The Renault Espace, Europe’s first modern minivan, is now a crossover. While this isn’t a sky-is-falling event, it’s a bit disheartening to see Renault use a nameplate famed for practical people carriers on a rather inoffensive-looking stretched cousin of the Nissan Rogue. Don’t get me wrong, it looks perfectly competitive, but I just don’t think it’s weird enough given the history of the Espace nameplate.
Upon first glance, the new Espace looks like a perfectly normal crossover. It has sharp creases over its haunches, a waterfall grille, some black cladding, and a two-box silhouette. That’s because it is one, as it’s really just a stretched version of the Renault Austral crossover.
Still, Renault has done a fine job at differentiating the two vehicles by altering fascias and keeping the Espace’s roof in body color. The end result is a decent-looking crossover roughly the size of a North American-spec Volkswagen Tiguan.
Outside of the giant handrest in the center console, there’s not anything particularly strange about the new Espace’s interior. It’s got a digital gauge cluster, a portrait-oriented infotainment screen, ambient lighting, and normal seats. I definitely like the unusual contouring of the infotainment screen bezel and the steering wheel looks very nice, but very little here looks hugely more special than the cabin in a new Mitsubishi Outlander.
Come to think of it, both the Outlander and the new Espace ride on the same platform, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the optional third row is tight in this French machine.
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising to hear that the new Espace is a hybrid. Diesels are so passe and Europe is dealing with some real blowback over plug-in hybrids (because drivers often weren’t charging them) so this very family-sized machine makes do with a series-parallel setup.
The combustion engine is only a 1.2-liter three-cylinder lump, but its turbocharged and paired with two electric motors to deliver 200 combined metric horsepower. A perfectly adequate number for a vehicle this size, if not an especially thrilling one. The other mechanical highlight is available rear-wheel steering, which should be useful for squeaking through tight European city streets.
It’s fine. But a walk down Espace memory lane makes us wistful for stranger, more creative days.
The first Espace was built by everyone’s favorite missile and three-seat sports coupe maker Matra out of an abandoned Simca project. It used fiberglass panels on a steel monocoque, its front seats could swivel to face rearward, its dashboard had an enormous ashtray and mildly confounding wiper controls, and its radiator was crammed right to the left side of the engine bay due to a decision to switch from a transverse layout to a longitudinal layout halfway through the program.
The Mk1 Espace may seem almost normal today, but it was properly weird in 1984.
The second-generation Espace got an even weirder look with unusually streamlined side mirrors that almost look melted into the windscreen cowl. Sure, this was fundamentally a re-skinning of the Mk1 Espace with the new Renault look, but it also got a new dashboard with an even bigger ashtray and gloriously asymmetric instruments.
What’s more, it spawned what might be the coolest van of all time – the Renault Espace F1. This is exactly what it sounds like, a minivan with a Renault RS5 V10 F1 engine where the rear seats would normally go and an enormous widebody.
While the third-generation Espace looks like an evolution of the Mk2 model on the outside, opening the door feels like stepping into a funhouse. Why? Well, the glove box is in the middle of the dashboard. Two enormous storage compartments stretch from basically the steering column to more or less the middle of the front passenger seat.
To make way for this, the Espace’s gauges are digital units in the middle of the dashboard, its shifter protrudes from the dashboard in a very unusual manner, and the dials for HVAC temperature are on the extreme edges of the dashboard. Add in big swaths of fabric and a positively panoramic view out, and this is one of the all-time great weird cockpits.
The fourth-generation Espace adopted significantly sharper styling with more hard creases that followed the Renault design language of the aughts. What’s more, it still had four conventional doors and was available in two lengths. As a result, it still looks weird, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it still has a weird cabin. The giant storage cubbies in the middle of the dashboard continue, except now there’s also a glovebox on the passenger side, and there are two more storage cubbies far up on the dashboard.
Obviously, this once again required clever climate controls, so it got what’s perhaps best described as a Nest thermostat in each door card. Oh, and the throttle pedal was hinged off of its side for some reason.
Sadly, the fifth-generation Espace wasn’t nearly as weird as its predecessors, but it still had strange touches. It was still extremely cab-forward, had a great set of taillights, and got a boomerang-shaped gear knob, but the crossover influence was starting to seep in. The dashboard was less concerned about being unabashedly utilitarian and more concerned about infotainment. Sure, this thing did the whole glovebox drawer thing years before the Hyundai Ioniq 5, but the rest of the cabin has a hint of Buick to it. In hindsight, this Espace was likely a sign of things to come.
While the new Renault Espace seems perfectly competitive in the crossover segment, it doesn’t seem competitive as an Espace. After all, Espace is French for space. By going with a traditional crossover form, Renault has abandoned most of the clever packaging and storage tricks that made the Espace awesome in the first place.
The whole French car industry is, on the whole, getting less weird. Blame consolidation with Stellantis or just changing buyer trends, maybe. But Citroën hasn’t made an air suspension in years and the “Air Bumps” on the Cactus are almost nonexistent now. If Citroën can’t be bothered to get weird anymore, what hope does Renault have?
