A Grand day out with Renault's Scenic family favourite
Renault has breathed new life into the MPV with its latest Scenic - but is it better than a crossover? William Scholes finds out
STUNG by criticism that its last Scenic model was not very, well, scenic, Renault gave its designers free rein to make the new version of its midi-MPV look a whole lot more interesting.
The car on this page is what they came up with. The new Scenic is, as you can judge for yourself, as arresting a piece of design as you could reasonably expect for what is essentially a box on wheels.
Renault invented the mid-sized MPV when it introduced the original Scenic in 1996.
Essentially a Megane wearing a top hat and borrowing a lot of the practical touches found in its bigger seven-seat Espace sibling, that first Scenic was a big hit.
In particular, it found favour with families who wanted a bit more space and utility but who didn't want to have a vehicle of either the size or price of a full-house MPV like an Espace.
Seeing Renault was on to a winner, other manufacturers brought out their own MPVs - Vauxhall Zafira, Ford C-Max and Volkswagen Touran among them - but in the 21 years since the Scenic debuted, enthusiasm for this type of car has waned.
The Scenic's cause wasn't helped by the last generation of the car being terminally dull-looking, but the biggest challenge has been the rise of the crossover and SUV in the family buyer's affections.
In next to no time, these have gone from niche interest to representing almost 30 per cent of the new cars registered in Europe. Why drive a dull MPV when a chunky crossover can be yours?
Into this unpromising environment ventures the new Scenic, but Renault is confident that there is plenty of life left in its MPV pioneer.
As before, and in a naming strategy successfully swiped by coffee shop chains, Renault will sell you both a 'regular' Scenic and a 'Grand' Scenic.
Here, going Grand doesn't mean you get an even bigger bucket of cappuccino in exchange for an £1,800 premium Renault asks; you do, however, get two extra seats and more bodywork to make your Renault a seven-seater. Rivals such as Citroen and Ford follow the same strategy.
Arguably, the five-seat MPVs are particularly vulnerable to competition from crossovers. Beyond personal preferences, it is difficult to argue why a Renault Scenic is a better bet than Renault's own accomplished Kadjar.
But there are fewer seven-seat, mid-sized crossovers and SUVs around - the Skoda Kodiaq and Nissan X-Trail are about it for now, though more are coming... - which means the Grand Scenic stands a better chance of stemming the crossover challenge.
First impressions count and, as already mentioned, the Grand Scenic gets off to a strong start thanks to its snazzy exterior.
Renault has taken the bold step of fitting every Scenic with 20-inch wheels - that's the same size that you might normally find on a blinged-up Audi Q7 or Range Rover Sport - and these really help catch the eye.
"In a naming strategy successfully swiped by coffee shop chains, Renault will sell you both a 'regular' Scenic and a 'Grand' Scenic. Here, going Grand doesn't mean you get an even bigger bucket of cappuccino, though you do get seven seats"
The wheels contribute to giving the Scenic 4cm more ground clearance than the last car; it is also 2cm wider and sports a wheelbase that is 3cm longer.
These visual tricks blend to give the Scenic undeniable presence. Put it this way: once you have seen one, you won't forget it; can you even remember what the last Scenic looked like?
The interior is far more straightforward than the avant garde exterior. The driver's instruments and the large, portrait-orientated touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard are essentially lifted from the Megane.
This is not a particularly bad thing, even if the touchscreen system feels like it is waiting for a v2.0 update - frustrations including switching between radio stations, the lack of a volume control knob and hassles around using Bluetooth audio. Nor are the menus as intuitive as they could be.
Auxiliary controls around the steering wheel help a little, but aren't much use if the front passenger wants to play DJ.
The Scenic manages to feel far more spacious for front passengers than you might expect.
The interior is also sturdily put together from nice materials and gives the impression of being more than up to the rigours of whatever abuse family life might throw at it.
Practical, crowd-pleasing touches include USB sockets for back seat passengers, aircraft-style folding tables on the backs of the front pews - just right for holding an iPad - and a large storage compartment between the front seats which can slide backwards and forwards.
As with every seven-seater MPV of this size, there is an element of compromise in how you juggle the amount of space you give to passengers in the rear accommodation.
The middle bench - split 60/40 - also slides to alter the amount of legroom for passengers in the middle and rear-most rows.
The third row of seats are of the 'plus-two' variety. Children can fit comfortably but adults will struggle on even short journeys; in any case, accessing these seats requires a level of dexterity that children will actively enjoy but which practically precludes adults.
Slide the seats forward to allow a little more room for the legs in the back, and your second-row passengers won't be thrilled, particularly if the driver and front-seat passenger have their seats set back.
