Hot on the heels of the latest ‘Star Wars’ and promised ‘Star Trek’ movie announcements, space might well be the final frontier but, states Iain Robertson, it is certainly not the case for a great many car buyers.
The irony of ‘Lounge’ trim designations, which commenced with the original smart forfour and continues with the current Fiat 500L, actually highlights that, if a car buyer wants a bit of extra legroom for his rear seat occupants, the better choice might be a smaller, or less costly, option. After all, a diminishing number of us can afford to spend (invest is no longer a viable descriptive term) large sums of money on large luxury machines, as their manufacturers strive to price them at increasingly stratospheric levels.
While I remain a strong fan of the Skoda brand and I do appreciate the value offered by the Superb model, which provides convenient space in abundance, especially in estate car form, that marque is leaving behind its core customer base. It is not that long ago that a new Superb buyer need not have spent more than £16,500 on a ‘space-ship’ but you will not receive much change from £35k opting for the latest example. Pricing is a primary reason to contemplate downsizing for many.
Although the corporate sector can be relied on (for the moment) to maintain the sales momentum of luxury/executive class models, it is abundantly clear that Jaguar is demanding that its former fat cats slim down for the latest XJ. While this may present a sensible proposition, with heart, diabetes and broader health issues on the rise, it will be fat chance that anyone taller than 5 feet 10 inches, or Size 12, will be able to glide gracefully into the rear benches of the latest Coventry Cats. They offer insufficient shoulder room, ensuring that occupants are forced to adopt a squeezed placement, thereby turning them towards the altogether more spacious cabins of the Teutonic Threesome (Audi A8, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class). However, all of these class contenders demand sky-high budgets perilously close to £100,000.
There is no avoiding the fact that the sometime SUV has transmogrified into the ideal family, or executive, car, as much at home on the streets of leafy suburbia, as it is outside the front door of The Ritz, or in parking pride of place at the headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline. It is not just the Range Rover (original 1970 price: £2,000; today upwards of £150,000) that shares top billing, with its ease of access to and egress from the rear. Jeep is on a similar track, in hot pursuit of high-end Germanic products.
Yet, there is now a family of SUVs, ranging from small-fry Suzukis to versatile Volvos that occupy the small, medium, large and extra-large dimensional dictates to such an extent that they have effectively elbowed out the former space race pioneers from the MPV sector. However, it is not on the bases of enhanced safety, or even improved convenience, as the 4×4 look-alikes are more often than not a pseudo, or sham, promising elec-trickery traction with only two-wheel-drive but still demanding the fat tyres, increased ride height and inevitable maintenance costs of significantly more involved machinery.
In the days when carmakers serviced their market needs with saloon, estate car, coupe and pickup-truck variants, volumes of scale kept new prices at sensible levels, because the economies of scale were somewhat nearer to being in balance. While platform and technology sharing helps to keep raw costs within sensible bounds for many of them, stretching the envelope by changing metal pressings, increasing the areas of airbag deployment, bumping up design costs, increasing equipment levels and making them less taxation-friendly adds to the costs already incurred by horrendous premium pricing.
One of the biggest examples of market share butchery in recent times must be exercised by BMW, which created the 4-Series out of the previous 3-Series, with little more than a few bits of chromium-plastic trim strips and it is you, the customer, who funds the ‘privilege’. There is no way by which that market manoeuvre could be described as anything other than cynical and, sticking with BMW for the moment, the most incendiary display of its Teutonic arrogance lies in the recreation of the Mini, which is now as far removed from its original Isssigonis intentions as it ever could have been. Adding insult to injury is a price range that starts at a change-free £20,000 (because options are seldom missing from even the most basic examples of the breed), rising to not far off £40k….FOR A ‘MINI’! As far as space is concerned, the ‘Fives and Sevens’ are the only BMW numbers with which you need concern yourself and you know where their price tags are…in Captain Kirk territory.
When back seat space is a criterion, there are some amazing winners to factor into the mix. The latest crop of 1.0-litre tiddlers, which offer quite decent performance, allied to fuel economy, low life costs, decent trade-in values and first-rate accommodation prospects (based on the simple but vital fact that I stand 6 feet 6 inches tall) include:
- The VW, Seat and Skoda trio – ‘UpMiiCitigo’
- Suzuki Celerio
- Hyundai/Kia – i10/Picanto
- Vauxhall Viva
The Peugeot 108, Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo are all compromised, as are the Vauxhall Adam, Ford Ka and Fiat 500, more by style pretensions than functionality.
Moving up a class, there are no true victors, although the Skoda Fabia is somewhat roomier than either the Ford Fiesta, or the Vauxhall Corsa. The Kia Rio and the Renault Clio run the Skoda quite closely but the Toyota Yaris is sorely outclassed. Mind you, for sheer low costs, the Dacia Sandero takes some beating.
Of the heavily populated compact cars, there is truly only one winner on the space front, with the others playing second fiddle. None of the premium priced models can figure in here at all, as they all lack practicality:
- Vauxhall Astra (in its latest guise, it is the winner overall)
- Skoda Octavia (it has lost its price advantage)
- Ford Focus
- VW Golf
- Kia Ceed/Hyundai i30
- Seat Leon
- Suzuki S-Cross
From the medium sector, a clear winner emerges:
- Skoda Superb (but watch those prices)
- VW Passat (especially in estate car form)
- Ford Mondeo
- Mercedes-Benz C-Class (beware of options)
- Audi A4 (but you will pay through the nose for it)
Conclusion: Whether buying new, or used, it is vital to avoid the pitfalls, especially when demanding a commodious and comfortable cabin. While it is true that we have a far greater choice of models, than at any time in the history of the motorcar, selecting the right one for business, or private, use is perhaps even more critical nowadays. However, winning in the space race, especially when aligned with a realistic budget, is not such an easy choice to engineer.