As far as automakers go, the French have oft-been considered some of the most innovative and inventive with respect to market niches. They did invent the hatchback, crossover, and MPV after all with the Citroen Traction Avant, the Matra Simca Rancho, and the (Matra) Renault Espace, respectively. However, in the ‘90s, they went on to create another, smaller niche that no one knew they wanted, but everyone soon came to need.
Yes, that niche was the compact people-carrier market, MPV’s without the MPV trademark of seven seats. Wait, what? In what way would that even be an MPV if every Ford Focus, Renault Megane, Dacia Sandero, etc. etc. has five seats anyway?
Despite the questionable advantages of the mini-MPV, Renault dove headfirst in the ‘90s with the swoopily-designed but decidedly rectangular Megane Scenic. Citroen, as they always do, decided to go a more polarizing route and brought out their Xsara Picasso in 1999.
The original little Picasso was indeed polarizing, but most of that stigma ended up coming from the name. Some of Picasso’s living relatives weren’t happy that his vaunted name had become attached to a mopey little MPV and so one member of the family attempted to sue the other that had released the naming rights to PSA.
Despite the minor scandal that ensued, Citroen maintained the name and the product and sales soared. This original Picasso was once named the “most popular” MPV (not just mini) in all of the UK for its merits (namely space and price) and eventually saw over 3.3 million units of production over its thirteen year lifespan.
The little Xsara’s replacement, the first C4 Picasso, debuted following its seven-seater big brother as the Xsara was so successful that it still had a strong market following despite its age when this was released in 2007. The C4 Grand Picasso certainly was more of a looker than this odd little bullfrog as its proportions were much more natural, lacking the odd window joggle intended to increase rear window size.
By the next generation in 2013, Citroen had rediscovered its MPV mojo and again, this little red 5-seater’s big brother, the Grand C4 Picasso, has garnered plenty of acclaim in its own right. These little five-placers seem to be overshadowed today by their big brothers so perhaps the idea of a minivan with the seating accommodations of a hatchback was short-lived after all.
Indeed, in 2016 the Picasso was refreshed only three years after launch with only several thousand sales under its belt, many less than the first Xsara which lived for almost a decade. Perhaps the original Xsara had more of a personality, more of a je ne sais quoi that kept buyers coming back for its chubby looks and nice price.
What about the original purveyor of the mini-MPV, Renault? Were they able to capture lightning in a bottle like the Xsara did, or have they lost the spark as with the succeeding Picassos? It’s hard to say, really, as Renault has now expanded the Scenic to be Renault’s only MPV just as Citroen did with their Grand C4 Picasso although the new generation will be sold with both a five-seater and seven-seater option, clearly a direct jab at the relatively popular C4 Picasso range which isn’t selling badly unless compared to the Picasso nameplate’s past.
Maybe the era of the mini-MPV is over. Maybe the market has moved on to bigger and better things. After all, these do closely resemble modern CUVs, the latter are just bigger on the outside, smaller on the inside, worse looking, worse driving, and less economical. I may have questioned the five-seat capacity before, but these little ovoids truly are masters of space usage and organization which the CUV class cannot even come close to matching. Really, these mini-MPVs distilled the essence of motoring down to its core: people and stuff moving. Luckily, they continue excel at their holistic mission. Thank you for reading, I’ll see you around LaLD and Bon Week-End!
All models are 1:64/3-inch Norev castings