Vauxhall Combo Life MPV review
"The Vauxhall Combo Life is a 'van with windows' that offers a hard-to-beat combination of value and versatility"
- Seriously versatile
- Great value for money
- Respectable fuel economy and range
- Wind noise
- Gawky looks
- Wallowy handling
The Vauxhall Combo Life looks unassuming but it’s a significant vehicle for the British brand, given that it’s now Vauxhall’s cheapest seven-seater. It’s the first time in decades that Vauxhall has offered a van-based people carrier and that’s partly because the Combo Life shares so many parts with the Citroen Berlingo and Peugeot Rifter.
This is no bad thing: the Berlingo and Rifter, designed as commercial vehicles from the ground up, are well known as practical, no-nonsense machines that can handle the rigours of family life. Indeed, Vauxhall's decision to name its family-size workhorse the 'Combo Life' precisely sums up what this boxy machine is all about.
The Combo Life fills the space left in the range by the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer, the brand’s previous full-size MPV. Combo Life buyers can choose between two body lengths and either five or seven seats, with the Combo Life XL offering a massive 2,700 litres of luggage space when all the seats are folded out of use.
The Combo Life doesn't seem to have been styled with quite the same care as its Peugeot and Citroen sister models; it’s a no-nonsense design that makes no attempt to hide its commercial origins. The Citroen's split-headlamp design and SUV-flavoured Peugeot are both more distinctive than the Vauxhall, which looks rather apologetic by comparison. The common-sense theme continues in the engine line-up, which is common to all three models.
A familiar 1.5-litre BlueHDi diesel produces 99 or 128bhp, while the 1.2-litre three-cylinder PureTech petrol engine produces either 109bhp or 128bhp. Interestingly, there’s also a fully electric Vauxhall Combo-e Life, which manages up to 174 miles on a full charge and is the most powerful model (but only just, with 134bhp). The electric Combo Life is the most expensive version but offers the lowest running costs if you can regularly charge it at home.
Three trim levels are offered on petrol and diesel models: entry-level Edition, mid-range SE and the more comprehensively equipped Elite. Edition comes with DAB radio, Bluetooth, rear parking sensors and air conditioning, plus a good roster of safety kit including autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-departure warning and cruise control.
SE (the only trim available for the electric model) adds a touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, alloy wheels, auto lights and high beam, a rear-view camera and either heated seats or keyless entry, depending on whether you choose a manual or automatic gearbox.
Top-spec Elite adds a digital instrument cluster, sat nav and front sensors but makes the Combo Life rather expensive for what is essentially a value-focused car.
Vauxhall appears to have judged the specification of the Combo Life quite cleverly; the model occupies a narrow slot between the penny-pinching economy of the Citroen Berlingo and the more plush, SUV-styled Peugeot Rifter. For many families, the Vauxhall could strike the perfect balance of practicality, comfort and cost.
MPG, running costs & CO2
As ever, the diesel engines grab the fuel-economy headlines, but those who cover less than around 12,000 miles a year might end up saving money with the 1.2-litre petrol. In 109bhp specification, it's claimed to return 44.1mpg, with a CO2 emissions figure of 145g/km that results in a high Benefit-in-Kind tax liability for those able to choose a Combo Life as a company car.
The 99bhp diesel costs a little extra to buy, but boasts a claimed 53mpg fuel-economy potential, and its 135g/km CO2 emissions mean it beats the petrol for BiK tax.
Even the diesel will cost far more to run than the electric Combo-e Life. Both private and business users stand to save money, with tiny BiK tax payments for company-car drivers and free VED (road tax). Buyers that can recharge at home may only pay a few pounds for a full charg and servicing should be cheaper too. The electric model is the most expensive version to buy in the first place, however.
The Combo Life's commercial-van origins mean other running costs are unlikely to break the bank, with reasonable servicing costs and consumables such as tyres and brakes being sensibly priced. Every new Vauxhall carries a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, and the Citroen Berlingo and its relatives have established a good reputation for reliability, which the Vauxhall Combo Life has no excuse not to follow.
Petrol versions need to be serviced every year or 12,500 miles, while diesels can go 20,000 miles per year before needing to visit the garage. The electric version needs an inspection after the first year or 12,500 miles but from then on it only needs to be serviced every two years or 25,000 miles.
Engines, drive & performance
Sharing its mechanical makeup with the Peugeot Rifter and Citroen Berlingo, the Vauxhall Combo Life offers the same petrol and diesel engine choices. The 1.5-litre BlueHDi diesel produces 99 or 128bhp, while the three-cylinder, 1.2-litre PureTech petrol comes in 109bhp or 128bhp guises.
The 99bhp diesel has a five-speed gearbox as standard, while the petrol and 128bhp diesel come with a six-speed manual. The most powerful versions of both engines can be chosen with an eight-speed automatic gearbox. The 99bhp diesel is just about equal to the task of propelling the Combo Life's bulky form. You'll want to keep the revs above 1,200rpm or face a serious lack of urge, and it's best to change gear before 3,000rpm – going beyond that engine speed brings precious little reward in terms of power, but does make the going rather noisy. It's a shame the gearbox isn't better to use.
