Space is the buzz word at Citroen these days, which was why it chose Leicester’s National Space Centre to launch its new Grand C4 Picasso, a car we think moves the game on more than any other MPV since the original 1984 Renault Espace.

But unlike the rockets which surrounded Citroen’s fourth model in the MPV sector, the Grand C4 Picasso majors on interior space rather than reaching dizzy heights.

Citroen says its new people carrier has better visibility than its rivals and has worked hard to get as much light in the cabin as possible.

The Grand C4 Picasso’s dramatic panoramic windscreen curves into the roof for a 70 degree view of the road ahead – 35 degrees more than conventional MPVs – creating a vista, the likes of which we’ve not experienced in a people carrier before.

This was complemented with a split windscreen pillar which provides extra rigidity in a crash, while not creating huge blindspots.

On our trip around the East Midlands countryside, we found the huge panoramic optional glass sunroof bathed the Citroen C4 Picasso in valuable sunlight on an overcast day.

Should the occupants want to shield themselves from the light, an electrically-operated blind covers the sunroof and sunscreens pull up to cover the second and third row windows.

The light theme is continued even at night, with no fewer than 32 light sources illuminating various cabin areas.

Strip lighting provides a glow around the dash and above the driver and front passenger’s heads, while the door pockets illuminate as soon as a hand reaches into them.

The five lighting colours can be toggled at the touch of a button, while the boot light doubles as a rechargeable torch.

Citroen has emphasised the feeling of space by keeping the dashboard uncluttered, combining the majority of buttons around the fixed steering wheel hub (like the C4 hatchback, the centre of the Picasso’s steering wheel doesn’t move, with just the rim of the wheel turning).

Even the radio is covered by a pull-down flap, which is a good thing as it’s the only part which is out of step with the neat and tidy cabin.

The centrally-mounted instrument cluster feels a little cluttered, although there’s the option to turn off some of the readouts on the trio of screens. The two LCD screens provide the primary information on speed, fuel, revs and gears, while the colour screen in the centre gives trip information and is home to the extensive menu system.

There is plenty of room in both the second and third rows of seats, which fold flat to the floor quickly and simply. Each seat is equipped with a catch to tilt the seat back, allowing access to the third row, and another to fold them flat.

Unlike most MPVs, the seats fold sufficiently so the third row occupants don’t need to climb over them. The backs slide forward, while the seat cushions swivel vertically.

We managed to perform both procedures with a single finger in around 20 seconds.

The Grand C4 Picasso has a variety of boot space, depending on the number of seats folded. With all seven seats in use, there is a hatchback-like 208 litres of space, rising to almost ten times that with the back two rows folded into the floor.

With a clever system of flaps on the back of each seat, there is a flat loading area, which when coupled with the height-adjustable, self-levelling suspension and low boot sill makes loading objects easy.

The dashboard has plenty of large storage areas, including two pods either side of the instrument panel. One of these contained a six CD autochanger and both had an ingenious mirror reflecting light from a panel behind, avoiding a bulbous lid reducing space inside.

Our top of the range Exclusive test car came with an enormous amount of equipment, including a DVD player with pop-out screens in the seat backs, climate control which can be adjusted separately by the driver and front and second row passengers, an air quality sensor which turns on the recirculation system when the air quality drops, an opening tailgate window and the interior lighting pack.

At the heart of the mission to maximise interior space is Citroen’s electronic gearbox, which consists of a steering column-mounted gearchange lever and a handbrake button on the dashboard, freeing the area between the seats.

The handbrake releases automatically when you move away, although the concept of leaving an automatic in neutral and switching on the handbrake when you stop is an odd one at first.

However, Citroen are quick to point out the electronic automatic isn’t an auto ‘box as such, more a clutchless manual.

This took a little getting used to in fully automatic mode where the gear shifts can be jerky, particularly between first and second. It was far better in semi-automatic mode, where the gear changes are made with two paddles behind the steering wheel.

We also found the gearbox slow to kick down a gear when a sudden burst of acceleration was required.

Our test car was propelled by the more powerful of the two diesel engines available. The 138bhp unit was a strong performer, providing a 12.5 second dash to 60mph and a 121mph top speed. Even with just a driver and passenger inside, it felt as though it would be capable of driving at speed with a full load.

This 2-litre engine only produces 159 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, which places it in Band D for road tax.

Other engine options include a choice 1.8 and 2-litre petrol the lively 110bhp, 1.6-litre diesel we have sampled in the excellent C4 VTR+ hatchback, which falls into a surprisingly low Band C road tax grouping.

The Grand C4 Picasso rode well over a variety of surfaces, although we did hear a number of rattles in the cabin.

We found it to be a competent performer on the country lanes, with a hint of understeer resulting in a situation where the front of the car would wash wide into the opposite lane under hard cornering. Otherwise is was a good, fun thing to drive.

As a vehicle which is going to find homes with families, the Grand C4 Picasso is the safest people carrier in its class, with a maximum five stars for adult occupant protection in the EuroNCAP crash tests.

All models feature seven airbags; with a deactivation switch should a child seat be fitted to the front passenger seat, four ISOFIX child seat mounting brackets and a host of other features.

Pleasingly all safety features are standard across the range, apart from rear park sensors which only appear in the range-topping Exclusive model.

Stepping outside, the Grand C4 Picasso is unmistakably a Citroen, but lacks the radical edge of its hatchbacked cousin.

Its far from conservatively styled though. The rear lights feature tubing reminiscent of a neon casino sign, and the front gets Citroen’s attractive corporate face.

The range starts at just £14,995, but at more than £21,000, our top of the range Grand C4 Picasso Exclusive wasn’t cheap. It cost more than the most expensive Renault Scenic and almost as much as the turbocharged Vauxhall Zafira VXR super-MPV.

But Citroen have a reputation for offers on its new cars, and have already confirmed it will launch with a zero per cent finance offer.

Fans of the current Xsara Picasso will be pleased to hear the low-cost mid-size MPV will stay in production until at least 2010, with a five seat version of the Grand C4 Picasso joining the line up later in 2007.

The length of this review is testament to the Grand C4 Picasso’s radicalism, and will give the Ford S-Max – current European Car of the Year a few sleepless nights.

Key facts

Model tested: Citroen Grand C4 Picasso 7 Seat 2.0 HDi 6-speed automatic Exclusive
On the road price: £21,696
Tested: November 2006
Road tester: Stuart Milne