When an MPV is the MVP

My Q3 2014 column for Professional Manager on the modern-day people-carrier

Very rarely are people impressed by MPVs, forever referred to in the vaguely Stalinist technobabble of the car industry as the Multi-Purpose Vehicle. Received wisdom dictates that MPVs are too big, costly, boring, hard to drive, ugly and even vulgar to take their place in the company car-park.

But I have been impressed recently by what manufacturers are doing with their MPVs. Incredibly the sector is introducing innovations that are new to the industry and reviving bonkers ideas that were once the preserve of sports cars.

Take the Ford B-MAX and Vauxhall Meriva, for example. The former has a rear sliding door; the latter has rear-hinged doors that were recently only seen elsewhere on the Rolls-Royce Ghost and Mazda RX-8. Why? Well, because they make ingress and egress (otherwise known as getting in and getting out – see what I mean about jargon?) a whole lot easier, especially if you’re trying to manoeuvre child seats or the less mobile into the back of your car.

Vauxhall has a number of innovations on the flex theme. For instance, the Flex7 system on the Zafira Tourer means the family can choose between a five-seater or seven-seater; or fold the middle seat in the middle row down to make a 2+2 formation; or even fold up all six seats for a flat load-space.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that MPVs are flexible and versatile – that is pretty much their raison d’etre after all. But there’s more. What continues to impress me about modern MPVs is how manufacturers have acknowledged the historic problems of people carriers.

First-generation MPVs were more akin to vans than cars; big, gruff things that were physically difficult to drive with manual gearshifts that were harder to move than Excalibur lodged in rock. They were wholly undesirable – like a concession to middle-age, an unfavoured compromise candidate or admission of defeat to those who take pride in their cars.

Car-makers have addressed these problems in two ways. Firstly they’ve made them enjoyable to drive by dialling up suspension and refining grumbly diesel engines into the quiet, smooth and torquey powertrains we have these days. Dynamics have improved enormously since early MPVs, to the point where the large Ford S-MAX is a genuine pleasure to drive.

Secondly, MPVs look good. No really, they do. Take a look at the Seat Alhambra, Ford Galaxy or Vauxhall Zafira Tourer large MPVs. They’re smart, streamlined cars with knock-out interiors and plenty of gadgets to keep employees happy on their trips up and down the motorways. In short they’re excellent fleet vehicles, having thrown off the dull associations of yesterday’s MPV.

Still there’s a lingering suspicion that any big car – apart from SUVs – is something of a hair shirt. The fact that it’s largely budget or volume manufacturers making cars for this market doesn’t help. There’s a reason BMW, Audi, Jaguar and Lexus shy away from making a multi-purpose vehicle – and that subtle message pervades the minds of car-buyers and suggests to them that there’s still something vaguely shameful about owning an MPV; a kissing cousin of the badge snobbery that compels people to eschew excellent cars from the likes of Ford or Vauxhall.

My message is this. There is no reason in 2014 to ignore the humble MPV. There are sporty SUVs such as the Ford S-MAX; a hybrid seven-seater from Toyota; MPVs-in-disguise such as the SUV-like Chevrolet Orlando; mini-MPVs such as the Ford B-MAX and Renault Scenic; high-end MPVs such as the Mercedes B-Class; oddities such as the Citroen C3 Picasso and van-orientated MPVs such as the Citroen Berlingo Multispace.

There are even fleet specialities such as the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer Tech Line, rammed with technology, attractive details such as large alloys and privacy glass and equipped with engines that will emit as little as 119g/km and return fuel economy as high as almost 63mpg.

Like much of the car industry over the decade, the sector has diversified into niches to suit emerging customer profiles. What constitutes an MPV – beyond manufacturer blurb – is no longer especially clear; the DNA cross-fertilised with estates, SUVs and hatchbacks. What is clear is that the sector has thrown off its historic connotations.

Received wisdom has a habit of lingering in big-ticket industries like automotive, but just look at Skoda. As with the Czech car company – once derided, now offering some of the best cars on the road – if you listened to the man on the street when it came to MPVs, you’d be wrong.

Carrier Signals – Five MPVs

SEAT Alhambra

Impossible to ignore for the money, the Alhambra is a more affordable version of the VW Sharan, which means strong build quality and a good range of modern engines.

Ford B-MAX

A compact MPV with five seats, the B-MAX is notable for not having a central pillar between front and rear doors to improve access. Excellent range of diesel and petrol engines too.

Peugeot 5008

One of the cars that relaunched a flagging Peugeot range, the mighty 5008 boasts a practical, spacious interior with plenty of useful touches around the cabin.

Toyota Prius+

Europe’s first full hybrid seven-seat MPV emits under 100g/km and returns almost 70mpg. Running costs, high specifications and green branding are worth weighing up.

Citroën C4 Picasso

Perhaps the car that kickstarted the MPV revolution, the Picasso is sleek and different, while the interior is airy and quite massive.