Vauxhall Combo Life XL Energy 1.2 petrol week-long review - a worthy family MPV?
29 July 2019
From discovering that although the latest designer jacket you’ve snapped up looks awesome but its pockets are barely big enough for a pack of chewing gum, to realising that your all-singing new phone doesn’t have a memory card slot and has quickly become maxed out with selfies, first world problems can be pretty frustrating.
When it comes to family motoring, it’s not uncommon to find out that new build homes’ garages aren’t actually big enough to fit popular cars, or else enable their doors to be opened, and crossovers and SUVs may well dominate the road these days but some mums, dads or people who like to go extreme canyoning on weekends are sometimes shocked to discover that they often provide less boot space than MPVs and estates.
What is the Vauxhall Combo Life and what does it look like?
The dwindling number of fans of bona fide MPVs have been shedding a few tears that manufacturers have largely abandoned them for SUVs, but thanks to the ‘je m'en fiche’ attitude of the French who love ‘ludospace’ cars like this, the Griffin-badged Combo Life XL is a very welcome addition to the small pool of ‘lifestyle activity vehicles’ (LAV) on the market.
Living an active family life to the full is the primary manifesto pledge of the new Vauxhall Combo Life XL, which proudly ditches any crossover boasts other than blending MPV and small van DNA together just like its visually almost identical PSA siblings the Citroen Berlingo and Peugeot Partner do.
Built around PSA’s EMP2 platform that also lies beneath the skins of the popular Vauxhall Grandland X and Peugeot 3008 SUVs, Vauxhall launched the Combo Life before the Combo Cargo van variant, showing that talk of its debut LAV being more car-like than people might think isn’t just lip service. This ‘car first, van second’ approach means that, unlike van-derived MPVs of old, soundproofing, comfort and handling were intrinsically stirred into the mix right from the start. The XL bit refers to our review car being the 4.75m long wheelbase (LWB) rather than the 4.4m Combo Life, but perhaps surprisingly both lengths are specifiable with five or seven chairs.
The Combo Life’s face is cheery, smart and inoffensive, while the rest of its exterior design is purposefully boxy, complete with sliding doors that, once they’ve been sampled out there in the urban jungle with its narrow supermarket parking bays, become a thing of envy. No, it’s not aesthetically desirable or visually sporty in any way, like the Zafira Tourer arguably was, but MPV drivers appreciate that curves mean compromise.
Assessing the Vauxhall Combo Life XL’s interior comfort
Sitting high up understandably appeals to many drivers and indeed passengers, but an SUV isn’t required to tick this preference, as people-carrier MPVs also typically offer similarly lofty seating positions, sometimes even more so. The Vauxhall Combo Life XL is no exception, placing the human beans inside neck and neck with the ubiquitous faux-by-fours and 4x4s passing by, along with light vans.
Given its starting price of £22,235 in 7-seater XL guise, which a quick flick of the abacus identifies as being cheaper than a comparably-specified Zafira Tourer, the practically-focussed Vauxhall can be forgiven for blending ‘hair shirt’ with modernity inside, the very car-like steering wheel and infotainment system sat amidst a utilitarian interior with hard-wearing rather than plush or tactile materials.
Still, anyone who regularly ferries kids and/or dogs around will greatly appreciate the resulting nonchalance of a quick wipe of a cloth being enough to banish any stains and splodges, the absence of diamond-encrusted controls and trim covered in moths’ eyelids putting to bed any fretting over feet-kicking causing any damage.
The Vauxhall Combo Life XL’s front seats are comfortable enough for short and medium journeys but might prove wriggle-inducing on longer trips, partly because they’re a tad firm and lack side bolstering. Some drivers and front passengers may revel in the vehicle coming with two armrests, while others may find that they get in the way, especially when moving items to and from the rear footwells or seats.
Whether used as a team bus for sumo wrestlers or NBA players, knee, shoulder and headroom are unsurprisingly copious. The two rearmost seats in the XL are large enough for adults and can even be slid on rails individually, and although the 35:30:25-split second row seats don’t also slide, they can be folded independently, which is handy for transporting long items. The Combo Life’s sliding side doors are most welcome and take some of the headache away from keeping the vehicle free of parking dents and scratches if it’s on a car leasing contract, but it’s worth noting for less able motorists with weaker arms that they’re quite heavy to haul open and shut.
Three ISOFIX child seat anchor points are provided across the second row and, depending on the makes and models of the actual car seats fitted, Vauxhall is confident that three will physically fit, which is quite unique in the car world. The optional ‘Child Pack’ fitted to the test car is a welcome addition, equipping it with retractable rear sun blinds and an internal rear-view mirror that will be reassuring for many parents. XL models also come with foldable tables attached to the backs of the front seats.
Is the Combo Life XL the last word in storage?
The ergonomic positioning of buttons, pedals and other controls is very good and although not providing a storage cubby between the front seats may seem ironic, it’s partly because the floor-mounted handbrake is traditional rather than electronic and certainly translates into acres of occupant space, enhancing the perception of the vehicle as a conservatory on wheels. Besides, with up to 28 distinct storage compartments, the Vauxhall Combo Life XL is like one of those accordion jewellery boxes with seemingly never-ending trays, or a pair of professional walking trousers with more pockets than imaginable.
