Taking Scenic route: there is some life in the MPV yet
But poor gear change a drawback
It was hard not to take the sentimental Scenic route with this week's car. There was a strong temptation to let nostalgia tint the view, to think back to how things were 21 years when the first Renault Scenics went on the market.
The whole concept of the MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) was revolutionary then: a tall, roomy, utterly user-friendly motor that became a must-have for so many families.
I remember driving the first ones, the children in the second row with glints of delight in their eyes as we banqueted on the fish/burgers/chips on one trip to the west especially.
And how we counted all the little places we could put things in myriad cubbyholes around the cabin. So much of all our lives was different. But everything moves on. And the Scenic has had to, too.
No longer the mega favourite it was, it has had to yield the limelight to the new revolutionary: the SUV/Crossover.
People wanted their MPV; now it's SUV or nothing for thousands of them. So why bother with the likes of the Scenic any more?
I believe there are still several sound and practical reasons for it. I'd go so far as to say we're in danger of throwing the MPV baby out with the SUV bath water.
Sure the seven-seater Grand Scenic I had on test had its flaws. But just because it doesn't conform slavishly to SUV looks is no reason to scratch it from your shopping list.
I am, to be honest, a bit bewildered by the SUV craze. For example, I know there are families out there screaming for seven seats - because I get a lot of enquiries about them.
When I mention the likes of this or the Citroën Grand Picasso, people go: "Oh yeah, I never thought of them."
It just goes to show how pervasive the current SUV fad has become.
So what are the chances of the Grand Scenic leading a mini counter revolution? Can you be persuaded it's a better option than an SUV?
I have a simplistic, and a more complicated, answer to that.
I think if it looked even more like an SUV, people would regard it differently. I know that sounds utterly silly - but I believe it to be true. And that would be even more the case if Renault copied Peugeot by styling and calling their (ex) people carriers à la 'SUV'.
The slightly longer answer means looking more closely at what the Grand Scenic offers.
You like the look of it or you don't. I much prefer this to the five-seater. I like the high waistline and sloping roof (maybe not the elongated rear flanks so much). It also has 40mm more ground clearance and is marginally (20mm) wider with a 32mm longer wheelbase. There is definitely more usable interior space.
They've set it up well; it was a big comfortable drive on several longer journeys with good visibility and a nice feel to the steering. My second-row passengers liked it a lot (none for the third row any more, I'm afraid). And I'd say the driving position was as good, if not better, than most SUVs I've driven though the vast expanse of dashboard is a bit overwhelming.
The seats and space are well worked as are the displays and interactive touchscreen.
One obvious drawback - as it is with most so-called seven-seaters - was the tiny dimensions of that third row. That's perfectly understandable so long as you understand it is for tiny tots only (my car had the facility to flatten all unoccupied seats via the touchscreen; nifty).
Of course with the seven seats occupied you get a tiny amount of luggage space. With the third row flattened, space runs to 572 litres and to 1,554 with the second row folded as well.
The 130bhp diesel engine had more than enough power and cruised easily - even with standard 20ins wheels. I like that engine and it gave me 5.6/100kms which is an excellent return on my driving.
However, I have to reserve my biggest criticism for one of the worst gear changes I've come across for a long time. It was rough and notchy and a million miles from what a family car requires.
I mean, if you are driving around town/suburbia in this, it has to be smooth and slick. I was most disappointed. Maybe the clutch needed a bit of adjusting. If thinking of buying, give it a good old test run and change up and down the gears as much as you can.
Would I buy it? Tough question. I think you'd have to consider it if in the market for a seven-seater. Sure it has its drawbacks - the gear shift for one - but what car hasn't? The fact of the matter is that several current-version owners will probably have their heads swayed by the SUV-mania. That's how revolutions work. Just as it did 21 years ago when people clamoured for MPVs.
Still, I'd put it on my shopping list for practical purposes. Sometimes evolutions work out better than revolutions in the long run.
Facts & figures
Renault Grand Scenic seven-seat MPV; 1.6dCi 130bhp diesel, 6spd manual; 4.6l/100km, 119g/km, €200 road tax. Prices from €26,000 (five-seater); €28,400 (seven-seater); test car (Dynamique S Nav) €35,475.
Equipment includes: 20in alloys, 7in touchscreen, auto dual-zone climate control, spare wheel, FM/AM/DAB tuner, Bluetooth, Vision system (LED: daytime running lights, traffic sign recognition, auto high/low beam).
Additional test car spec: head-up display, rear parking camera (front/rear parking sensors), fixed glass sunroof/electric sunblind, R-Link 2 multimedia system: 8.7in touchscreen, voice control.