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Can the latest Scenic live up to its sharp and glossy new look, or has the seven-seat MPV segment matured enough that the competition now has an edge?

Not only did the Renault Scenic essentially invent the European compact MPV segment, but its four-generation lifespan has also neatly charted the evolution of the family blob on wheels.

And at its inception in the mid-1990s, the Scenic was very much a blob: a swollen, high-ceilinged carcass welded to the front-wheel drive platform of the contemporary Mégane hatchback.

Scenic is one of the last models in Renault’s range to fall into line with the current ‘Life Flower’ design language

It neither sounded nor looked like much of a prospect, and even Renault believed it would be a niche product.

But the model won the European Car of the Year title in 1997 and caught the public’s imagination in the best possible way. At its peak, the manufacturer was said to be turning out 2500 examples a day.

Its replacement added to the line-up a long-wheelbase Grand version, which came with the two third-row jump seats necessary to bridge the gap between the compact segment and the longer-running, more expensive large MPVs.

However, the outgoing Scenic III floundered, along with the rest of the class, as droves of family buyers migrated from drab five-door bubbles into the more dynamic profile of the crossover.

Renault’s introduction of its XMOD model was intended to stem the tide, but its half-hearted execution and off-key looks only highlighted how unfashionable the Scenic had become.

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At the Geneva motor show in 2011, Renault proved well enough that it could read the writing on the wall by showing the R-Space concept, a strikingly voluptuous take on the MPV format that was followed by the Initiale Paris two years later.

In 2014 the latter went real-world with the non-right-hand-drive and ostensibly crossover-influenced new Espace, a car with which the latest Scenic shares much of its big-wheeled, flashy front-end styling and swept-back visual theme, along with a platform and a production line.

This new Scenic looks about as shapely as an MPV might be made to look and is launched in the UK with a 36-version showroom line-up.

That suggests Renault is wildly more confident about the model’s prospects now than it was 20 years ago. We’re testing the seven-seat Grand variant to find out if such optimism was suitably justified. 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Renault Grand Scenic LED headlights

The secret to the Scenic’s new design identity – aside from all the obvious curvature going on in the bodywork – is contained within a number of telling dimensional changes.

The latest model is 20mm wider than its predecessor and on broader axle tracks. It’s also a little over 30mm longer in the wheelbase and is 16mm shorter in the rear overhang, making it better proportioned right out of the gate.

The switch to a 60/40 split middle row disadvantages RHD buyers. No Isofix mountings on third-row seats. Those are major failings in an MPV

But the real coup is the previously unheard-of addition of 20in wheels as a standard item across the range.

These inordinately big rims make Renault the Scenic look suddenly squat and purposeful, while at the same time helping it to gain 40mm in ground clearance.

The effect, considered alongside the high shoulder line, deep sills and raked nose, is significant. The Grand Scenic gains slightly longer rear doors in order to account for a wheelbase length 70mm greater than that of its five-seat sibling, although it, too, is a visual tonic for the mostly by-the-numbers design of direct rivals such as the Volkswagen Touran and Citroën Grand C4 Picasso.

Whether or not the Scenic overhauls the more fashionable profile of a Skoda Kodiaq or Nissan X-Trail is debatable, but the very fact of it being worthy of discussion signals that the Renault design team has triumphantly hit its target.

Underneath the body, there are fewer surprises. The aged platform of its predecessor has been replaced by the larger version of Renault-Nissan’s Common Module Family (CMF) architecture.

The C/D variant of that component set underpins everything from the Nissan Qashqai to the Renault Talisman, and while it can accommodate four-wheel drive, the Scenic is exclusively front drive.

Turning the halfshafts is a familiar range of engine options: two versions of the four-cylinder petrol 1.2 TCe, alongside the stalwart 1.5 dCi 110 and 1.6 dCi 130 diesels. The 1.6 is also available in its lesser-seen, twin-turbocharged dCi 160 form, which gets a six-speed EDC dual-clutch automatic gearbox as standard. The rest come with a six-speed manual, although a seven-speed EDC ’box can be ticked for the 1.5 dCi.

The chassis is independent at the front, courtesy of MacPherson struts, and sticks with a torsion beam at the back.

To help stave off the inevitably detrimental effect of wearing 20in rims, Renault has shod them in equally big tyres, with the 195/55 rubber delivering a fairly sizeable 107mm sidewall. Moreover, by keeping the tyre narrow and being clever with the compounds, the manufacturer has earned an A rating for rolling resistance – the best, it says, ever awarded to a 20in wheel. 

