Don’t say it. Don’t even think about uttering the ‘v’ word. For the Vauxhall Vivaro Life isn’t what it looks like. Honest. The company’s sales literature describes it as a ‘luxury passenger vehicle’. Though this seems a bit rich given that, if you pay £28,610 for the basic Edition version, you get black plastic bumpers and steel wheels – and you don’t even get any rear seats.
Instead, the most basic Vivaro Life comes as standard as a bizarre, carpeted, mobile box with windows, to which you can add your choice of three or six rear seats, at extra cost. Cruise control, remote central locking and a Bluetooth-enabled stereo are also thrown in, but that’s about your lot.
The Elite version, by comparison, fits its bill much better – though so it should, you might argue, starting as it does at £42,105. You get five seats as standard, or eight, in two rows of three plus two individual front seats, as a no-cost option.
And you can upgrade the middle row to two individual, swivelling captain’s chairs for an additional £800, should you wish, turning the Vivaro Life into either a luxurious four-seater with acres of boot space, or a seven-seater.
In addition, the Elite gets leather seats, climate control, ambient lighting and a lusty 2.0-litre diesel engine, in either 148bhp or 178bhp outputs – all the trappings of a modern luxury saloon, in other words. That said, there are caveats: while you get a touchscreen infotainment system, it’s rather small and a bit sluggish.
What’s more, while you can specify adaptive cruise control as an option, be warned that it doesn’t control the brakes – so when the car in front of you decelerates more briskly than it can handle, it’ll cancel itself with a bleep and expect you to take over.
And automatic emergency braking, a bit of safety tech that can reduce the likelihood of a head-on impact by as much as 38 per cent and is now standard on most new cars, isn’t even available as an option here.
Nevertheless, if you need seven seats, and you want your next car to have been built in Britain, it’s either this or a Land Rover. Which means that if, furthermore, you don’t want to follow the SUV crowd, the Luton-built Vivaro Life is your only option.
That factor might also give it an advantage in the UK, for some buyers at least, over and above its badge-engineered siblings, the Citroen SpaceTourer and Peugeot Traveller, which are both screwed together at PSA’s Hordain plant in France.
The Vivaro Life that Vauxhall’s sent us for test has been configured as a seven-seater. And quite the seven-seater it is, too; unlike most SUVs, it’ll take adults comfortably in all seven positions, should you need to, and there’s more room even than you’ll find in unfashionable MPVs like the Ford Galaxy and Volkswagen Sharan.
What’s more, its two sliding rear doors are electrically powered, and you can roll them back using the key fob, all of which makes the Vivaro Life immensely useful in a tight car park.
Open the barn-door tailgate, meanwhile, and you’ll find a sizeable boot, albeit one that’s tall and wide, rather than long. You can, however, slide the rearmost row of seats – if fitted – backwards and forwards to increase the space, to the detriment of leg room in that last row, and if boot space really is important, there’s always the imaginatively named ‘Long’ version, too.
Up front, you sit in a driving position so commanding it makes an SUV’s rather pale into comparison. A miniscule bonnet makes straight-ahead visibility ideal – though the Vivaro Life’s width makes it quite a tricky thing to manoeuvre, and you’re always aware there’s a huge amount of va… ahem, luxury passenger vehicle behind you.
Vauxhall has had a vague stab at making the interior feel luxurious – you get some strips of faux-aluminium, some slivers of faux-chrome, and in the automatic model, a swish-looking rotary gear selector.
Trouble is, none of this is enough to lift the interior away from its humble origins, so the leather upholstery sits at odds with the slabs of cheap, black plastic, ordinary-looking dials and drab switchgear.
And while you get a vast door bins, there’s otherwise a surprising dearth of smaller cubbies for oddments like spare change, parking tickets or your phone. So they either have to rattle around in the door with your empty bottle, or sit out of reach in the glovebox.
Start the Vivaro Life up, and it doesn’t sound as agricultural as you might expect, given its… erm… heritage. Yes, there’s a bit of diesel grumble, but no more than you might find in some of the less well-damped cars out there.
