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New shared platform means Luton’s latest seven-seat MPV isn’t anything like its last. Can it still succeed against more in-demand SUVs?

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Vauxhall was quick to profit from the sudden popularity, two decades ago, of the compact people-mover. Earlier this year, however, we learned that the once-popular Zafira MPV wouldn’t reach its twentieth birthday.

In a mood to rationalise under the auspices of its PSA Group ownership, Opel/Vauxhall decided not just to decline to replace the Zafira Tourer but also to idle the production lines and remove the car from sale altogether. If you’re wondering how that could make business sense, consider that PSA currently has to pay a licence fee to former brand owner General Motors for every GM platform-based Vauxhall and Opel that it sells.

Front bumper styling is given a light dusting of visual interest by these shapely fog-light consoles on either side of the central air intake. Not much to look at – but it is at least something

That helps to explain the keenness of Vauxhall’s new French owners to replace old models with new as quickly as possible across the range – and to put up with the odd ‘continuity problem’ along the way.

This week, we’re testing what you might consider to be one of those continuity problems: the new Combo Life ‘versatile leisure vehicle’. Ten years ago Vauxhall wouldn’t have hesitated to call this car an MPV, but now that category has fallen into relative unpopularity, it’s gone for something new.

This is new territory for Vauxhall, then: a compact, utilitarian, ultra-versatile and ultra-spacious people mover which shares its mechanical architecture with one of the founders of the niche: the Citroën Berlingo. What’s particularly interesting is that the Combo Life is now the only seven-seater that Vauxhall offers, so it falls to it to at least succeed, if not directly replace, the Zafira Tourer.

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For some owners it will do that, but for others, simpler expectations should make this car’s job easier. But it’ll still need to be not only capacious but also cleverly practical, as well as unpretentious, perhaps, while remaining refined, comfortable and drivable enough to replace an estate or a more car-like MPV.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace


Vauxhall Combo Life 2018 road test review - hero side

Vauxhall boldly, and perhaps a little misguidedly, says the Combo Life is relatively visually appealing among vehicles of its ilk.

That’s chiefly on account of a shorter front overhang and a higher bonnet line than these Peugeot commercial-derived MPVs have tended to feature over the years. But if, even having had those distinctions explained to you, you continue to see a relatively unappealing box on wheels, don’t adjust your spectacles: our testers did too. Vauxhall’s efforts to make this car more appealing might have made it marginally less awkward to look at than it might have been, but you can’t say much more for the car’s exterior design than that.

Wheel and tyre spec is kept simple by Vauxhall’s derivative menu. Entry-level Design spec gets steel wheels; upperlevel Energy trim wears these suitably plain-looking 16in alloys

The Combo Life is the sister car of the Peugeot Rifter and Citroën Berlingo, and it’s no van underneath. It’s built on the PSA Group’s ‘EMP2’ model platform, so it uses the same primary mechanical component set as the Peugeot 308 and Peugeot 3008/Peugeot 5008, the DS7 Crossback and the Vauxhall Grandland X. Strut-type suspension sits at the front with a space-efficient torsion beam at the rear, as you’d expect of a utility car of this kind.

To the boxy profile you would expect of a car such as this, the Combo Life adds sliding back doors, three individual, flat-folding secondrow seats with ISOFIX child seat points on all, a sliding and fully removable pair of third-row seats as an option (although not present on our test car) and a choice of overall lengths and wheelbases, the bigger of the two stretching a 4.4-metre-long car to 4.75m overall.

Vauxhall offers a choice of two turbocharged petrol engines and two diesels for this car, the former pair being the PSA Group’s well-known 1.2-litre three-cylinder Puretech motors producing either 108 or 128bhp at their peak, and the latter driven by a 1.5-litre engine with either 99bhp (as tested here) or 128bhp. And, for those interested in the car’s more workmanlike capacities, the bigger diesel has the most torque of all the derivatives, with 221lb ft, as well as a six-speed manual gearbox, and it’s rated to tow the most on a braked trailer (1500kg).

The car is front-wheel drive only, although a version of the Grip Control brake-based electronic traction management that Peugeots use, but renamed ‘Intelligrip’ for Vauxhall’s marketing purposes and being combined with all-weather tyres, is available as an option.


Vauxhall Combo Life 2018 road test review - cabin

The Combo Life has the kind of simple, practical interior that would suit an active, outdoorsy family with places to go and lots to carry but who aren’t likely to be too precious about a muddy boot carpet or a scuffed console. Even in what could be construed as being its least practical configuration – short wheelbase, five seats – this car still feels cavernous.