INTERIOR

Renault Grand Scenic interior

Climbing into the Grand Scenic (and that unassuming 40mm of extra ground clearance will have made it a slight step up for some), the difference between old and new is immediately apparent – not just for the new layout, but also for a cabin architecture clearly intended to better bridge the gap left in Renault’s right-hand drive markets by the departed Espace.

Certainly the far-flung A-pillars and the massive expanse of dashboard in front of you do bring to mind the bigger MPV, and even if you’re not in a position to reminisce, Renault the Scenic’s cockpit feels more resoundingly MPV-like than that of its immediate predecessor.

Renault persists in mounting the on/off cruise control switch on the centre console. My usual squint to avoid selecting the limiter almost resulted in motorway catastrophe

It also seems larger up front than its mostly modest dimensional increases suggest it is.

The back seats make the car’s compact stature a little more apparent. There’s a decent amount of space in the second row (which slides, of course), enough to convince you that sitting three children abreast would be quite feasible.

Lift up the third row from the boot floor – an action that is easy to do – and you’ll soon note that being child-sized is pretty much essential if you’re a passenger looking to travel back there, not only for the inevitable shortage of leg room, but also for the relative closeness of the Scenic’s tapering roofline.

Accessibility is decent, though, and the car will let you collapse both rows of seats remotely at the push of a single button.

There are Isofix child seat anchorages for only the two outer middle-row seats and the front passenger seat, however, while the switch to a non-removable middle row of bench seats, split 60/40, rather than three individual chairs, will perhaps rankle with some.

With the jump seats down, boot capacity is 596 litres; fold the lot and the satisfyingly flat floor will furnish you with more than 1900 litres, which is slightly more than Volkswagen quotes for the Volkswagen Touran.

Where the Scenic is less able to compete with the class leader is in dashboard design and perceived quality.

The previous model was notable for its big advance in build quality over that of its predecessor; this new version is much less of a leap forward.

Mostly, it is the layout that aggravates, with Renault plonking its unfortunately proportioned infotainment screen and centre stack down in such a way that it manages to look like an afterthought, while delivering a sliding centre console between the front seats that often obscures the car’s cupholders.

That’s a shame, because the decision to move the instrument panel back from the centre top of the dash to directly ahead of the driver is the correct one, and the gently raised driving position is nicely judged. 

Renault’s R-Link set-up is a mixed bag. The large, 8.7in touchscreen is mounted vertically on an unbecoming plastic plinth, but because its orientation often makes the sat-nav hard to follow, you can only conclude that it’s the wrong way round.

The system might have been saved by a combination of clever menus, but instead it is riddled with functional bugbears.

Some are simply muddled thinking. For example, there’s a physical ‘home’ button adjacent to the screen, which is fine, but pushing it only splits the display into three; to get anywhere else, you need to press an on-screen menu button to open a page that looks very much like what you’d expect from a home screen.

Then there are exasperating usability faults (like not being able to scroll through DAB stations without switching station, or the volume control being a ‘+’ and a ‘–‘ rather than a dial).

The system has TomTom sat-nav, Bluetooth, 3D sound and Multi-Sense drive modes, but when their presentation is as perplexing as this, it’s difficult to engage with them in a satisfying way. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.6-litre Renault Grand Scenic diesel engine

Renault-Nissan’s 129bhp 1.6 dCi ‘R9M’ engine is a known quantity. It’s also no stranger to the Scenic, having been introduced in the previous-generation model.

The downsized four-pot unit is intended to rival the larger diesels still common among rivals, and it produces 236lb ft, with an eye on keeping progress in the ‘respectably brisk’ region.

Steering inspires good confidence at first but doesn’t allow you to feel for grip around tighter corners

In the Grand Scenic, it does this well enough to make the substantial 1601kg kerb weight seem if not inconsequential, then at least easily manageable.

Measured against the Volkswagen Touran we tested, which used the familiar 148bhp 2.0 TDI and a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, the Renault proved to be 1.5sec slower to 60mph but still brisk enough, even in the wet, to as good as match Renault’s 11.4sec 0-62mph claim.

It’s a similar story from 30mph to 70mph: 9.7sec for the Touran versus 11.3sec for the Grand Scenic. In gear, there’s a gentle but noticeable tendency for the speed to increase with the introduction of the turbocharger’s assistance, rather than a wholly organic, linear rising of the rev counter on a consistent pedal position, but it’s easily forgiven.

Less forgiveable is the amount of noise generated by the Scenic. The 68dB recorded at a 70mph cruise seems reasonable (it’s the same score the Touran returned last year), yet it doesn’t account for the racket generated under load; the car seems to have only half the sound deadening afforded to its German rival.

Underlining the harshness, the 79dB logged at 5000rpm in third is a full 9dB louder than the Volkswagen.