It’s a shame to see an iconic minivan absorbed by the crossover kingdom, but I guess that’s life in the crossover age. Still, imagine if someone went all-in on an ultra-practical city-sized three-row minivan today. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
(Photo credits: Renault)
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Fashion, unfortunately – Pseudo-off-road, SUV style is just more popular it seems.
I love a 7-seater family wagon, and have had several VW Touran, Sharan etc. This time round, the best one for us was the Peugeot 5008.
The Peugeot shares a floorpan with Citroen’s 7-seater, the Grand C4 so has the same seating layout and is FWD, but is all dressed up to look like a 4X4 for some reason.
The 5008 is not an off-roader !
I HAVE OWNED A Mk IV Espace for many years, one of my best buys, absolutely love it. Currently around 155000 miles
That’s Alain Prost driving the Espace F1 in the YouTube video.
Boring, dull, boring and dull.
I loved driving the 1st and 2nd generation Espace, the fasted car on the road, with no handling, when we rented them as tour vehicles.
I’m also guessing you didn’t pass your French exam, it should be, ‘ Quelle Tristesse’.
Hey Tomas, I think that the first picture’s title should be “Quelle tristesse”.
Salutations from Québec City!
Fingers crossed, this is simply an intermediate shot from the hip until they launch an all electric Espace.
Espace, Previa and the original microbus were always about making space for people and then adding an engine somewhere. Perfect for an EV.
Considering Renault still has an F1 team (by way of Alpine), they might win over a few of us weirdos by cramming an F1 engine in the back of yet another Espace.
Also, I think it’s too big to count as city sized, but at least the Hyundai Staria is both a bit weird and unabashedly van.
So, for Americans the Espace moves from “forbidden fruit” to “meh, we’re not missing anything” territory.
Oh my. The interior is nice but the exterior looks like a ten year old Buick.
Today is a day of great sadness for me too. I was a real Espace enjoyer. My parents had two Gen III, then a Gen IV that I drove a lot. It was terrific on long trips, fuel efficient (thank the common-rail Diesel God), had a terrific road holding (especially for a tall vehicle, but even by general car standard) and was very well packaged.
To give you some insights : my Espace IV (short wheelbase) was 4.66m long. The Espace VI is 4.72 m long. Yet, the new one can only accommodate children in the back, like an Outlander or Tiguan Allspace, whereas mine could fit 7 adults easily (the 5 rear seats where identicals, the floor perfectly flat and the height did not significantly decrease in the 3rd row). Or 6 if we wanted to take some luggage. The first gen was the most impressive of them all, as it also featured 7 real seats (with less space than the fourth) in 4.25m, which is the size of a Nissan Kicks.
There is one thing that was awesome : you could fit a bike in the back without removing the front wheel or anything. No modern not-van-based car can do that. There was only a trade-off : to enjoy this very practical height you had to remove the very confortable, but very heavy (around 15-20kg each) rear seats and store them somewhere. But it’s hopefully not something you had to do too often.
In my opinion, Renault should have named that stretched Austral the “Nevada” if they wanted to capitalize on their past. It was a wagon based on the R21 (Eagle Medallion for americans), available with 4WD and 7 seats. Big success in the 80s, and a name that emphasizes adventure rather than pure space. Maybe were they afraid by the success of recent comedy film “Les Tuches”, which features one, and give it a “car of the poors” image, but it’s a missed opportunity.
One bright note : Renault is very attached to the “Espace” name, as we can see, because that’s their only success in the high-end of recent memory. So we will certainly have a Gen VII around 2030. It will have to be electric. And the “monospace” form factor is just too good to ignore indefinitely for electric cars : compact motor in front, short overhangs, big flat floor… I’ve got hope, OKAYYYYY !? In the meantime, the long wheelbase Kangoo will have to do the job for people who want 7 real places or bike space without buying a ridiculously big van like a Renault Trafic, Citroën Spacetourer or VW Transporter.
vive le rogue 🙁
“While this isn’t a sky-is-falling event, it’s a bit disheartening”
A bit disheartening? A BIT DISHEARTENING?! You kidding me?! Everything is going to shit and using the good name of the Espace for a crap wannabe tough bland mobile is just another nail in the coffin. I miss the times when companies were their own thing and not part of huge conglomerates sharing the same platforms and marketing BS.
Hello Thomas, what is sad? There is an adjective waiting for a noun.
Perhaps the author was sobbing so hard he forgot the “-sse” in “tristesse”??
I, for one, am ditching my crossover for a sports coupe. I had a fun little two door before the CUV, and after three years of relentless practicality I am ready to downsize again.
I wish there were more options there. Why can’t we have the 2023 equivalent to an Eagle Talon TSi?
So basically, a Chrysler Sebring Cross 😛
Well, to be fair the previous one was already a badly disguised crossover, and the Espace IV looked like ass. As a former owner of an MK1, my opinion is that the Espace died when it stopped being assembled by Matra. The Avantime is more Espace than the Espace IV.
