mpvs and people carriers - putting people first

thinking of buying an mpv? read this first. jonathan crouch looks at what's on offer

mpvs and people carriers - putting people first

Don't assume that the only people who need apply for ownership of an MPV People Carrier are those with large families. This sector may have started out selling glorified vans with windows but its developed into something much more sophisticated. As a result, all kinds of people are finding it hard to ignore the clear advantages of buying a car of this type.

In fact, the biggest problem these days is that there are so many alternatives, that it can be difficult to know where to start, so lets try and simplify things. Essentially, there are today three basic types of MPV.

First up are Supermini-based models, developed from shopping runabouts like the Toyota Yaris or the Mitsubishi Colt. These are basically small cars with big ideas. After all, just because you need a little car, there's no reason why it can't be almost as versatile as a larger one. These models won't transport any more people than their standard counterparts, but they do offer accommodation that is a great deal more flexible. This sector also includes small van-based MPVs like Renault's Kangoo and Citroen's Berlingo Multispace.

Whether you'd want one of these models depends upon your definition of 'flexible'. Being based on a very compact donor car means compromises not only in the number of people you can carry but in terms of the real flexibility which made you want an MPV in the first place. So much so that some of the manufacturers who claim to compete in this sector have to work quite hard to define what makes their 'Supermini-MPV' entrants different from conventional Superminis. The answer tends to fall down to two things: a slightly higher driving position with the consequently higher roof height (for that MPV 'feel') and an added dash of versatility.

How much of an 'added dash' tends to come down to the effort expended by the manufacturer concerned: some so-called 'Supermini-MPVs' offer virtually no advantages whatsoever. When the concept is executed correctly however - as for instance, in the case of Vauxhall's Meriva - the results can be truly impressive. Here's a car not much longer than a Fiesta yet with more interior space than a much larger mini-MPV like Renault's Scenic. Fold all the seats down and there's more luggage space than a Mercedes E-class executive saloon. Keep them up and you've just about room for a family of five - for a lot less than the cheapest Astra or Focus.

Since cars of this kind are so cheap, they can be very tempting. Bear in mind however, that as well as the size constrictions, they're also not really designed for longer journeys. In other words: know what you're buying.

Above these sit mini-MPVs, cars like Renault's Scenic, Citroen's C4 Picasso and Vauxhall's Zafira, based on Family Hatchbacks like, respectively, Renault's Megane, Citroen's C4 and Vauxhall's Astra. In all but a few of the cleverer models (like the Zafira), you're still restricted to the same five-seater carrying capacity you'd find in an ordinary Family Hatchback. But then, the designers reckon it's not the number of seats you have, it's what you can do with them that counts. Expect in most cases to be able to fold, slide and remove completely to your heart's content. Expect also to find an almost bewildering number of storage solutions and that slightly higher-set seating position for that 'real' MPV feel.

There's a premium to pay for all this of course, which in terms of new models would have been as much as £1,500 or so more over the cost of the standard Family Hatchback on which the mini-MPV was based.

Finally, there are the cars you tend to picture when someone says 'MPV' - the larger ones. Ford's Galaxy and its VW Sharan and SEAT Alhambra clones lead this market, followed by the Peugeot 807. All right, so large MPVs are a little van-like (OK, very van-like), but if you're a parent with two or three children and probably a dog in tow, then their charms are hard to ignore, especially when you consider that stack of paraphernalia you tend to have to carry on almost every journey.

It's amazing how many people buy large MPVs and forget that travelling six or seven-up, there's very little luggage space. In the last few years, longer wheelbase versions of contenders like Renault's Espace and Chrysler's Voyager have helped a little in this regard but fully laden with people, the problem can still be acute as you end up swapping one set of problems for another. One solution is to invest in a roof box - or better still, try and get the seller (who may well already have one) or the garage (who will probably sell them) to throw one in as part of the deal.

In summary, think carefully about your real needs before you go shopping in this sector: you might end up deciding you don't really need an MPV at all. If you are tempted however, try plenty of different types in different sectors - and bring the family to the showroom with y