Luton's new city car revives a 50-year-old nameplate, but faces strong competition from established models like the VW Up and Hyundai i10

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The enduring affection of the Great British public for Vauxhall, which remains our second-largest domestic power in terms of overall market share, tells you a lot about what really sells cars in this country.

‘Affection’, though, may be too strong a term to describe something that’s probably become more of an attachment than a true fondness for a lot of owners during the past three decades or so.

Over time, Vauxhall’s UK-built models have been replaced by cars that seem less distinct from their Opel sister models and are built at overseas production sites

Over that time, Vauxhall’s UK-built models have been replaced, in increasing numbers, by cars that seem less distinct from their Opel sister models and are built at overseas production sites. The same thing has happened to other ‘British’ volume brands, of course, while some have disappeared altogether.

But at the same time, the sense of Vauxhall as it once was – a proper British car-making brand, albeit one under US ownership since 1925 – has not only deteriorated but also been neglected.

So to the prickly question: does the UK car buyer honestly care about Griffin-branded Vauxhalls any more? You suspect the majority of those signing up for a new Vauxhall Corsa, Vauxhall Astra, Mokka, Adam or Insignia today would be just as happy if their new cars had Opel’s lightning flash on the grille – provided there’s no change to the practicality, versatility and value for money that the cars represent.

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But given that it remains a company producing more than 200,000 new vehicles in the UK every year, doing plenty of engineering here and employing tens of thousands of Britons, you can see why Vauxhall would want its company crest to mean a bit more to people.

Enter, then, a new small model with an identity to rekindle some warmth of feeling (at least among those with a long enough memory): the Viva city car. Although it’s a size smaller than its popular 1960s namesake, the new Viva has a similar mission: to bring the Vauxhall brand to the widest possible audience via remarkable usability and value for money.

Read on to find out exactly how remarkable we’re talking.

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Vauxhall Viva rear
The original Vauxhall Viva was a larger model

Vauxhall calls the Viva’s styling “cheeky” – but it also claims that the car is the product of the firm’s latest corporate design language, which aims for a sculptured, precise look at all times.

It seems a curious combination when you think about it – and to most of our testers’ eyes, it hasn’t produced a particularly striking or characterful car here.

The only engine on offer is a normally aspirated 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol unit that’s part of Vauxhall’s latest generation of powerplants

The Viva looks pleasant and chirpy enough in isolation, but oversized features and a few unexpected creases in the bodysides aren’t really enough to distinguish it in a class containing more expressive entrants such as the new Renault Twingo or the Toyota Aygo.

But, in familiar mode, Vauxhall is evidently hoping that size and space can compensate for a general lack of visual charm, similar to Ford’s approach with the Ka+. The Viva’s dimensions place it among the larger cars in the city car class, it being quite a bit longer and wider than the Volkswagen Up, Toyota Aygo and all their respective related models.

The Hyundai i10 and Fiat Panda are closer matches for its size, and, like the Hyundai, the Ford and the Suzuki Celerio, the Viva is designed as a true five-seater, with five doors and five seatbelts.

Like most cars in the class, the Viva is built around a steel monocoque underbody. The only engine on offer is a normally aspirated 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol unit that’s part of Vauxhall’s latest generation of powerplants. It features an exhaust manifold integrated into the cylinder head, a hollow-cast crankshaft, a low-friction timing chain and an intelligent oil pump.

All of which should make the car at once light and efficient. But while the former is true enough (the Viva weighs in at less than 950kg on our scales), the latter is more questionable. All models have a 103g/km CO2 emissions score, apart from the £500 optional Easytronic automatic that is slightly lower. Still, that kerb weight – and relatively generous peak power and torque outputs – do at least promise sprightly performance.

The suspension – again, classic city car type with struts up front and a torsion beam at the back – is tuned for comfort. Double-boned bushings and side-load compensation springs are fitted at the front, both to the benefit of ride quality.

