Vauxhall's Combo is a panel van with the one thing operators really need: serious carrying capacity. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
With their third generation Combo, Vauxhall finally has a very class-competitive compact van, with both short and long wheelbase bodystyles that together should be able to satisfy almost every buyer in this segment. With frugal running costs, smart design and unbeaten practicality, it's everything a small LCV should be.
When the time came to develop this third generation Combo van, Vauxhall grabbed the opportunity to design something from a clean sheet of paper that would tackle both the LCV market's major small van sectors. Borrowing a platform from a Fiat Doblo Cargo model targeted at Berlingo and Kangoo-class contenders in the Compact van sector meant that Vauxhall, for the first time, would be able to properly take them on too. Yet at the same time, the brand didn't want to ignore buyers wanting something still spacious but a little smaller; maybe a short wheelbase Ford Transit Connect or perhaps even something Citroen Nemo or Peugeot Bipper-shaped. A truncated short wheelbase version of the MK3 Combo design, Vauxhall reasoned, might satisfy those people very well. Both Combo variants were launched here early in 2012 and both seemed to make all kinds of sense on paper. But in practice? Well, let's find out.
These days, van drivers are well used to a car-like response from LCVs, especially small ones. That doesn't necessarily mean an enjoyable driving experience though and in the second generation Combo you didn't get one, hardly surprising given that it was based on the underpinnings of a Vauxhall Corsa designed way back in the undemanding Nineties. This third generation Combo of course is very different thanks to an independent Bi-link suspension system clever enough to provide supple ride comfort, yet firm enough to resist bodyroll and support heavy loads. It's a class-leading compromise. Can the same be said of the engines on offer? Well, the all-diesel line-up certainly seems effective on paper. At entry-level, there's the 90PS 1.3-litre CDTi unit, with 200Nm of pulling power, torquey enough to work well for van buyers shopping at the small end of the spectrum. Those looking for something Berlingo or Kangoo-sized though, will be more likely to want the 105PS 1.6-litre CDTi variant. This gives you nearly 50% more torque to play with, enabling the braked trailer load capacity to rise from 1,000 to 1,300kgs. And you can access that pulling power via a six, rather than a five-speed gearbox. Urban operators might not like the idea of having to use any kind of gearbox, so for them Vauxhall is offering a 'Tecshift' semi-automatic version of this 1.6-litre diesel Combo. The penalty for being able to rest your left foot is that the transmission has only five speeds and power drops to 90PS. But is power really an important issue in a van of this kind? If you think it is, then you'll be target market for the most powerful engine ever offered in a Combo, a 2.0-litre 135PS CDTi unit putting out a hefty 320Nm of torque from way low in the rev range, just 1,500rpm.
Design and Build
This third generation Combo has a very different look to its predecessors. Of course it does you might think: it's a significantly bigger vehicle. True enough, but looking over the smart but practical shape, you're still left with the nagging feeling that there's nothing especially Vauxhall-like about this design, aside from the huge Griffin logo on the front grille. Maybe though that too is much as you would expect were you to be made aware that this is essentially a Vauxhall version of Fiat's Doblo Cargo. Like its Italian design stablemate, this model's front end is dominated by a huge pair of clear glass headlamps, here incorporating daytime running lights. It's all very smartly done. My only issue is a practical one: that placing directional indicators in these large door mirrors is going to make them much pricier to replace when, inevitably, you bash one on a tight city street. It's certainly a practical cabin with a large lockable glove box, several cubbies in the dash and large door pockets with enough room for half-litre bottles and A4 clipboards. Go for a better trimmed or a high roof model and there's overhead storage as well. As expected, it's all very car-like. Ahead of you, there's a steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and rake. And you sit very comfortably, especially if you've got the plush Comfort seat with its height and lumbar adjustment as well as a built-in armrest. A place to do business.
