Impressions; Renault Espace Quadra

4 x 4 x 7

What's the best type of going to show off four-wheel drive? Snow, of course. Where is there always snow? In the Alps, surely. And which manufacturer has just announced the first full-time 4WD system on a French car? Renault. Add all this together on the Press launch of the 4WD Espace and what do you get? A winter so mild that ski resorts are melting into the Alpine meadows, plus a group of very over-dressed British motor writers wishing they had brought their shorts.

But though the ski-runs were thin, the roads were awash with the slush and gravel typical of a British winter in any case, giving the newly-announced Quadra 4WD version of the ingenious Renault Espace all the testing it needed. This is the car concept that has taken far too long to evolve— an efficient box with removable seats, combining saloon car comfort and performance with versatility surpassing any estate car, wrapped in an efficient shell which, at 14ft 3in, is shorter than a Sierra.

This is not the only seven-seater car on the market, but what distinguishes Renault's "one box" approach to the question is the complete removability of the five rear seats (three in the middle, two behind) to leave a flat floor more than 61/2ft long with a low tailgate sill. Recessed mountings allow just one or all five of the identical seats to be fitted, and any one can be folded to form a table. It is a clever principle, and thoughtfully executed, down to a choice of positions for the rearmost seats and arm-rests in the side panel. There is, of course, one snag — if on your travels you buy a chest of drawers, how do you carry the displaced seats home?

Adding a 4WD option is but one of the revisions to this multi-purpose vehicle for 1988: the face-lifted Espace not only looks better but has more power, more room and more flexibility than the 3000 or so which have been sold in the UK since 1985. Despite its unconventional outline, Espace production has climbed steadily, and this year assembly will total 28,000 vehicles. The car was designed by Matra, which has a history of unusual "packages" including the Matra Simca Rancho and the three-abreast Murena sportscar, and is built mainly at that company's Romorantin plant with some help from Renault's own Alpine factory at Dieppe.

The Espace bodywork is all composite (GRP-reinforced polyester) over a steel shell, and is surprisingly slippery; with the new front bumper and spoiler the Cd is 0.34, helped by the heavily-raked screen, which allows the new electronic injection-engined version to top 110 mph. Both petrol engines (there is also a turbo-diesel) displace 2 litres, but while the carburettor unit has only 103bhp, the injected one develops 120bhp. This is standard for the 4WD Quadra.

Like much of the front suspension and steering, the engines are borrowed from mainstream Renault models (R21 and R25), and the unit mounts ahead of the front axle and drives through a trans-axle both for the 2WD and new 4WD models.

Adding a prop-shaft and rear differential has not affected the interior at all, despite the new floorpan and rear suspension, but a small amount of fuel capacity is lost and the spare has now to be a space-saver. At the front the double wishbone layout is unaffected (though the track of the new models is up by 11/2in with the fitment of R25 parts) while the rear end uses the same torsion axle principle as before with some re-location. This is a form of simplified De Dion aide, with trailing arms and a Panhard rod locating a twistable cross-member which keeps the wheels parallel. Rising rate coil springs reduce body movement.

One of the innovations on the Espace Quadra is the use of a hollow fibre-composite prop-shaft, an expensive item which pays for itself in several ways, since its large diameter (over 3in) and great rigidity cut out any need for a central bearing, cutting weight, noise and vibration.

This shaft is driven by the gearbox secondary shaft and connects with the rear diff through a viscous coupling, giving continuously and automatically variable torque distribution, biased towards the front wheels when accelerating on grippy surfaces but capable of instantly channelling 90% to the rear if that is where the grip is. And the coupling works both ways, optimising the distribution of braking forces and reducing the chance of locking wheels. However, Bosch five-channel ABS will shortly be available as well. In the meantime, the old rear drums have been replaced by discs.

Renault looks on the Quadra system as an all-weather rather than an all-terrain system, and 4WD Espaces are fitted with a new Michelin tyre which gives added sideways grip on slippery roads to go with the traction of four driven wheels. Although the MTX4 tyre rates as an M+S, it seems no noiser than normal rubber (though it howls in extreme cornering) and gives good enough grip to use all year round.

Driving the Espace is novel but easy, in that one sits very upright behind the wheel and a long way from the screen, but power steering and the fine view make positioning simple. Gearchange quality varied amongst the test cars from good but slow to vague and slow, and the ratios are inevitably widely spaced in order to combine mountain pull with motorway cruising, but a firrn foot will crack 60 mph in 11.4 sec.

Handling is much like any modern car; the Espace does understeer under pressure but the viscous coupling noticeably smooths out the effect of mid-corner deceleration, keeping the car close to the intended flight-path. Over sinuous mountain roads my companion and I found that if you ignore the angle of lean the tall machine will cling on pretty well, while it never seems to be lost for grip through snow and water, ignoring puddles and climbing strongly even on packed snow as though it had snow chains on.

Broken surfaces can noticeably jar the generally comfortable ride, and even with only two people aboard the 120 bhp unit was a bit short of breath at times when climbing (at least one special Espace has been built with the R25 V6 engine, but don't expect to see a production version).

Overall, though, I appreciated the ease of access, fine visibility, generally good fascia and clever concept of the Espace; with the bonus of fuss-free full-time 4WD for those wet days at Oulton Park, what better way to tow the racer to VSCC meetings? GC