Large, stylish MPVs could be making a comeback. At the recent Paris motor show Renault relaunched the Espace as a bold, well designed MPV-cum-crossover, and Ford showed the latest S-Max, which will be a recipient of the company’s new Vignale luxury trim and concierge service.
The premium brands are making moves too: Paris saw the launch of the production BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, a compact MPV, while Mercedes – which replace the MPV-style A-Class with a conventional hatchback a couple of years ago – reaffirmed its interest in that segment by revealing a new B-Class.
That the two German premium brands are investing effort into MPVs is significant, but they may be missing an opportunity beyond the compact, higher-volume segments. Large MPVs are a neglected niche: after Toyota introduced the innovative and stylish Previa in the mid-1990s, the territory was commoditised by the mainstream brands, with utilitarian van-based models and products marketed as bland school-run devices offering space but no character and a mediocre driving experience. MPVs had become merely ‘people carriers’.
SUVs then entered the marketed. They were premium. They needed to be, because of the cost of the four-wheel-drive technology and – starting with the first BMW X5 – the additional cost of engineering decent handling into a heavy, high-centre-of-gravity lump. But more importantly the SUV concept was American, so they were marketed as lifestyle vehicles, recreational tools. They enhanced your life rather than announcing to the word your grim acceptance of its responsibilities.
Of the premium brands only Mercedes persevered with the large MPV, but its products have remained van-based. So Renault may have hit on something with the new Espace. Not everyone wants an SUV – Audi Q7s, BMW X5s and Mercedes MLs have begun to symbolise some of the less appealing characteristics of the monied middle-classes. And very few need off-road capability.
I was with a Volvo strategy guy at Paris and it got me thinking. I’d probably buy an S-Max if it had a different badge. I’d almost certainly buy the Espace if they produce it in right-hand drive. But I’d far prefer it with a Volvo badge.
Volvo can carry off a contemporary interpretation of a large, MPV. It has the brand-width to do it (unlike Jaguar, another near-premium brand, which can stretching itself to SUVs but no further). An MPV would suit Volvo’s brand values and its design aesthetic. Volvo is about stylish functionality – vehicles with a purpose but also a personality, confident but classless, luxurious but life-enhancing. And its products are increasingly about cabin design – supremely comfortable but understated, ergonomically intelligent, with natural materials, authenticity and the influence of Scandinavian home interior trends. What better medium to express this than an inherently spacious, light and flexible MPV cabin?
Volvo’s boss recently said that until 2020 it will only replace existing models. That’s a pity, because there’s a gap in the market and a brand fit. And if Volvo were to fill that gap it would challenge the German big three by setting a trend rather than merely offering an alternative to a product type already offered by the competitors. Which would make the brand far stronger.