So you want an SUV because it’s practical? Because the boot is big and the high roof makes it easy to get kids in their seats? Maybe you want a seven-seat SUV so that you can get the grandparents in at the weekend or share the taxi duties for your offspring’s football club.
Well, meet the real face of practicality. And it’s not an SUV. The Vauxhall Combo Life is Vauxhall’s new family-friendly offering, and yes – it’s a van.
However, Vauxhall would be quick to point out that the Combo Life has been designed from scratch as an MPV as well as a commercial vehicle, and not only that – it sits on the company’s Efficient Modular Platform (EMP2), which underpins the Grandland X SUV. So, for all the boxy, van silhouette, it’s a proper car chassis underneath (with MacPherson struts at the front and twist beam suspension at the back). And it needs to be, given that it will replace the once-popular, now defunct Meriva and Zafira Tourer.
You can have the Combo Life in long-wheelbase ‘Combo XL’ or short-wheelbase format, both of which can be had with five- or seven-seat layouts, and there’s an option of a 1.5-litre diesel with 99bhp or 128bhp, or a 108bhp 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine. A 128bhp 1.2 turbocharged petrol and an eight-speed automatic gearbox will join the range in 2019.
Vauxhall predicts that the rather more gainly-looking short-wheelbase (at 4.4m long rather than 4.75), complete with seven seats will be the most popular format, but our test car came in five-seat format.
This hardly means that the Combo Life isn’t practical. In fact, finding all the storage pockets, caverns and closets surrounding in the front of this friendly-faced van/MPV (Multi-Person Van?) is an adventure in itself, completed with a multitude of cupholders and an overhead shelf that will please anyone with a penchant for stowing stuff.
There are a couple of USB inputs and – provided you go for the Energy trim that most buyers will opt for – an 8.0-inch touchscreen with all the functionality you could want including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You’ll have to pay £450 extra to get factory-fit sat-nav, if you don’t want to rely on your phone’s maps, though.
It’s all predictably sensible and spacious in the back, too. Go for the seven-seat model and you get three individual sliding and folding seats in the middle row that all fold totally flat, together with the folding and removable sixth and seventh seats.
The five-seat car gets a 60/40 split folding rear bench, but it still folds in a nifty fashion to leave the huge 597 litre boot space with a smooth, extended floor.
Not only that, but every Combo Life model has three pairs of Isofix fittings in the second row of seats, so you can get three car seats securely fitted if you need to, and getting your tyrant toddlers belted in will be made easier thanks to the huge door opening revealed when you slide the door back.
If you are wrestling with three kids in your life, you should consider the £250 Child Pack that includes rear blinds, a fold-flat front seat and a mirror to give you a panoramic view of the bedlam occurring in your rear seats.
We do have a couple of bones to pick with the Combo Life’s mostly faultless practicality; the rear windows are surprisingly small so don’t let as much light in as many rivals, and the boot lid is absolutely vast and top-hinged, so opening it is an awkward exercise in not chinning yourself or your kids.
Still, you can have an opening rear window in your barn door of a tailgate, for £305, and the low floor and cavernous opening will be a boon for anyone with a wheelchair or mobility equipment to consider.
Beyond that, the good news is that the Combo Life is a doddle to drive. The 99bhp 1.5 Turbo D engine feels energetic enough around town, and the well-weighted steering combined with a remarkably tight turning circle of 10.8 metres kerb-to-kerb means that you can scythe through multi-storey car parks in a very smug fashion.
It’s a shame that the engine offers rather painful performance on open roads, where you’ll notice the lack of a sixth gear, as well as the overly-long gearing and gritty sound at high revs. So if you do a lot of miles then think carefully about whether the more powerful 1.5 diesel, or the 1.2 petrol – which we know to be smooth and punchy from its uses in many PSA models – might be better.
Comfort levels are also more a case of good enough rather than anything exceptional. It’s well enough damped to keep things very tidy over smoother bumps and undulations, but potholes and sharp-edged intrusions have it shuddering and jarring a bit more than you’d like.
Even so – and despite the fact that it’s unashamedly about as sporting as a Sunday stroll – between the high driving position, fair damping pliancy, decent body control and light steering, the Combo is just as stoically easy and unintimidating to drive as it should be.
It’s good value, too. The 1.5 Turbo D Energy SWB 5st model that we’re testing is some £1800 than the equivalent Vauxhall Zafira Tourer it replaces, and is competitive with rivals like the Ford Tourneo Connect people carrier or much cheaper than a VW Touran. We haven’t yet been able to confirm finance deals, but Vauxhall is typically very good at offering great cash savings or low monthly costs.
Vauxhall Combo Life
TESTED 1.5 Turdo D 100ps, five-seat, five-speed manual, front wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE from £19,610 (as tested £21,540)
POWER/TORQUE 99bhp @ 3,500rpm, 184lb ft @ 1,750rpm
TOP SPEED 107mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 12.7sec
FUEL ECONOMY 67.3mpg/62.8 EU Combined/Urban. On test 52.0mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 111g/km
VED £160 first year, then £140
VERDICT The truth here is that the Combo Life could come with a fleet of unicorns and access to eternal youth as standard but, because it looks like (or is, in fact) a van, it would still have all the sex appeal of a persistent skin complaint. Regardless, if you can divorce yourself from any concern about image or driver appeal, the Combo Life is almost brutally utilitarian, will delight kids and make family motoring easier than just about anything else.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of Five
Ford Tourneo Connect, from £19,475
Much the same van utility, versatility and value, but with a bit less standard equipment. Would benefit from a broader range of petrols; currently it’s a 99bhp 1.0-litre or one of the various diesels on offer.
Volkswagen Touran, from £23,565
The Touran is much slicker in the way it drives, and it has a better spread of engines to choose from. Not only that, but it’s about the most practical of the compact seven-seat MPVs, but you pay for that; it’s a lot more expensive than the much roomier Vauxhall.
Citroen C4 SpaceTourer, from £21,125
The Citroen C4 Picasso has just had an identity change to the SpaceTourer, but if you can settle with five seats, this funky-looking MPV offers a usefully big boot and high roof for easy access. You’ll have to make the £2k jump up to a Grand SpaceTourer to get seven seats.
Fiat 500L MPW, from £19,160
It does look like a Toy Town hearse, but the 500L still has the friendly 500 family face, a fun variety of colours and is usefully affordable. Those occasional rearmost seats are seriously uncomfortable even for taller kids, though, and the 500L really isn’t in the same league for space and practicality as the Vauxhall.