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PARIS (Reuters) - The minivan is dead, long live the SUVan. Renault has revamped the elderly Espace people carrier as a crossover sport utility vehicle as it seeks to relive the marque's past glories.
Illustrating a market shift to more rugged-looking vehicles, the fifth Espace - smaller than its predecessors but still gargantuan by European standards - made its debut at the Paris auto show on Thursday, 30 years after the first model was unleashed on European consumers who hadn't yet realized they wanted one.
Like the Chrysler Voyager that narrowly preceded it - and contributed to the North American cult of the "soccer mom" - the Renault Espace created a whole new market for large minivans and swiftly became a hit for its maker. More than 1.2 million of the vehicles have been sold over the three decades.
"It's certainly a great nameplate to revive, because it was quite something for Renault," UBS analyst Philippe Houchois said. "It was about the closest Renault ever got to a premium product."
For almost a decade Renault has been all but banished from larger-car categories after a series of flops such as the 2007 Laguna sedan and Vel Satis, since discontinued. Instead, the company has been doing brisk business in low-cost cars under its budget Dacia badge.
Under chief designer Laurens van den Acker, hired from Mazda in 2009, the core brand has begun pushing back with smaller models such as the fourth Renault Clio mini and Captur, Europe's best-selling subcompact SUV.
But the real test comes with the Espace - the current version of which is 11 years old - and a slew of launches coming in its wake. A compact offroader, an updated Megane hatchback and a successor to the hapless Laguna will share common architecture with 43.4 percent-owned alliance partner Nissan.
Once the European market leader, the Espace is now one of the laggards of its category, far behind the Ford S-Max, which struck out in a sportier direction from its 2006 introduction and is unveiling another timely update in Paris.
Large SUVs overtook European minivan sales in 2008 and doubled their tally last year, claiming 17 percent of sales in the size category, data from IHS Automotive show.
"It's a global shift affecting even family vehicles, and it is here to stay," Societe Generale analyst Philippe Barrier said. "Designers are having to compromise as people look for something sportier."
For the new Espace, Renault boss Carlos Ghosn gave his top designer a tough brief: achieve a more rugged, muscular look and cut the vehicle's size and fuel consumption while keeping the interior roominess of its "one-box" predecessor.
"He asked us to totally innovate with the Espace," van den Acker told Reuters in an earlier interview. "We needed to give the vehicle a smaller physical footprint and much better aerodynamics.
"But a lot of the things that are good for aerodynamics and CO2 emissions are also good for design."
Compared with previous generations, the new Espace has a lower-slung, elongated look. Like the Jaguar XE sedan also displayed in Paris, the Renault vehicle drew on aerodynamic and acoustic modeling from U.S. software maker Exa to reduce development costs.
The production model unveiled on Thursday closely resembles the preceding concept car with its "strong nose", as van den Acker described it. Pricing will be announced when order books open early next year.
But Ford, which achieved four times Renault's European sales of the Espace with 17,000 S-Max deliveries in the first half of last year, will not give up its edge readily.
The new Ford vehicle, which also goes on sale next year, adds more efficient EcoBoost engines, upgraded folding rear passenger seats and optional all-wheel drive.
"The S-Max somewhat invented the shift from pure minivans to sport utility vehicles," Ford product development chief Raj Nair told Reuters. "We've upped our game to ensure that the S-Max remains leader."
(This story was refiled to add missing "first half of last year" in 16th paragraph)
Editing by David Goodman