Car Review: Renault - Espace  Series 97 (3 stars)

The Renault Espace is good, but slowly being left behind by more innovative and ingenious rivals.

Renault pretty much invented the European people carrier back in the early-80s with its Espace. The French had a long tradition of seven seat estates, such as the Peugeot 504, and Renault realised there was a much better way of carrying big families.

The car has had to reinvent itself over the following decades with rivals constantly trying to think of ways to get one over the car that got there before they did. Renault's answer has been to move the car ever further upmarket, each successive car feeling plusher and more comfortable.

The fourth-generation car is the first that Renault has actually built in-house, previously having left that to an external company, Matra. The idea is still the same as the first model, however - providing flexible accommodation for anything up to seven people. The current crop of SUVs and 4x4s have somewhat taken the wind out of the Espace's sails with their flexible seating systems and practical interiors though.

Unfortunately for the Espace this is where it falls down - it isn't even as practical as the previous-generation car it replaced, let alone the competition. You can buy a longer wheelbase version, but the third row of seats lacks legroom and is cumbersome to remove. Where a lot of cars have seats that fold into the floor, the Espace persists with extra pews that need to be stored in the garage when you don't need them.

That said, the other five chairs are plenty spacious, and when all the seats are folded (or taken out) the Espace is absolutely cavernous. The cabin feels of much better quality than many rivals, too - the premium materials might be used sparingly across the dashboard and elsewhere, but they do have a positive effect on the car's ambience.

The driving experience is definitely geared towards comfortable motorway cruising, but that is what buyers will expect anyway - besides, driving thrills are best left to much smaller hatchbacks. The engines are a mixed bag, the entry-level units and pretty much all of the petrols are to be ignored - it's the most powerful diesel engines that suit the Espace best. Our favourite is the range-topping 2.0-litre DCI with its 170bhp.

The Espace is a very comfortable car, but it is also an expensive one - you'd really have to look carefully at some capable rivals before deciding on it.

Renault Espace Series 97 StatisticsCar Reviews

Swiftcover and are both trading names of AXA Insurance UK plc, which is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority