Motor mouth: Van extraordinaire

Motor mouth: Van extraordinaire - French logic? Sixteen years ago Renault simply ignored an axiom and made a car that worked like a van. Thus the Espace and the liberation of Oddbins Man and his family, given the right to roam the M-ways with enough clutt

by STEPHEN BAYLEY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

French logic? Sixteen years ago Renault simply ignored an axiom and made a car that worked like a van. Thus the Espace and the liberation of Oddbins Man and his family, given the right to roam the M-ways with enough clutter to ballast an empty supertanker. Now with the weird Kangoo, Renault is selling a van that wants to be treated as a car. So we are jumping the species barriers like a flea in a fit.

Ask the man in the Clapham Clio and he will probably say that, Nicole and her deeply layered high-production-value incest fantasies aside, Renault has a stalwart rather than stirring image in this country. But that doesn't do justice to an extraordinary history of innovation. Renault used Dr Porsche on the old quatre chevaux, invented the motorised basket with the adorable 4, pioneered the large hatchback with the sophisticated 16, blew the car market wide apart with the small hatchback, the chic 5, and then, with a bravura flourish, donated the MPV to suburbia.

In any case, expectations of convention will be fragged when the Avantime, a heroic combination of sports coupe and people-mover, appears. But that's not until next year.

So we hop back to the Kangoo. It's a category of vehicle the French have always done rather well, ignoring with Napoleonic disdain the fact that it's one no other manufacturing nation has ever bothered to consider. But then who has ever enjoyed a German croissant?

Any traveller to France is familiar with the Kangoo's genetic forebears, light vans called Express - usually painted white - decorated with windblown diesel smears, enlarged by high roofs, fenestrated with side windows from a garden centre and given a rudimentary and punitive back seat. They carry heavy-handed, unshaven scarlet gorillas in bleu du travail and lean around corners at crazy angles, but the thin tyres never let go, and there is evidently no more effective and efficient transport for a rural D road.

The Kangoo is like that, but housetrained: this is no van ordinaire. Instead of unforgiving Comecon black vinyl, the upholstery is cloth. True, it is cloth that looks like its pattern was inspired by a primitive screen saver, but that's a flaw endemic in all inexpensive cars. In addition, you get metallic paint, tinted windows, carpets, airbags, pretty wheels, decent sound, a tableau de bord that shrieks 'I have been designed' and most of the stuff you expect from a conventional runabout.

What is unconventional is that all these polite signifiers of genteel normality are hung about an architecture that remains defiantly working class. Compare the effect of dressing-up Ann Widdecombe in skimpy, lacy bra and knickers to savour the sort of incongruity.

The great advantage is that Kangoo offers cavernous internal space. You cannot touch the roof: people in the back seat could do those Canadian Armed Forces upper body exercises without disturbing front passengers. In addition, you get neat sliding doors and a positive orgy of storage spaces, nets, cubby-holes, a glorious full-length sunroof and things that excite the immature boy scout explorer in you. Kangoo feels like something you might use if you wanted to cross the Sahara.

Which is to say that it feels like a van: it chirrups, booms, scrabbles and vibes. Vans have come on a bit in recent years and there's no question that Kangoo, within its obvious limitations, goes well enough. It is just that its behaviour is not terribly polite. It feels as if all its components are in a loose and undisciplined association with each other and enjoying a little frottage, rubbing up against themselves merrily.

There's nothing unhappy about this; on the contrary, the Kangoo is a cheerful, pleasant and very useful vehicle, but it reminds you of the compelling psychological realities of vehicle use and ownership. Put it this way: no matter what your mood, demeanour or appearance, an S Class Mercedes enhances it. Technically refined, elegant, expensive cars make you feel good if you are feeling bad and make you feel terrific if you are feeling great. At pounds 90,000 or so less than a top-of-the-range Mercedes, Kangoo cannot reliably deliver these benefits.

Suntanned, fit and optimistic, the Kangoo is cute and an amusing ironic gesture. Hungover, nervy and on your way to an important meeting, I'm not sure you'd get the joke. That's Anglo-Saxon logic.

Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.

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