(Pocket-lint) - Reinventing any vehicle represents a challenge. Change the name and you'll lose customers, keep the same name and you create certain expectations. And with the Scenic, Renault has one of the most distinctive names in the business - the car that started the small MPV craze.
The new Scenic keeps the same name as the car it replaces, but whatever you do, don't call the new Scenic an MPV. Instead Renault has gone for reinvention and recast its small family people carrier as a crossover/SUV.
Why? Despite their intrinsic usefulness, the MPV has fallen from favour in the sales charts. No one wants to drive a van with windows these days. People want useful, but with some "life at the weekends" image, and in that statement lies the kernel of both the Scenic's change of attitude and the reason why the roads are full of cars like the Nissan Qashqai and Range Rover Evoque. Such cars provide nearly the same utility as a small MPV, but their image is altogether sportier and cooler - and you don't feel quite so much of a fool if you're driving it alone, as you do with an MPV.
So can the car that set the trend for small people carriers 20 years ago still find favour in a crowded market?
Renault Scenic review: With looks like these
On looks alone, the answer to the previous question is probably yes. The Scenic represents the conclusion of Renault's range renewal, and the design is striking. It picks up from the 2011 R-Space concept car - which served notice that Renault was out to reinvent the small MPV and was the first time we saw that unusual Renault window line, which dips down and then kinks back up in the rear door.
The "Honey" yellow/orange paint might have been what got the Scenic attention on the roads when we drove it, but it's the standard fit 20-inch wheels (you get them even on the base spec) that really lead the design.
The ride height is a few centimetres higher than the old car - which helps with the SUV vibe - and the lower body is black clad, which seals the deal as far as that image is concerned.
The lamps feature Renault's distinctive edge lighting (think long, flowing LED light pipes) and our model came with the black contrast roof line and panoramic roof, which means the whole upper body section is rendered in black - a look usually reserved for cars like the Mini and Range Rover. This isn't your parents' dowdy old Scenic.
Renault Scenic review: Interior space play
The Scenic has traditionally been a car that's been bought for its versatility and interior space. The deal was simple: for the same road space usage as the Megane family hatch, you got a much bigger boot, rear seats that could accommodate gangly teenagers (and stop them having a row) and a sense of real panorama and space in the front.
As far as the new model is concerned, there's mixed news in this regard. Renault has carefully gone through and tried to work out what matters to people and what doesn't. So what stays is the Scenic's myriad of peek-a-boo storage spaces, fold down tray tables, four USB ports (and the ability to slide forward to connect with the dash, or push right back to divide the two outer rear seat footwells (assuming there's no one sat in the middle seat)), and le piece-de-resistance: a huge, between-the-front-seats sliding unit with three massive storage spaces (one accessed from the front, one on top and one from the rear seats).
As the centre point of the cabin it's a nice, easy-to-use setup, which provides genuinely useful space (you can fit four 500ml Evian bottles in the front bin, for example) and allows you to really change how the cabin feels divided up.
Other Scenic mainstays that remain are the integrated rear door blinds (a boon for parents with young kids), and the rear seats which slide. Plus a variable height boot floor.
What you lose, compared to before, is any useful storage on the dashboard (the glovebox is tiny), the secondary convex rear view mirror (which was great for keeping an eye on kids in the back), and the ability to move the rear three seats independently - they're now conventionally split 30/70 like a normal car, so the middle seat and outer passenger side are joined together. This means that you don't get an Isofix fitting on the centre rear seat, one area the Scenic loses real-world ground in the family life stakes to competition from Citroen and Volkswagen.
Renault Scenic review: A nice place to be, a slightly less useful one
What has also noticeably changed is the perceived quality. In the Dynamique S Nav trim of our review car, the Scenic takes a leap in quality - the large captain's chairs are partially finished in leather, as are the upper door cards, which neatly integrate with the dashboard design.
Plus, with the 8.7-inch, portrait R-Link touchscreen (standard from this trim grade and up) curling up the dashboard, and the huge double A-pillar-flanked windscreen ahead of you, sitting in the front of the Scenic feels really special. Open the blind on the panoramic roof, and it's light and airy in here in a way that is streets ahead of other cars.
Slip into the back seats, though, and you can see this is where Renault's made a hedge - and is perhaps expecting some of its previous Scenic buyers to be moved towards the Kadjar SUV or one of the new 7-seat Grand Scenic. Because perceptively there's much less space in the back seat than before. Part of that's measurable inches, part of it's because it feels darker due to that sharply kinking up window line.
Renault has been clever to raise the rear seats' squab heights, so the view out for little ones is better than you'd think. But for adults, it's much tighter in here, and despite the back seats sliding we were very disappointed to find that - when driving in our chosen position (and we are 6ft tall) - our new-born infant carrier (Maxi Cosy car seat) wouldn't fit on its Isofix base behind the driver's seat.
We got it in, but we had to raise the front seat up, and move it forward two inches which compromised our driving position comfort. This happens because the driver and passenger seat are so thick and luxurious, plus Renault has added the fold-down tray table on the seat back, which eats into the space where the top of the car seat wants to be.
If you've got older kids who are in different car seats (the one for our three-year-old fitted fine) or your kids are older, they'll likely welcome the tables and not have space issues. But we're surprised to find a family car struggling to accommodate the baby seat as it did. As usual, try before you buy - as whether this is an issue for you will depend on baby seat and where you sit to drive.
Thankfully, the boot is what Renault say is biggest in the class: deep and square, it accommodated all of our clobber without any issue.
Renault Scenic review: Loaded up with tech
Since the first Scenic's introduction, Renault has always made a big play of two key qualities in its car: safety and extensive tech features.
