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Passenger version of Vauxhall's popular van gets French underpinnings – and a plush interior

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It’s the new Vivaro: thorn in the side of Ford’s best-selling Ford Transit (and its Torneo derivatives) and unassuming saviour of Vauxhall’s long-standing plant at Luton.

Since the very boxy-looking last-generation Vivaro van, ownership of Vauxhall has changed hands from General Motors to PSA Group, and with all the various uncertainties that go with mass-producing cars in this day and age, that put the future of the plant at Luton – and some 1400 jobs – in some jeopardy.

With a bit of familiarity, the Vivaro goes well enough, and while it doesn’t do much to endear itself to its driver, neither does it do anything that genuinely frustrates

PSA’s eventual decision to build the overhauled Vivaro, with its new French underpinnings, in England has secured those jobs for the next decade or so, and with sibling vans the Peugeot Expert and Citroën Jumpy (seriously, who comes up with these names?) also set to be built at the plant, it will bring the output up to 100,000 vehicles annually.

That is the background. The Vivaro itself will come in two forms: Vivaro and Vivaro Life, though both are built on PSA’s EMP2 platform. It knocks the old car’s ladder-chassis into obscurity and its modularity allows the EMP2 to elsewhere support cars ranging from the Peugeot 508 saloon to the crossover DS 7 Crossback. It's not very van-like, in short, which is good news if you ever own or hire a Vivaro Life for minivan duties. 

Engine-wise there’s a choice of 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre turbodiesels (they’re PSA BlueHDi units, though rebadged ‘Turbo D’) ranging from 98bhp to 178bhp and with usefully long service intervals of at least 25,000 miles. Lower-powered versions get a six-speed manual while the top-spec cars get an eight-speed automatic. All are front-driven – Vauxhall’s IntelliGrip system, which uses brake and ESP intervention to maximise traction, is said to help out in less than ideal conditions.

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Understanding the Vivaro Life range

The straight Vivaro is the workhorse van of the sort we see every day. It starts at £26,400, with a payload of 1458kg (up 200kg) and a trailer load of 2500kg (up 500kg).

Here we drive the more expensive Life, which’ll make up only around a tenth of total Vivaro sales and is aimed at families, chauffeurs and the general movement of people rather than goods. You can have it in either Edition flavour, which with modular seating for nine is geared towards taxi duties, or in Elite, which is quite fancy for this kind of car, has a maximum of eight perches and is the one tested here. 

With the Elite you get electric, leather-trimmed massage seats in the front and a panoramic roof along with a rear-view camera, head-up display and a touchscreen infotainment display whose crisp graphics give away its Peugeot heritage. The list of standard kit is extremely long, in fact, though our car's wide-spaced, swivelling second-row seats cost an extra £800, and its foldable table £495.

The grand total is substantial: £45,310, above an list price of £42,420. 

What is the Vivaro Life like to drive?

Still here? In that case, you'll be pleased to know the Vivaro is reasonably well-mannered on the road, and much more obedient than you might expect. The horrendous flex present in some traditional vans – the sort whereby the front of the vehicle corners in an orientation entirely different from that of the rear – is largely absent, and that’s thanks to the new car-derived platform.

As for ride quality, it depends. With only the driver on board the Vivaro can feel catastrophically under-damped at times, though the same can be said of almost all passenger vehicles with commercial roots. Unloaded, the rear axle rarely settles, though the composure of the front axle, above which front-row occupants sit almost directly, fends off the worst of it.  

Loaded-up, it's a different matter. We tried a Vivaro from the commerical-vehicle range will 350kg of ballast strapped just behind the rear bulkhead. Predictably the ride quality settles down markedly – wonderfully so, in fact. The van wafts along quite nicely and the steering also weights up a little, which is helpful because this isn't the most confidence-inspiring rack.

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If you're used to a car the steering can feel very awkwardly geared, in as much as it doesn’t quicken as much as you’d like or expect it to. This can lead to some interesting moments mid-corner, where you can suddenly find the Vivaro’s stubby nose lagging behind what both your hands and the road are doing. That said, put in the effort and there's a good amount of lock. This, along with the high-set front seats and excellent visibility they bring, makes the Vivaro reasonably easy work in town.

There's also room for improvement in the manual gearbox. Its ratios are fine, and are well suited to the mid-ranking 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine’s low-down power and torque peaks, but its shift action is bizarre. Maybe it was just our test car, but selecting second gear shouldn’t involve swinging the lever to the side once past the mouth of the gate. The action is also poorly defined, though it is at least smooth. 

For a van-based people-carrier, does any of this matter? Arguably not. With a bit of familiarity, the Vivaro goes well enough, and while it doesn’t do much to endear itself to its driver, neither does it do anything that genuinely frustrates. It's quiet at a cruise and the interior is also a relative highlight, as you would expect with such a tall asking price. It’s uncluttered and breezily spacious in the front and second row, with soft seats and good-quality plastics – all from the PSA storeroom. It is, in short, pretty agreeable, and with a maximum height of 1.9 metres, you'll also get into almost any car park you happen upon.

How does the Vivaro Life compare to its rivals?

This Vauxhall is likely to appeal only to a very select group of private buyers: those who need an epic portion of space for passengers and luggage, in a hard-wearing but comfortable package. It's minivan stuff, but the Vivaro does it well. The fact it rides decently (that is, assuming you can fill it up) will be an added bonus.

But really it's about the space. Without third-row seats the Vivaro Life offers more than 3300 litres of boot space. Even a full-scale SUV like the Skoda Kodiaq, or an exceptionally spacious MPV like the Citroën Berlingo, manages only a fraction of that, and if you do go for third-row seats in the Vivaro, they're properly accommodating of adults, which can't be said of any car or SUV.

It isn’t pretty and isn’t particularly good to drive, but as a comfortable, decently refined tool-car with absurd stowage potential, the Vivaro doesn't disappoint.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Vauxhall Vivaro Life

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.