Oh, and here’s some eye bleach for everyone that had to suffer through looking at the new Espace.
So, minivans are turning into crossovers (Carnival). Sports cars are turning into crossovers (Purosangue). Sedans are turning into crossovers (Crown). Pony cars are turning into crossovers (Mach E). Pickup trucks are turning into crossovers (Ram REV).
What’s next? NASCAR Equinoxes?
This is a crime against automotive nature.
Everything evolves into a Crab
The crossover bubble is going to pop eventually. Surely the market will become so oversaturated that normies will look to something else sooner or later. Right, everyone? RIGHT?!?!
We can hope, but my hopes aren’t high. For example I personally like driving a small car, but it is becoming more and more difficult to not get splattered all over the road whenever I try to pull into traffic because you just can’t see properly around all of the bloated crossovers from my MINI. I find myself avoiding driving it at peak times just so I can see and be seen.
Yea it’s pretty bad. Turning right is a terrifying experience on any road that has SUVs parked. I try to avoid it as much as I can.
I love sedans but I might have to pull the trigger on something like a Maverick (very unlikely to find a hybrid anytime soon) just to get some visibility. I think maybe the 2024 Kona would help but that’s still probably too low, especially with how tall hoods are getting (I’m looking at you Suburban/Yukon twins!). Even the Maverick probably still won’t be enough.
I went GTI to Kona N and I won’t lie, the little bit of extra height makes a huge difference
That’s good to know! I feel like the Kona is a good middle ground between full blown SUV/CUV and sedan. There are a few AWD Limited ones in teal closish to me too… With o% APR for 48 months! I can’t buy a car right now since I have to be smart but damn if that isn’t tempting.
I absolutely love my N. It’s an extremely useful package that gives me a raucous hot hatch when I want it and a flexible commuter when I need it. Plus the wife loves it, because in her mind SUV=practical. She’s not wrong, and the car was a great compromise for us.
The problem I have, as someone who prefers smaller cars, is that it’s impossible for me to get comfortable in most small CUVs. I have extremely long thighs compared to the rest of my body – hell I have longer thighs than people significantly taller than me. So a lower seating position is comfortable, but a more upright CUV-style position doesn’t give me nearly enough knee room. Hell something like a Hyundai Venue also doesn’t have much shoulder room – it’s a rare car I don’t think I fit in.
So I’m kinda stuck, and thus I’m going to hold on to my Hyundai Elantra GT for as long as I can.
I actually went looking for an Elantra GT when I bought my Elantra. My Tucson turned on me after 210,000 miles and I needed a car ASAP. They only had 1 GT on the lot at the time (I believe it was a 2018) and since it was the last one on the lot they knew what they had and didn’t want low ballers.
The 2019 Elantra had come out like a month prior and someone messed up on their end because I ended up getting the value edition for $2000 under MSRP with all fees included. I couldn’t pass it up at that price.
This right here. This era of road-legal behemoths is awful in many aspects, but one thing that doesn’t get mentioned enough is what a nightmare they are for anyone driving a reasonably-sized car.
I drive a small, extremely narrow car, and one thing that happens a lot is getting stuck in traffic because some apartment on wheels in front of me can’t fit through the gap that busses leave when stopping at certain bus stops. And more often than not, they could just stop behind the bus and let other small cars pass, but they’ll ostensibly move forward and block all traffic behind them like they get to decide how traffic flows. This isn’t exactly dangerous, but it’s become such a nuisance of city driving in my hometown, it drives me crazy.
I had to go around a huge truck in this situation last week and the dude threw a damn tantrum about it. Excuse me sir…your senselessly large vehicle is the one holding traffic up, not me in my hot hatch on stilts.
Not too long ago I actually got out of the car and begged the lady blocking traffic in front of me (behind a bus that broke down on a narrow street) to back up into the space I left for her behind the bus, so me and others could use the reasonable gap left by the bus. This was after a good minute of me trying to communicate visually and finally sounding my horn as gently as a I could when she looked away from the rearview mirror. Even after I got out and literally begged her – not gonna lie, I just tried to trick her into feeling bad about it – she resisted the idea for a bit and even told me my car wouldn’t fit since hers didn’t (I drive a Renault 4, this lady was driving an Audi Q something). She finally backed up, not really happy about it, but she did, and positioned herself behind the bus; suddenly traffic started flowing again. This person actually felt like she had the right to block it for everyone else because she was blocked.
The thing is that these bubbles usually burst when the generation of kids who were raised in a given type of vehicle grow up and don’t want to be their parents, so they reject whatever was popular back then. The generation that was raised in crossovers can’t afford new cars so it may be a while. Also, I suspect crossovers will have some staying power because they have real benefits for older people who can afford new cars and DGAF what any of us think about their vehicle choices.
Kids are already walking and using transit instead of driving crossovers. I know, a lot of that is economic necessity, but I also like to think they are not as stupid as we might assume. I think the “not my parents” trend will be station wagon-minivan-suv-crossover-mass transit/don’t care for a personal vehicle.