It’s the boxy, van-like profile that delivers a large part of its practicality. Not only does that high roofline allow for a top-hat-friendly 1050mm of headroom both front and rear but it also contributes to the 597-litre seats-up boot space (measured up to the window line only). The boot’s wide, square-shaped aperture assists with the easy loading and unloading of bulkier items, while collapsing the 60/40 split-folding second-row seats will liberate a total 2126 litres. If you want more, the bigger Combo’s boot volume stands at 850/2693 litres.

The driving position improves the more you crank up the seat cushion, but you needn’t if you don’t want to: the driver’s seat has a curiously generous level of base height travel

The Combo Life offers three good-sized second-row passenger seats and generous headroom, as well as a fairly tidy amount of legroom (630mm), so five adults can be seated comfortably on longer trips.

The car’s emphasis on practicality and functional simplicity, and also its price positioning, go some way to excusing its rather bare interior. The cabin has large door bins, some underseat and underfloor storage and a good-size roof storage bin up front, as well as a large glovebox whose capacity and accessibility is improved a lot thanks to the roof-mounted passenger airbag.

Elsewhere, though, it is disappointing to note that so many of the car’s most clever storage and convenience features – its separately opening tailgate window, fold-flat front passenger seatback, full-length longitudinal overhead storage console and airline cabin-style overboot storage cubby – are optional extras even on the pricier upper trim level cars, and not all are available on ‘XL’ long-wheelbase or seven-seat versions of the car.

With all of those features on a long-wheelbase, seven-seat body, we suspect the Combo Life could easily feel like just about the most practical affordable family car on the road, but having tested it without many of them, there’s certainly room enough to question Vauxhall’s claims.

The Combo Life’s 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system is perhaps the most obvious sign of Vauxhall’s amalgamation with the PSA Group. Drivers of Peugeots and Citroëns will recognise the software instantly.

As is the case in those vehicles, it all works well enough in the Vauxhall – but not to the point where you could call it outstanding. The operating system is reasonably intuitive to use, and toggling between various menus is easy enough thanks to touchsensitive buttons on the screen frame, but the graphical presentation itself isn’t particularly slick, and neither is the system very responsive.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both included with the suite, and the chances are these will become the default operating systems of choice for most users – if only because they provide access to navigation apps such as Google Maps and Waze. It’s worth pointing out that Energy is the only trim level to feature the 8.0in screen. Lower-spec Design models do, however, still come equipped with DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity.


The Combo Life recorded the slowest two-way average 0-60mph time of any car we’ve road tested this year. In isolation, its 14.7sec result needn’t count for much as a sideline criticism of such a simple, utilitarian car.

That time was fully two seconds slower than the 0-62mph claim made for it by Vauxhall, however, and a second and a half down on the heavier, and only marginally more powerful, seven-seat Ford Grand Tourneo Connect we figured in 2014. So even by the sedate standards of the class, this car is quite slow.

Soft suspension is welcome in town, but on A-roads the chassis can be upset by mid-corner bumps. Body roll is only an issue when pushing beyond the car’s remit

The Combo Life’s measured acceleration from 30mph to 70mph also lagged behind that of the larger Ford, with the Vauxhall taking 16.2sec next to 13.9sec for its rival.

The Combo Life’s 184lb ft doesn’t feel like much, then. For the strength of thrust you’d be comfortable depending upon for any proper towing, or when touring with a heavy load, you’d definitely want Vauxhall’s more powerful diesel engine.

The as-tested 99bhp engine does at least make this an easy vehicle in which to tool about town running errands. There’s never any need to wring the engine’s neck to keep the car moving along with the traffic, and setting off from the lights and dealing with stop-start queues are painless enough thanks, in part, to sensible pedal weights.

Once you’re up and running, forward progress is surprisingly smooth. The 1.5-litre diesel pulls with good manners even under load and will continue to spin to around 4000rpm with useful flexibility, although it tails off above that point quite starkly. That the Combo Life’s five-speed manual gearbox is baggy and not particularly tactile to use is obviously less of an issue here than it would be in a two-seat sports car. It’s got that familiar stretchy, imprecise, cable-operated feel of a lot of manual gearboxes fitted to PSA Group cars, although you can easily get used to it and changes are rarely fumbled.

Typically, van-like MPVs aren’t the most refined or hushed vehicles – for all of the practicality they bring, their square shapes often turn the cabin into something of an echo chamber – but the Vauxhall’s relatively hushed interior was praised by more than one tester. A recording of 68dB at a 70mph cruise isn’t what you’d call outstanding, but it’s considerably better than the 71dB figure taken in the Ford, which also had the advantage of a sixth ratio to use on those extended motorway stints.


Vauxhall Combo Life 2018 road test review - on the road front

The surprises the Combo Life delivers in this section are hardly earth-shattering, but some are quite pleasant. They mark this car out as the comfortable, pragmatic, servile utility vehicle most will want it to be, with a note of added extra refinement that you might not have expected of a utility MPV such as this.

