Back in the 1980s, the film Crazy People coined the phrase “they’re boxy but they’re good” to describe Volvos.
Nowadays there’s a lot more to the Swedish brand than that but the same slogan could equally be applied to the Vauxhall Combo Life.
The van-based people carrier is part of a threesome from the PSA group designed to offer maximum people and possessions moving for less money than a traditional MPV.
In that company the Combo looks the most utilitarian and van-like. The Berlingo has Citroen’s trademark contrasting trim elements and blobby airbumps, the Rifter gets plenty of SUV styling cues but our test car didn’t even get any roof rails to help shake off the van-with-windows image.
Vauxhall Combo Life Energy XL
Price: £23,665 (£26,295 as tested)
Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder, diesel
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Top speed: 106mph
0-60mph: 13 seconds
CO2 emissions: 115g/km
In fact, with its red paint it was more than a little reminiscent of Postman Pat’s famous wheels.
Its boxy shape at least means it meets its brief of being a functional people and possessions mover.
All versions get three individual seats in the second row but our test car also had two more seats in the boot. Unlike some MPVs and most seven-seat SUVs, these are proper full-sized seats with enough legroom for an adult to sit in comfort. That, however, means that they don’t fold flat into the floor but take up a substantial amount of boot space. The backs fold down and you can remove them completely but they’re fairly heavy and you’re then left having to find somewhere to store them.
Even with them in place the long-wheelbase XL version offers adequate storage for most daily use. Take them out completely and the flat load space is 850l and if that’s still not enough the second row of seats and even front passenger seat fold down to create a completely flat floor from dashboard to rear door and offer 2,693 litres of space.
That, plus its substantial width and tall roof give it a significant advantage over “traditional” people carriers if space is your priority but you still need the flexibility of seven seats. The twin sliding doors also make getting in and out far easier in tight spaces.
On the road, the Combo Life gives up ground to those traditional MPVs like the Seat Alhambra and Ford S-Max, which are significantly more car-like to drive, with better body control and more feel. Yet, the Combo Life rides pretty well and is impressively quiet given its blocky shape.
It’s also well equipped for the money and even with fancy options such as a head-up display, park assist and the Intelligrip all-weather pack, still undercuts the traditional MPV market on price.
Our Energy-spec car’s biggest weakness was its weedy engine. For a vehicle this size, the 99bhp/184lb/ft 1.5-litre diesel feels inadequate, especially once you start loading it full of passengers and luggage. Unfortunately, only top-spec Elite trim comes with the option of the 128bhp version of the same engine, which would be a far better choice.
The Combo Life is very much a head-over-heart kind of car. It’s pretty uninspiring to look and and drive but it offers more space than even full-sized MPVs and plenty of high-end equipment for less money than basic “regular” MPVs.
Like those Crazy People said, it’s boxy but it’s good.