There is decent flexibility in the seating arrangements, and in most cases it should be possible to come up with a configuration that manages to accommodate legs and booster seats and so on; the Grand Scenic is no worse than other rival MPVs in this regard, though nor is it any better.
If ultimate flexibility and the need to facilitate longer legs and bodies is important to you, then a larger seven-seater - either an SUV or an MPV of the Seat Alhambara or Ford Galaxy variety - would be worth considering. But if your rear passengers are likely to be children, then the Grand Scenic should cope well.
They are a cinch to fold and erect, with some versions getting buttons in the boot to drop all five back seats remotely.
Another practical touch, often overlooked by designers, is the ability to store the parcel shelf under the boot floor.
Four trim levels are available, rising from Expression+ and Dynamique Nav to Dynamique S Nav and Signature Nav. Respective starting prices are £23,445, £24,945, £26,945 and £28,445.
The Grand Scenic is well kitted out. Expression+ models get dual-zone climate control, a seven-inch touchscreen , Bluetooth phone connectivity, DAB radio and automatic lights and wipers, roof rails, a leather steering wheel, headlights that automatically switch from high to low beam when needed, cruise control and electric folding heated door mirrors.
Dynamique Nav trim - probably the sweet spot - adds, among other features, the 8.7-inch portrait touchscreen and parking sensors front and rear.
Dynamique S Nav comes with a colour head-up display, a reversing camera and a panoramic sunroof with a sunblind. Top-of-the-range Signature Nav gets leather upholstery and full LED headlamps.
You can have your Grand Scenic with a petrol engine, though as it's a 1.2-litre unit with either 113bhp or 128bhp, it's probably going to be a niche choice.
Diesel is better catered for, with three versions: a 1.5-litre dCi 110 with 109bhp; and a 1.6-litre in 128bhp dCi 130 or 158bhp dCi 160 flavours.
A so-called mild hybrid version based on the dCi 110 is due to arrive by the summer. It will harvest energy from the brakes to top-up the battery, and uses a 48 volt electrical system instead of the usual 12 volt set up normally found on cars.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard - it had a rather notchy shift action on the test car - but a seven-speed double-clutch automatic can be specified with the dCi 110 engine. The dCi 160 model is only available with a six-speed double-clutch automatic gearbox.
Depending on your engine and gearbox choices, the Grand Scenic will cost £140, £160, £200 to tax in the first year of ownership and £140 annually thereafter.
Given their core purpose, MPVs have no great call to be remotely sporty to drive; smooth-riding comfort is the name of the game here.
In this regard, the Grand Scenic manages to shrug off the inherent disadvantages of its large wheels surprisingly well.
Jumbo wheels normally thump and thud into bumps and surface imperfections, and while this hasn't been completely eliminated, it is fair to say that the Scenic is no worse than any of its more humbly wheeled rivals.
Big wheels, or course, need big tyres but Renault insists that the tyres specially developed for the Scenic should cost no more than a 'normal' tyre.
The Scenic also handles and grips with more vigour than you might imagine, though your passengers probably won't thank you for finding out.
The test car had the dCi 130 engine which felt just about right for the vehicle. You need to work the engine hard to get much va va voom out of it - the Grand Scenic is a big, heavy car, after all - but it settles down to cruise quietly enough.
Of more likely relevance than sports car dynamics to prospective Grand Scenic customers is the Renault's safety credentials.
It's rated as a five-star car in the Euro Ncap test, and aids such as active emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition, cruise control, speed limiter, automatic high-low beam, a plethora of airbags and three Isofix mounts in the middle row are standard.
Despite the rise of the crossover, there is still a decent range of medium-sized seven-seater MPVs in the market.
The latest Renault Grand Scenic might not be the revolution the original Scenic was more than 20 years ago, but with its striking design - including those 20-inch wheels - it does inject a bit of much-needed imagination and flair into a generally bland section of the market.
The Scenic is a thoroughly well thought out mid-sized family car with a depth of talent and general usability that shows there is plenty of mileage left in the MPV.
It makes most sense in seven-seat Grand guise, and it's unlikely to halt the growth of crossovers or SUVs but the Scenic does offer a worthy alternative: a job well done, Renault.
Renault Grand Scenic Dynamique S Nav dCi 130
Price: £28,445. As tested £31,080. Options included metallic paint £545, full LED headlights £500, 'parking pack premium' with hands-free parking £500, 'safety pack premium' with adaptive cruise control £500, BOSE stereo £500, spare wheel £90
Engine and transmission: 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 128bhp, 236lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 118mph, 0-62mph in 11.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 61.4mpg (EU combined), 42.7 mpg (real world)
Car tax: £160 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 25 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (90/82/67/59), 2016