The V-section rear twist beam, meanwhile, is mounted ahead of the axle line, from where it grants more dynamic tuning options, while the dampers are fixed behind the axle line, for greater mechanical advantage and more subtle ride control.


Vauxhall Viva dashboard
There's plenty of legroom and adjustment for the driver here

The Viva’s size advantage naturally pays dividends inside. Compared with the smaller end of the class, the Vauxhall feels roomy – especially up front, where a conventionally lofty seating position is accommodated without a rabbit hutch sense of confinement.

Adults aren’t restricted to the front seats, either, but while no one would want to cross a continent (or even a county) on the rear bench, it fulfils its no-fuss five-seater obligation. The 206-litre boot is also helpfully proportioned for modest, everyday loads.

As a parent of young kids, I'd happily sacrifice a lot of the standard kit of SE spec for electric rear windows I could isolate from the front. They're not even an option.

Much of that, though, is virtually a city car given these days; what isn’t is the quality of material fit and finish in these cars and the general sophistication (or otherwise) of the interior.

The consistency of Vauxhall’s cabins of late has shown itself to be the equivalent of poorly whisked custard, but the Viva follows the latest Vauxhall Corsa in supplying buyers with a smart, simple and apparently durable layout – even in the entry-level SE trim tested.

It wins points for not attempting to thrust misconceived notions of ‘funkiness’ in your face, adopting instead the Up’s solidly grown-up approach to city motoring. Predictably, some of the materials employed aren’t quite at the same level as those in the Volkswagen, but the mixture of matt and shiny plastics, along with the odd dash of metal effect, lean the car confidently towards a relatively convincing premium look.

Where the Viva leaks points is in missing items. The infotainment touchscreen – previously a city segment rarity, now becoming a younger-buyer prerequisite –  is a £435 option in the form of Vauxhall’s second-generation Intellilink multimedia system becomes available.

Since launch, Vauxhall has also remedied the connectivity issue, and all cars now come with Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming as well as a USB port in the front, the absence of which was something we were critical of on our original test at launch in summer 2015.

Trim levels are kept simple with two on offer – SE and SL. The entry-level models come with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, air conditioning, heated wing mirrors and cruise control.

Upgrade to SL trim and you will find 15in alloys, leather clad steering wheel, climate control and Vauxhall’s OnStar system complete with Wifi hotspot.


Vauxhall Viva cornering
The Vauxhall feels a little more responsive than a Suzuki Celerio, thanks to its quicker steering

If greater choice and the technology march of a digital world have left buyers unwilling to sacrifice certain interior features in their city car, the acceptance of modest performance from small-engined microcars is largely unchanged from 20 years ago.

Where superminis come pre-packaged with an expectation of a least a little vim, their smaller cousins are mostly required to simply move back and forth amenably, quietly and economically.

The 1.0-litre unit is very smooth, and while it revs without much urgency, it does so without troubling the Viva’s occupants with unwanted vibrations

In most respects, the Viva fulfils these obligations without fuss. The three-pot engine doesn’t bristle with character like the best of its breed, but performing the opposite trick – hardly sounding like a triple at all – is fair recompense.

The 1.0-litre unit is very smooth, considering the uneven cylinder count, and while it revs without much urgency, it does so without troubling the Viva’s occupants with unwanted vibrations.

This is handy, because typically the car requires a little stoking to attain an acceptable speed. The absence of a turbocharger – the sticking plaster favoured by manufacturers to address low-end intractability – is obvious enough, but no more so than among its similarly equipped rivals.

In fact, from a standing start, the Viva stands itself in good stead, the 13.0sec it required to hit 60mph being generally better – or at least on par – with most competitors.

Vauxhall says the Viva will top 100mph eventually, although we failed to do that within a standing mile – again, making it no different from the Celerio. From 30-70mph, there is practically nothing to choose between them, either, although, somewhat unexpectedly, the noise meter suggests the Celerio is a little quieter at high revs.