RIDE & HANDLING

Renault Grand Scenic cornering

The din generated under acceleration is exacerbated by wider shortcomings in the Grand Scenic’s rolling refinement.

This is a car that rides with a slightly clumsy sense of determination rather than discernibly well.

Ride feels brittle over transmission bumps and jostles its body via the loaded outside rear wheel

Perhaps that was inevitable on such large wheels, although the car’s dynamic character feels recognisably ‘Renault’ at the same time. It is nonetheless a hospitable and athletic-feeling car.

The primary ride, bolstered by the vague feeling of stiffness emanating from each corner, is firm but essentially well managed.

Admirable structural integrity contributes to a sense of nonchalant agility in the Scenic’s change of direction, making it seem likeably spry and agile through its moderately quick steering in a way not guaranteed by many of its MPV rivals.

However, it doesn’t take a significant bump to expose a fair amount of unwanted brittleness in the chassis.

For a big car with 20in wheels and a rear torsion beam, Renault the Scenic’s inability to filter out jolts is unsurprising no matter what claims Renault makes for those tall tyre sidewalls.

The car’s jangly comfort around town seems forgiveable in isolation, but were you to drive the Scenic back to back with a Volkswagen Touran or even a C4 Picasso, the deficit in refinement would be obvious.

Ultimately, the Scenic’s final missing layer of dynamic sophistication feeds into the idea that, while it’s fairly easy to live with, it clearly isn’t as restful or comfortable as it might have been. And while some of that is the necessary compromise of living with the larger alloys crucial to the car’s appearance, the concession remains difficult to accept in any case.

The Scenic is surprisingly tolerant of press-on driving. Sturdy spring settings and passably weighted steering are at the core of this — the former reducing sloppiness in the body control, the latter generating enough confidence to make the available grip seem adequate.

That said, closer to the limit the steering’s initial heft never matures into the kind of progressive resistance that might be called feedback, and that makes the inevitable understeer more difficult to gauge than it might otherwise have been.

Moreover, a limited ability to smooth away insignificant bumps leads to the kind of body jostle that doesn’t occur in the better-damped Volkswagen Touran.

Nevertheless, while it may not generate quite the same degree of driver confidence, Renault the Scenic is likely to live up to most drivers’ expectations of a seven-seat MPV.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Renault Grand Scenic

Few seven-seat family cars will be more appealing for company car drivers looking to save money on benefit-in-kind tax than this one.

Renault The Scenic and Grand Scenic have an established strength in this area, and the most CO2-efficient model in each case still emits less carbon dioxide than almost all of its immediate rivals – and that’s with Renault’s even more frugal diesel-hybrid Scenic yet to be added to the range.

CAP doesn’t expect the high-price, high-spec, high-design positioning to result in great residuals immediately

A competitive list price also plays its part in any attractive finance or PCP offering, though, and it’s pretty clear from the Scenic’s that Renault thinks people will be willing to pay for its curvaceous design, 20in rims and well-stocked equipment level.

At list price, our test car was pricier than a like-for-like Citroën Grand C4 Picasso, Vauxhall Zafira Tourer or Volkswagen Touran.

You do get automatic emergency braking as standard on even the entry-level model, though, as well as cruise control and DAB radio. We would opt for the mid-range Dynamique Nav, which comes with parking sensors and an upgraded version of Renault’s R-Link 2 infotainment system.

An outstanding safety offering has been helping to shift Renaults for years. You’d imagine it would help to sell any MPV – and it should do the same for this one, the five-seat Scenic having scored five stars and an impressive 90 percent adult occupant protection rating with Euro NCAP.

No direct rivals have yet been tested under the current regime by the organisation, though.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Renault Grand Scenic

Renault has learnt the salient lesson of the crossover well.

Much as the Nissan Qashqai was a remodelled hatchback at heart, so the flamboyant new Scenic remains fundamentally an MPV, its function and recognisability only tweaked to the extent that its presence and appearance suggest a likeable revision to conventional thinking.

Big on showroom appeal but lacks the polish of its main rivals

Faulting the logic is difficult, because out of the end of it has popped the kind of objectively handsome product that typically arouses plenty of buyer interest.

But building the world’s best-looking MPV does not equate to building the best.

The Volkswagen Touran is among the drabbest-looking cars on sale, yet its place at the sharp end of the class is assured, because its utilitarianism is offset against the obvious quality of the driving experience.

Renault The Scenic’s failure to compete with rivals on refinement, interior quality and dynamic polish is at the heart of our justification for placing it outside of the class top five.

Still, space, ease of use, frugality, standard kit and appealing sensibleness remain obvious strengths – and are just as attractive as they were two decades ago.

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Renault Grand Scenic 2016-2020 First drives