If you're not trying to set any speed records, you'll see the 99bhp diesel for the honest, workmanlike engine it is. Kept at moderate revs, it's relatively smooth and settles down to a murmur at motorway cruising speed. However, the 128bhp version is far more flexible and recommends itself to any Combo Life driver who expects to make regular heavily laden trips. Adding the eight-speed automatic gearbox makes it truly effortless to drive.
The electric Combo-e Life has three settings: Power (the full 134bhp), Normal (107bhp) and the Eco setting that pegs you back to around 80bhp. Body roll is well contained because the location of the battery gives a low centre of gravity, so it’s actually a little better to drive than petrol and diesel models. It’s quieter too.
Those moving to the Combo Life from a Zafira Tourer might need to adopt a more relaxed driving style, as the van-based MPV doesn't have quite such sharp reflexes as the Zafira. The steering feels precise and initial cornering turn-in is remarkably eager, thanks in part to front suspension that's closely related to the Peugeot 3008.
However, in pursuit of load-carrying capacity, the Combo Life, Berlingo and Rifter use a very simple rear suspension system and the body can lurch and lean in corners as a result. It's far more comfortable when you take it easy, and rides smoothly over all but the most severe potholes. Meanwhile, being relatively narrow for its height, the Combo Life proves easy to position on tight urban roads, while the large glass area aids visibility when manoeuvring.
Interior & comfort
The rounded oblong shape of the Vauxhall Combo Life spells both good news and bad news for comfort. The main downside is lots of wind noise, due to the less-than-streamlined way the car hacks its way through the air. The other is that occupants are forced to sit in a rather upright fashion – passengers can't recline and stretch out like they might in a saloon.
Allow for these shortfalls, though, and the Combo Life is an agreeable way for a family to travel. Inside, the passenger environment feels a little more tactile and is more pleasing to look at than the Citroen Berlingo's interior, but doesn't exhibit the extra SUV-inspired design touches of the Peugeot Rifter.
There are three trim levels to choose between, and the entry-level Edition really does only tick off the basics. You get air-conditioning, cruise control, electric front windows and central locking, but you have to step up to the SE or Elite models before the equipment list more closely resembles a car than a van.
SE elevates the Combo Life a little further from its commercial origins by adding 16-inch alloy wheels, foglights and automatic headlamps and wipers. Inside, the dashboard materials are improved, you get a touchscreen infotainment system and a digital instrument cluster. Elite adds a rear-view camera, sat nav, two-zone climate control and other luxuries.
While the infotainment system is proven, being essentially a subtly redesigned version of that used by the Vauxhall's Peugeot and Citroen sisters, we recommend against paying to add sat nav. With Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility built in as standard, you're better off using your smartphone's navigation system if you have enough data.
Practicality & boot space
Versatility really is the be-all and end-all of cars like the Vauxhall Combo, and families will love the practicality of its load space and many seating permutations. Even when every seat is occupied, it's unlikely that anybody will complain of a lack of space, and each seat in the second row is ISOFIX-equipped, making it possible to carry three child seats.
Even the regular-wheelbase Combo Life offers a huge boot, with 597 litres of load volume, or 2,126 with the passenger seats folded out of use. In five-seat examples, the second row is 60:40 split, but seven-seat Combos have individually folding rear seats, which opens up even more versatility – especially if you order the Family Pack, which allows the front passenger seat to fold flat, allowing 2.7-metre long loads to be accommodated. These figures are unchanged for the electric Combo-e version.
The standard-wheelbase model sacrifices quite a lot of boot space in seven-seat mode, but those who frequently need to carry a full complement of passengers and their belongings can go for the Combo Life XL. Its extra length brings a total load volume of 2,700 litres when all the passenger seats are folded out of the way.
Up front, interior storage hasn't been forgotten – there are deep door bins and cubbyholes scattered around the dashboard. Compared to the Peugeot Rifter, though, there's a surprising absence of clever storage solutions. You need to visit the options list to find roof storage and aircraft-style overhead lockers.
Reliability & safety
The Vauxhall Combo Life betrays its commercial roots by lacking some of the driver-assistance features that many have come to expect in today's family cars. Autonomous emergency braking is standard, though, as is lane-keeping assistance.
Optional driver aids extend to an All-Weather pack that includes an Intelligrip system to increase off-road traction in conjunction with all-weather tyres, and a parking package that includes blind-spot monitoring, power-folding mirrors and a rear-view camera. The Combo Life has been crash-tested by Euro NCAP and awarded four stars out of five. Its 91% score for adult occupant protection impressed, along with 81% for child occupants. A tall bonnet, stiff windscreen pillars and an autonomous emergency braking system unable to detect cyclists held it back in the vulnerable road users category.
Nor have any of the three yet been included in our annual Driver Power owner satisfaction survey. However, every mechanical aspect of the Combo's design has been well proven and the Stellantis group has a reputation for producing hard-worked commercial vehicles that owners can rely on. It's possible, though, that Vauxhall owners might have differing experiences of dealers compared to Peugeot and Citroen drivers.