It’s hard to believe the impact that the first Renault Espace had on its launch 22 years ago, given that almost every motor manufacturer now offers its own interpretation of the MPV theme. In 1984, however, it was considered an outrageously daring concept, as nothing like it had ever been seen before.
Renault had already tested initial prototypes of what was to become the Espace as early as 1979, with the project receiving the official go-ahead at a meeting between Renault and Matra in December 1982. The two companies joined forces to produce the vehicle, Renault taking charge of product definition, design, powertrain and sales, and Matra assuming responsibility for vehicle development and production.
The specifications which would set the benchmark for the modern MPV were laid down by Jacques Cheinisse, then head of Renault’s upmarket product range: A flat floor for maximum space utilisation and internal mobility; between five and seven independent seats, the front two with swivel facility; and composite bodywork for weight saving and energy efficiency.
Espace is the French word for “space”, an entirely appropriate name for the pioneering MPV concept, and one which remains so to this day.
The first Espace was unveiled to the press in April 1984. Initially only a 2.0 litre petrol version was offered, with a turbodiesel following towards the end of the year. A road test by Britain’s authoritative Autocar magazine in September 1985 made such observations as “Swallow seven adults and convey them in saloon-like comfort,” and “…the Espace will not be left behind in the cut-and-thrust of everyday motoring.” It concluded: “…for our money, if you have to move people and/or goods frequently and want a vehicle with all the comforts of a car, it is difficult to imagine a more sensible solution.”
Despite a slow start during the first year of production, when just 2703 units were sold, sales started to pick up strongly thereafter. Demand soon outstripped production capacity at the Romorantin plant, and additional capacity had to be found at the Dieppe plant in 1987. With sales topping 192 000, the Espace received a makeover in 1988, with a new nose and a four-wheel drive version joining the range.
Espace Mk 2 debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 1991, and Renault’s intentions of pushing the MPV concept further forward were clearly demonstrated. Modularity was enhanced thanks to changes to the second and third rows of seats, a more sophisticated climate control system was introduced, and the A-pillars were slimmed down for improved visibility.
Production of the Espace Mk 2 reached 316 518 units by the time the third-generation version was launched in October 1996, with cumulative production of the first two generations having exceeded the half-million mark.
The third generation Espace saw Renault moving the model further upmarket, with a host of innovative new features. One of the most striking features of the new model was the dashboard’s centralised digital display, allowing vehicle information to be shared with all occupants.
To meet the needs of customers seeking even more interior space, Renault launched a stretched Grand Espace version in 1998, some 270 mm longer than the standard vehicle.
By the end of 2001, Espace Mk 3 held an 18.5 percent share of the upmarket MPV sector, and overall production of the third-generation would go on to top 365 200 units.
The fourth and current generation of the Espace has been available in South Africa and in this period has set new standards for the MPV category in the fields of comfort, performance and safety. It achieved a five-star rating in the Euro NCAP safety tests with the best score ever recorded at that time, thanks to a raft of advanced safety features, including seats with integrated safety belts in all second- and third-row places, and thorax airbags for the second row of seats.
With a choice of three engines (four-cylinder petrol or diesel, or petrol V6), the long wheelbase Espace models available in South Africa offer unrivalled levels of interior space, performance and safety.
Like all three previous incarnations, Espace Mk 4 has been a resounding sales success. As well as winning over new customers, it also has the highest loyalty rating in its segment – 75 percent in France, and 66 percent in the rest of Europe.
Espace has set the standard for the large MPV sector since it was introduced. Being the number one choice in MPV in Europe for the past 22 years AND with more than one million units sold, it shows no sign of relinquishing its leadership.