Market and Model
Vauxhall has never really had a properly-sized compact LCV. The Corsavan is tiny. And the Astravan has a letterbox-shaped loading bay that isn't much bigger. The MK2 Combo model wasn't really big enough to fill this gap but this third generation version is - and has two distinct compact LCV market segments in mind. 'L1' short wheelbase variants with 90PS retail from around the £14,000 mark excluding VAT and target those after small but spacious LCV transport: people who'd most likely be looking at something like a short wheelbase Ford Transit Connect. Most variants of the Ford are pricier than their Combo equivalents and all have slightly smaller loadbays. It's tempting to also compare against small van products like Citroen's Nemo and Peugeot's Bipper, both of which will save you a couple of thousand or so. Before you do though, bear in mind you'll be looking at a van that's about 40% smaller with about 20% less power: your call. Curiously, it's only this short wheelbase Combo that gets the option of the high roof bodyshape, boosting load capacity from 3.4 to 4.0m3, for a premium of around £500. 'L2' long wheelbase variants cost £1,000 more, model-for-model, over their 'L1' counterparts. Here again, Vauxhall's closest rival is Ford's Transit Connect, this time in long wheelbase guise. And here again, the Combo is both cheaper (by about £1,000 model-for-model) and offers a standard 4.2m3 loadbay that's significantly bigger. Equivalent long wheelbase versions of compact-class vans like Renault's Kangoo or Citroen's Berlingo might save you a few hundred but are also a little smaller.
Practicalities and Costs
For potential Combo buyers, the practical facts make compulsive reading. No other rival can better this Vauxhall's maximum potential carriage capacity of up to 4.2m3. And none has a longer wheelbase, a bigger potential payload, a bigger rear axle load, a longer maximum load length or a higher maximum load height. As a buyer, you choose between three main bodyshapes. The 'L1' short wheelbase model standard roof model I have here with its 3.4m3 capacity. The same vehicle with the higher 'H2' roof height that raises load volume to 4.0m3. And the 'L2' long wheelbase low roof model that can offer up to 4.2m3. Rivals like Ford's Transit Connect and Citroen's Berlingo must use extra-cost and inconvenient fold-flat front passenger seat arrangements to even approach these kinds of figures. Once your load is inside, you'll find a cargo bay width of 1,714mm, which narrows to 1,230mm between the wheelarches. Easily enough to slide in the usual Europallet. The height of the load area is 1305mm in a standard roof model like this one, but it can be as much as 1,550mm in the high roof 'H2' variant. The loadbay length in this standard model is 1,820mm, but if that's not enough in your short wheelbase Combo, then a roof flap can be fitted at the back, allowing for long items like ladders and pipes. This isn't an option for long wheelbase Combo models, but then it may not need to be given that here, load length is up to 2,170mm. If all of this space encourages you to carry heftier items, then you'll be glad to hear that this generation Combo can carry heavier payloads. And running costs? Well here, there's little for operators to worry about. All of the diesel engines on offer deliver frugal returns, helped by a start/stop system that'll cut the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Go for a 1.3 CDTi ecoFLEX variant that I'm driving here, for example, and a combined cycle return of 58.9mpg is possible, along with a 126g/km CO2 reading. All models have longer 21,000 mile servicing intervals and come with a three year/60,000 mile warranty and a six-year body perforation warranty. Insurance is very reasonable with all variants being rated in either group 3E or 4E.
Vauxhall builds more vans in Britain than anyone else. More importantly, it sells more vans in Britain than anyone else. All the more surprising given that this was the case before they were properly represented in the compact LCV segment. This third generation Combo model ensures that they now are, effortlessly covering both the main small van segment sectors and doing so with class-leading practicality and an unbeaten set of running costs. It's the long awaited final piece of the Vauxhall van jigsaw, completing a total LCV model line-up with something to offer every UK business operator. You won't see this model making too many headlines, but the reality is that it's one of the impressive vehicles that the brand makes. Quietly concentrating on the things that really matter to operators, to many it'll be invisible, just one of those fixtures of the urban environment that blend into the background. But then, sometimes the very best designs have the very lowest impact. What's important is that this Combo does more than enough to be spotted by the people who count. People who'll find this Vauxhall difficult to ignore in their search for a compact van. Job done.