Safety-wise the new Scenic aggressively pursues 5-star Euro N-Cap crash ratings and best in class scores (the new Scenic gets 5 stars - 90 percent for adult occupant and 82 percent for children, so it's close to top-of-class).
In tech terms, much of what other manufacturers will make you pay extra for is included as standard. For the £25,445 on-the-road price of our Dynamique S Nav model, you get lane departure warning, auto hi-low beam, auto emergency braking, a head-up display (HUD), the 8.7-inch touchscreen with data-connected sat nav, DAB radio, Bluetooth, a rear parking camera and surround parking sensors, 20-inch alloys, panoramic roof, keyless entry and start. That's a lot of kit.
It's easier to say what the Scenic hasn't got: there are no heated seats or electrically powered boot. Some options fitted to our car also cost extra: the LED headlights, auto park, a Bose sound system and a safety park with variable cruise control, safe distance warning and autonomous emergency brake (all priced at £500 each). We'd take the lights and the cruise control/safety system out of that lot.
These key points make the Scenic a decidedly easy thing to live with - especially now Renault seems to have ironed out some of the peculiarities of operation its previous cars have had.
The R-Link touchscreen system is worthy of specific mention. It's the same system fitted in the Megane, Kadjar and Espace. Displayed through an 8.7-inch, portrait-orientated touchscreen, the system makes much of personalisation options (offering various coloured skins which key in with the driving mode selected and the interior mood lights) and you can change the way the gauge cluster shows speedo/revs and info.
Because of its size, Renault uses a tiled icon arrangement, and on most screens it's easy to hit your desired feature even when moving at speed because the buttons are so large. You can get hopelessly lost in the menus because there's so much to customise, but limit yourself to the primary domains of media, radio, phone and navigation and it works pretty well.
The system has a data connection and taps into the TomTom Live traffic network, too, so it usefully helps you by predicting and offering previous suggestions as you type destination entries, then gets you around traffic jams while you're using it. We were impressed how it matched Google Maps every step of the way during our Leeds commutes - getting us to office and back home both with impressive speed but also prediction accuracy in terms of arrival time.
What doesn't work so well is the heating and ventilation control, which you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen, in an iPhone-style shortcut menu (it often takes three goes to get it to come up) and we still think that given the amount of digital real estate in the gauge cluster there could be more room made to show sat nav turn-by-turn instruction, or permit detailed scrolling through radio stations here.
Renault Scenic review: On the road
Few who buy a Scenic are going to be looking for the dynamic drive of their life. But you might expect a crossover to be a little bit more sporty than the average MPV.
With the 1.5 dCi engine fitted to our review car producing just 110bhp, this was never going to be a Scenic to set the world alight. It's not fast, but for most we suspect it will be just fine.
Peak torque is produced at 1,750 rpm, so the reality is that while the acceleration figures sound slow (0-62mph in 12.4 seconds), on the road you're usually in the meat of the torque curve so can easily keep up and overtake slow traffic.
Instead, the Scenic majors on efficiency and refinement. This is a quiet diesel and the cabin is well insulated - which makes for an easy, refined motorway car. This dCi 110 model also falls into tax band A, because it produces just 100g/km of CO2 - meaning it's in the 20% BIK take bracket and £0 tax in the first year. Officially it's 72mpg combined, although we got 48mpg throughout our test week.
As many last generation Scenic buyers bought privately, we'd actually suggest you avoid this, and buy the higher-powered 1.6 dCi diesel (unless you're company car purchasing or do more than 12,000 miles per year). Personally we would opt for the 130bhp TCe petrol - a nice engine in the other Renault products we've tried, perfectly capable of hauling the Scenic around, and it'll save you £500 on the list price of this diesel.
The Scenic actually clings on gamely when you are in a hurry - it resists understeer well and the body control is reasonably well managed such that you won't disturb your passengers too much if you press on. What does let the side down are those 20-inch wheels, which create a quite unsettled ride and some big jolts when they hit larger pot holes. Renault says that the larger tyre wall thickness used to compensate for the big wheels makes up for their size and gives ride comfort similar to cars wearing 17- or 18-inch wheels. We disagree, though by no means is the ride so bad it's impossible to live with.
That the original small MPV Renault Scenic has become another "me-too" crossover could have been an ignominy. The family-friendly Scenic has certainly lost one or two of its most clever touches in the name of becoming a more style-led product. Will that cost it buyers? We can see a few younger families finding a more useful accomplice in a Volkswagen Touran or Citroen C4 Picasso.
Yet the Scenic's reinvention as one of the fashionable crowd rarely comes across as marketing-led or cynical. Its design and execution has considerably more pizzazz than either of those aforementioned MPVs.
Despite a few caveats around child seats, feature details and rear seat space, we don't think too many buyers will feel short-changed by the Scenic's design changes. Many will appreciate the clever mix of style and utility. Whether prospective buyers judge its image and utility to be preferable to that of an equivalent sized, similar priced SUV such as Renault's own Kadjar, is the real moot point here. Particularly given an equivalent Kadjar seems to price in at around £2,000 less.
But perception is a funny thing. When we drove the Kadjar, we felt it was a default SUV. It did nothing wrong, but nor did it have much which stood out. Worthy it might be, but ultimately it is just a little dull. By contrast, it's easy to pick some holes in the way the Scenic goes about things - but a week and 400-miles of driving later, it makes a strong impression as a truly likeable vehicle, with stand-out looks and a cabin that's got wow factor. It feels special to be in. Once upon a time, those above descriptions of an SUV and an MPV might have been written in reverse.
Renault has always been a master of invention and reinvention when it comes to car types. And the Scenic's reinvention feels like the latest chapter in a history of the company creating clever cars that have significant appeal, largely because of its stand-out design.