Upgrading to the full-length panoramic sunroof is admittedly required in order to get one’s mitts on the uncannily useful overhead storage console, but by default the vehicle comes with oddment cubbies and trays dotted everywhere, along with a double glovebox plus storage compartments beneath the rear footwells. There’s even what Vauxhall calls a ‘hatbox’ near the rear view mirror.
Vauxhall says that the Combo Life XL offers 806 litres of luggage capacity even when the two rear seats are in use, but this is admittedly when the available boot space is filled to the roofline. The rearmost seats disappointingly don’t fold flat into the floor like in some other MPVs including the now defunct Zafira Tourer, but they can be removed completely if not required at times, opening up 1,538 litres behind the remaining five seats – again, up to the roof.
For drivers who understandably prefer sticking to boot space available beneath the extendable load cover or ‘parcel shelf’, there’s 850 litres to play with in 5-seater mode, while the Combo Life XL’s maximum cargo space with the middle row folded down weighs in at 1,672 litres to the window line and 2,693 litres up to the roof. Even after a family of five’s mountain of holiday stuff has been stashed in there right down to the last teddy bear and bike, this immensely practical vehicle’s boot could probably still swallow not just one but a couple of kitchen sinks – those fashionable marble troughs, at that.
The simplistically practical beauty of the Combo Life’s sliding doors is almost negated by the frustration of having to park what feels like a swimming pool’s length away from any other objects to be able to fling open the tall tailgate, though, which is a shame but is one of the trade-offs of boxy vehicles like this.
Driving the Vauxhall Combo Life XL
On the road, the 3-cylinder 1.2-litre 110PS petrol engine is quiet and refined at lower speeds and doesn’t even prove overly intrusive at motorway speeds, although wind noise does, caused by the Combo Life’s bluff shape and large wing mirrors. With 205Nm (151 lf bt) torque, it lacks the relative low-down grunt of diesel power and while the unit performs perfectly acceptably with a few people and modest luggage on board, it will struggle when fully-loaded on family holidays or on trips to preloved furniture shops with wardrobes and settees in the back.
Sharing its front suspension with the widely-liked Peugeot 3008 places the Vauxhall MPV in good stead, but because the tall and relatively narrow Combo Life’s rear suspension is rather more van-like, it does lean when cornering too eagerly. Nevertheless, the car copes with the UK’s seemingly endless road craters and speed-bumps very well indeed, the steering is surprisingly direct and far from a damp squib, and the elevated position of the gearstick will please many drivers.
Emissions from the 1.2-litre petrol engine are 125g/km CO2 and, depending on a whole clutch of variables, up to 51.4mpg average fuel economy is pledged. After a week road-testing the Combo Life XL, high-40s seems more realistically achievable through careful driving, especially if stuffed to the rafters, but it’s pretty good for such a large vehicle.
Thick pillars sometimes obscure visibility at junctions and the like, but the large wing mirrors enhance confidence behind the wheel, and the XL is on the whole certainly more car-like than similar efforts of yore, although most will buy and lease it for its practicality rather than driving experience.
Car-like infotainment and safety
The sophisticated list of entertainment and safety equipment fitted as standard or available optionally is another factor that makes the Vauxhall Combo Life seem a far cry from a van conversion.
In Energy trim as tested, the 8-inch touchscreen will look instantly familiar to anyone who’s recently travelled in a Citroen or Peugeot, and controls the standard DAB radio, Bluetooth phone integration and other functions, but it’s worth noting that Multimedia Navi Pro isn’t fitted by default, leaving some drivers perhaps preferring to rely on Android Auto or Apple CarPlay connectivity rather than fork out any extra for sat nav. Three USB points are provided and the 12V socket on the passenger side can be upgraded to 230V by paying a little more.
Because of the Vauxhall’s hefty proportions, it’s worth specifying the Parking Park which means a 180-degree panoramic rear-view camera, electric folding wing mirrors and side blind spot alert, but the Combo Life does come as standard with hill start assist, cruise control with speed limiter and intelligent speed adaptation, a camera at the front, lane keep assist and lane departure warning, speed sign recognition, forward collision alert and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Impressive, indeed. Other creature comforts such as high beam assist, a heated steering wheel and front seats, and a head-up display are also available, as is the All Weather Pack, which negates the occasional need for a four-wheel drive SUV by equipping the vehicle with PSA’s IntelliGrip wheel for toggling between mud, sand, snow and other modes – and it works surprisingly well.
Priced from £22,235 in Energy spec’ with seven chairs, the Vauxhall is a couple of grand cheaper to buy than the unarguably prettier Ford S-Max and VW Touran, while CarLeasingPeople’s Combo Life XL leasing prices currently start at £230.39 per month including VAT, a tidy bit more affordable than £307.19 upwards per month for the Volkswagen and £323+ for the Ford.
If ferrying around loads of people and mountains of stuff are your main priorities, the Combo Life XL certainly ticks a lot of boxes and Vauxhall’s car-first approach has paid off in many respects, making this reasonably-priced and hard-wearing MPV a great choice for active families.