The automatic gearbox works smoothly and swiftly, too, and gives you one less thing to think about when threading such a big chunk of tin through town. It’s only available with this most potent engine, mind you, but if you can stretch to it, it’s worth having.
If you don’t mind a manual, you could probably get away with the lesser 2.0-litre unit as an alternative, but we’d steer clear of the 1.5-litre engines in the Edition versions if you plan to carry lots of people on a regular basis, as they’ll probably feel rather wheezy.
Out on the road, meanwhile, the Vivaro Life won’t blow you away, but it is at least respectable. The ride, for example, is actually pretty comfortable the majority of the time, but over larger lumps it does exhibits that slightly jostling, bouncy tendency you usually get in an unladen van. It isn’t intolerable, but neither is it what you might call luxurious.
At motorway speeds, meanwhile, there’s a reasonable amount of wind noise that comes as a natural by-product of pushing a big, square vehicle through the air at high speed, but the engine does at least hum along quietly.
The Vivaro Life isn’t exactly the most relaxing thing to drive long-distance; the steering feels light and vague, and that means you find yourself having to concentrate hard on maintaining your trajectory. This is especially true when it’s a bit breezy out, those big, slab sides acting like sales to pull you across your lane.
And of course, punting the Vivaro Life down a country lane is about as pointless as trying to go sailing on an indoor swimming pool. Even compared with the least competent modern SUVs and MPVs, it feels rather out of its depth, and its lack of steering feel, ponderous responses and sheer size all dissuade even the most optimistic helmsman from hustling it along a back road.
If passenger space is your top priority, to the detriment of all else, then the Vivaro Life is worth a look. Next to the Volkswagen Caravelle, it looks like a bit of a steal, and while it isn’t quite as smart inside, or as well as equipped, it’s almost as pleasant to drive.
But while you can slather it in snazzy metallic paint and fill the interior with leather armchairs, the Vivaro Life’s workmanlike origins are still just a little too obvious (and its deficit in safety equipment hard to forgive). So if you can live with having slightly less space for your £40,000-or-so, you’ll probably be happier with a more conventional SUV or MPV. Something, in short, that isn’t a gussied-up van. Whoops.
Vauxhall Vivaro Life 2.0 180 Turbo D Elite Auto
TESTED 1,997cc four-cylinder diesel turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £42,760/now
POWER/TORQUE 178bhp @ 3,500rpm, 295lb ft @ 2,000rpm
TOP SPEED 105mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 10.4sec
FUEL ECONOMY 40.6mpg (WLTP Combined)
CO2 EMISSIONS 151g/km (NEDCeq)
VED £855 first year, £465 next five years, then £145
VERDICT If you absolutely must have minibus-like space with lots of toys thrown in, the Vivaro Life does the job, and among its rivals it’s not bad value. But at this price, most buyers will find a traditional MPV (or SUV, even) delivers almost as much practicality with far fewer compromises.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five
Volkswagen Caravelle 2.0 TDI SWB SE DSG, from £48,672
No, it doesn’t come cheap. But if you really want a van with windows, the Caravelle is nicer to drive, feels better built and is better equipped, which goes some way toward justifying its higher price. It’s also likely to hold its value better.
Ford Galaxy 2.0 EcoBlue 190 Titanium X Automatic, from £39,560
MPVs like the Galaxy are very much out of fashion, which is a shame as they’re a better way of moving seven people than either the likes of the Vivaro Life or an SUV. For sure, the Galaxy gives away a little to the Vivaro Life in terms of outright space. But it’s much more satisfying to drive, far nicer to sit in and is better equipped. It’s also cheaper to buy.
Land Rover Discovery Sport D180 AWD SE Auto, from £43,175
This is likely the sort of thing most buyers looking to spend £40k or so on a seven-seater will end up with these days, and who could blame them? The Disco Sport is nowhere near as spacious as the Vivaro Life – its rearmost row is really for children or teenagers only – but its premium feel and car-like drive make it a much more palatable option if that’s all you need.
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