Straight to the top of the class for Volkswagen Touran
But where they have the edge over big saloons, hatchbacks and yes, even the SUV, is for sheer practicality: the flexibility to easily accomodate up to seven people or a van load of cargo, or a combination of both.
So Volkswagen has reason to brag that its new Touran went straight to the top of the class by winning the hotly contested 'best MPV' title in this year's What Car? Awards. VW has plenty of experience of multi-purpose vehicles, of course. The Touran, now in its 14th year, sits between the more recent Golf SV and its largest MPV, the full-size Sharan.
The new model builds on core strengths of space, multi-adjustable seats for maximum flexibility and the driveability of a family hatchback. Now it's bigger, better equipped with a more premium feel to the cabin. It's more aerodynamic and lighter, which with a range of new petrol and diesel engines means new Touran is leaner and greener, too.
VW expects, naturally, the biggest selling version to be powered by the improved 115PS, 1.6-litre diesel which has achieved almost 70mpg in official tests. But those who prefer petrol are in for a surprise with the option of two superb new, small capacity petrol units, turbocharged for more power and crucially, more torque which means smoother, more relaxed progress. There's a 1.4-litre TSI with 150bhp and the impressive 1.2-litre version powering the test car, a midrange SE spec model costing £23,575 on the road.
I confess that, even though I'm familiar with VW TSI engines, on first seeing the specification, I wasn't looking to driving a big seven-seater with a mere 1,200cc under the bonnet. But what a surprise! This mighty atom of an engine produces 110Ps of power and 175Nm of torque and is actually marginally quicker off the mark than its 1.6 diesel stablemate at 11.3 seconds from a standstill to 62mph.
But sprint performance is no real standard to judge by in this class. Unlike a traditional petrol engine, the TSI's turbo means maximum pulling power is available from just 1,400rpm, barely above tickover so it pulls sweetly and smoothly across a range of engine speeds and gear positions. It makes the drive far more relaxed and it's exceptionally quiet too, adding to the upmarket feel created by the upgraded cabin trim.
The official fuel average is 52.3mpg and I managed to get remarkably close to that (51.4) on a 200-mile trip taking in town traffic, motorway and A-road driving. It managed 48mpg over a series of local journeys too.
But the real selling point for an MPV over other types of car is space and flexibility, and the Touran excels in both. The new model is longer and mm wider, with a longer wheelbase, and all of this additional space is used to create more space in the cabin. Seven seats are standard, with the rear pair capable of being individually folded flat into the floor to juggle between the needs of the people and cargo.
The centre three seats also fold and are easy to slide forward and backwards. depending on which configuration (folding anything from one to five seats) you have from 137 to a van-like 1,847-litres of boot space. For a holiday with seven people, the Touran has roof rails for their luggage.
The centre touch screen control is fully compatible with smartphone apps and also has 'cam-connect' so that parents can use a dashcam to monitor little ones in the back. The in-car microphone, coupled to the audio system, means you won't need to shout at those in the back, either.
The test car was an 'SE' version, the second of four trim levels available. It came with the full range of safety systems, including seven airbags, front assist, city braking and stability programme, plus the standard seven seats and roof rails. The audio system, including DAB radio and CD player, has full multi-device connectivity to help keep passengers occupied. Rain sensing wipers, automatic headlights, air conditioning and alloy wheels are also on the list.
There's a digital trip computer in the instrument cluster, plus fingertip controls on the wheel for audio, handsfree phone and speed limiter. The adaptive cruise control uses sensors to maintain your distance from traffic in front.
The Touran has room for seven of the tallest passengers but doesn't feel big to drive like some van-based MPV's of old: indeed it feels as light and agile as its cousin the Golf. It's still instantly recognisable as a Touran, but it has lost some of the boxy looks of the previous generation. VW has succeeded in giving the model a more upmarket look and feel, without sacrifcing any of the flexibility and practicality.
As for running costs, the 1.2TSI tested car has a low group 11E insurance rating while its CO2 rating (on which taxation is levied) is 129g/km.
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