The Viva’s real-world fuel economy, though, is less admirable. Vauxhall claims a quite respectable combined figure of 62.8mpg, but our True MPG testers recorded an average of 48.9mpg for the Viva.

The equivalent Celerio, Twingo, Toyota Aygo and Skoda Citigo all recently surpassed this figure.


Vauxhall Viva side profile
The Viva trades dynamic adeptness for benign comfort and compliance

Assuming that the emphasis is on ease of use and relative comfort, the Viva proves a decent steer. Vauxhall’s previous attempt to make a small car ‘handle’ provided us with the Adam, which turned out to be a model that was easily upset by an uneven road surface and easier still to dislike in its stiffer-sprung guises.

Here, the manufacturer’s abandonment of contrived sportiness pays dividends, the result being a city car in the classic mould: undemanding, placid and highly tolerant of most conditions. ‘Forgettable’ could conceivably be added to that list of adjectives, too, but for most buyers that won’t prevent it from aligning neatly with their expectations.

In that vein, the Viva’s control surfaces feel spot on. The throw on the five-speed manual gearbox is a little long (not unusual for a Vauxhall ’box, yet noticeable here), but the gearchange itself is positive and light, as is the clutch pedal. The steering is predictably casual, too.

It’s insubstantial enough to make the lighter ‘City’ setting entirely redundant, although it’s quick enough to seem like you’re getting a decent response from the front end.

That the Viva’s body moves around at higher cross-country speeds without the more sophisticated control of the Volkswagen Up or Hyundai i10 is readily apparent, but not sufficiently so as to bother you much in the broad scheme of things. So, lackadaisically sprung, quiet and just the right side of unhurried, the Viva’s progress is agreeable, comfortable and benign.

It is at its best in town, where its naturally good visibility and compact proportions are of obvious benefit, but the relocation to A and B-roads is nevertheless seamless and its handling limitations are only encountered after plenty of warning.

Motorways, similarly, are for the most part serenely dispensed with, with the occasional, inevitable shortfall in power compensated for by the prudent isolation of its occupants’ ears and rears.


Vauxhall Viva
Vauxhall Viva 1.0 SE is priced from £7995

The Viva’s sub-£9000 entry-level price tag isn’t as punchy as the £8000 level it launched with, and it doesn’t allow Vauxhall to claim an unequalled position among sub-four-metre hatchbacks on value for money.

Presumably a fair chunk of margin is being left for Vauxhall’s dealers to discount the car as and when they need to – just as they’re used to doing with the Griffin’s bigger models. But the firm is also talking up the Viva’s value with the offer of a particularly generous level of standard equipment – although that’s a claim with only limited credibility.

As an avoider of young kids, I'd happily sacrifice the Viva's lane departure warning and tyre pressure monitoring systems for a standard USB socket

Our sources suggest that the Viva will retain its value quite well by class standards.

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3.5 star Vauxhall Viva
Competent and practical but with no clear advantage in a competitive class

Clearly Vauxhall has not tried to break the mould. As a city car, the Viva follows closely in the wake of existing class leaders but does nothing to suggest it ought to be ranked above them.

Such is the quality of its rivals that even a passable imitation of them tends to measure up. So it is with the Viva.

If you can, hold fire until the multimedia improvements come along next year. Then buy a car with Intellilink and air-con, leaving the rest of the options boxes alone

By tucking a larger model’s interior ambience, refinement and rolling comfort into a compact setting that still seats five, Vauxhall has delivered the sort of city car that sensible customers are surely hoping for. It’s also competitively priced and acceptably cheap to run.

Nevertheless, the undertone of ‘must do better’ lingers. The Viva is a reminder that Vauxhall has been making small, affordable cars like this for well over half a century now, and despite its smallest, cheapest model being one of its better recent efforts, you can’t help wondering if the manufacturer has forgotten how to build a bona fide standout prospect. 

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Vauxhall Viva 2015-2019 First drives