s buyers looking for more privacy when out on the road.

While people-carriers – mostly converted vans – had been around for decades, the Espace was a very radical model indeed back when it saw the first light of day in 1984, and many Europeans believe Renault invented the MPV (most being unaware that the slightly less radical-looking Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager technically arrived slightly earlier, albeit not initially in Europe).

That original Espace had a tortured start in life and almost never happened, ending up wearing the Renault badge quite by chance. It actually first took shape in the 1970s in the unlikely setting of Chrysler’s struggling United Kingdom operation.

It seems a 28-year old British designer called Fergus Pollock was working at Chrysler in Detroit on secondment from Chrysler UK, and was impressed by what he saw of Chrysler’s Project T-115 (the future Caravan/Voyager).

On returning to Chrysler’s UK design studio in Coventry, he set about creating his own seven-seater, only to have the project fall into the hands of Peugeot when it took over Chrysler’s bankrupt European operations in 1979. By this time it was being developed by Matra, a French associate of Chrysler.

Peugeot took one look at the Espace concept and decided it was a sales no-hoper, refusing to help progress the design and effectively leaving Matra in the lurch. Undeterred, Matra quickly contacted Peugeot’s arch-rival Renault, which snapped up the project and agreed to take it to market.

The 1984 Espace, with its plastic body, one-box shape – which many people compared to a French TGV high-speed train – and acres of side windows, was certainly radical. Unlike its American rival it wasn’t by any means an instant success, with the market for seven-seaters largely cornered by conventional estate cars.

Sales in the first year were hardly promising, but Renault kept faith. The car got rave reviews in the media and buyers suddenly woke up to the versatility which was on offer from the front-wheel-drive Espace’s innovative layout and endlessly flexible seating.

From the end of 1985 onwards, the Espace really took off, with a wider choices of engines, increasingly plush trim and a style that evolved through numerous generations, including the eventual arrival of an even larger long-wheel-base Grand Espace version to underline how Renault was confidently competing against premium competitors from Mercedes-Benz to Range Rover.

Matra continued to make the Espace through the first three generations, building over a million, before Renault took over production of the current generation itself, leaving its partner to build the disastrous Avantime coupé, dropped after barely a year.

While abandoning the Espace can’t have been an easy decision for Renault, the company at least has the consolation that the smaller MPVs it has introduced in recent years, building on the Espace’s reputation, remain strong sellers, particularly the Scenic, an MPV based on the Megane hatchback. Renault also has a small MPV, the Modus, and a cheap-and-cheerful van-based MPV, the Kangoo.

After years of makers around the world introducing seemingly endless designs aimed at exploiting new sales niches, it’s interesting to see how Renault is sending this into reverse by abandoning models without a replacement. The way the market is going at the moment, they may well be the first of many.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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