Just as this car is unexpectedly mechanically refined and fairly well sealed from wind noise, so is it pleasantly quiet-riding and absorbent over most surfaces. Particularly soft suspension gives the Combo Life the kind of gentle, spongy ride that deals well with rough and broken surfaces taken at low speed. Around town the car’s suspension has both the supple comfort and the isolation to compare quite well with most modern passenger cars.

For what is essentially a van with manners, it’s surprisingly un-vanlike to drive. The ride was much more comfortable than expected and the cabin far more isolated. Nice work, Vauxhall

Meanwhile, light and reasonably direct steering with plenty of maximum steering angle compensates quite effectively for the relatively long wheelbase, making it wieldy enough and manoeuvrable.

A respectably tight turning circle – 11.0m for the short-wheelbase version, 12.0m for the ‘XL’ – means that in either case you shouldn’t get trapped in that tight unloading bay at the recycling centre.

Leave town and increase your speed, however, and the Combo Life begins to show some dynamic compromises relative to the standards of a more typical family car. At A-road speeds the suspension remains pretty quiet but doesn’t have the damping authority to deal with bigger inputs, allowing them instead to cause the body to bob and pitch gently.

Being so large and square and empty of bulkheads, the structure clearly isn’t quite as rigid as some, and you can detect the odd bit of shudder and longitudinal flex as some of those bigger intrusions impact upon it. Lateral body control isn’t too bad and handling response at speed is passably good, but the former is partly defined by grip levels which are pretty mild anyway and which you don’t feel inclined to explore with any enthusiasm.

The latter is no crime for a vehicle such as this, but it renders the Combo Life what you might refer to as a ‘one-speed’ car, which you’ll prefer to drive around well within its limits and in which you’ll rarely see the far side of 50mph except on the motorway.

We should note, however, that our testing was carried out in a lightly loaded vehicle, as it always is. Put enough people and cargo into this car to fill it up and you might find that a soft-riding, often relaxing driving experience becomes quite alarming for its lack of body control at speed.

The Combo Life remained creditably stable and controlled at the limit of grip on the Millbrook Hill Route, remaining well governed by its electronics and benign enough thanks to Vauxhall/ Opel’s realistic suspension tuning.

A degree of body roll that seldom seems bothersome on the road is more of a factor here, gathering as it does to allow the car to lean to quite pronounced angles and begin to undermine its grip levels, although only at the front. The ESP system is always on above about 20mph and helps keep a lid on the speed you can carry into and through corners – which seems wise.

The electronics are busier when a mid-corner bump puts a vertical input into an already laterally loaded chassis, which is when the car can be quite easily disturbed and diverted from a chosen path – although not by far. Put simply, it’s plainly not a car for fast driving – and nobody will expect any different.


Vauxhall Combo Life 2018 road test review - hero front

Anyone looking for as much interior space and versatility as they can get for the least possible outlay won’t go far wrong with the Combo Life.

Prices for the short-wheelbase, five-seat model in entry-level Design trim start at £19,610, while a long-wheelbase seven-seater (which is only available in range-topping Energy guise) will set you back at least £23,240. By way of comparison, a seven-seat Ford Grand C-Max would be nowhere near as practical but would cost at least £24k; diesel Seat Alhambras start at £28,705.

Vauxhall and Peugeot both identical in terms of depreciation. Citroën does better, despite common platforms

That said, the Combo Life isn’t without similarly priced, more direct rivals – even from within the PSA Group. The Peugeot Rifter and Citroën Berlingo, which are mechanically identical to the Vauxhall, are priced within a few hundred pounds and come equipped with similar levels of kit.

Those in-house rivals are fairly inseparable from the Vauxhall in terms of depreciation, too. We predict comparably specced versions of the Citroën and Peugeot will hold 40% and 41% of their values respectively, next to 41% for the Combo Life over 36,000 miles and three years.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace


Vauxhall Combo Life 2018 road test review - on the road

Here is a timely reminder that large and expensive SUVs can be beaten as practical family transport by something that need not cost more than a five-door hatch, or be poorly equipped, or feel particularly ‘commercial’ to drive.

For outright versatility, carrying space and ease of use, cars like this always deliver more than expected of them, but there will always be those for whom the associated image remains an intolerable turn-off. Even next to its PSA sister products the Combo Life holds little aesthetic appeal and likely won’t do much to popularise the niche.

Usable, spacious and practical, if not very pretty to look at

As an affordable means of transporting a lot of people, a lot equipment, or a fair amount of both with little fuss or bother, however, the Vauxhall does okay. Limited performance and questionable body control bring the outer reaches of its utility value into question, and it’s a shame that its most clever on-board storage features aren’t offered as standard. But neither reservation need put you off if all you need is a lot of space on a little budget.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Vauxhall Combo Life First drives