Living with a... Vauxhall Combo Life XL

Last updated: 3rd September 2019
Month 1: Welcome
Mileage: 100 miles
Cost: 0

Come on then, let’s have it: yes, this is a super-ugly car. There’s no two ways round it, no fudging it, no distraction techniques available. It’s ugly because of those slab sides, that boxy silhouette, the unreconstructed cliff face at the rear, the gauche raised ride height.

Glad we got that out of the way, because I’m now going to come on to nothing but positives, and imagine the next six months will stay that way (the first positive, obviously, is that once you’re inside, you can no longer see the outside).

As regular readers will know, I have a blended family of four boys, two adults and dog, so space and practicality are key. More than key, they’re the difference between a happy home and divorce, for the second time.

We have been through pretty much every seven-seater on the market so far: Land Rover Discovery and Discovery Sport, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe, Volvo XC90, Ford S-Max, Mercedes-Benz V-Class, Mercedes GL… there’s more. But boom, if this Vauxhall isn’t the best yet, in terms of practicality and usable space. That third row of seats is something special: two individual seats, which you can tip forward or quite easily remove from the car entirely if you’re not using them, giving a humungous space with a high ceiling and massive opening.

Because the two seats are separate, there’s a massive aisle between them where the dog sits quite happily, or we can bung bags/footballs/sports kit, and the kids can walk through to sit down, instead of clambering on the furniture. Each child has their own windowsill and cup holder in the third row, too, and because they sit higher than the other rows, they have a good view of the road in front which lessens the chance of travel sickness. The children in the second row get flip-up plastic trays mounted to the backs of the front seats (part of the child pack) which are handier than you might imagine on long journeys.
Vauxhall Combo Life
Up front, the car has van-like ergonomics, which means a slightly upturned steering wheel, arm rest and a gearstick that is positioned near the steering wheel. It’s incredibly comfy.

While the touchscreen is fairly small and rudimentary, with sat-nav graphics which aren’t up to industry standard these days, we do have wireless phone charging on a tray beneath the touchscreen, and it charges my iPhone faster than the equivalent tech in a BMW. We also have Apple CarPlay, which is what everyone uses for sat-nav these days anyway.

The Combo Life comes in two sizes - standard, and XL, which means an extended length. You can have seven seats in either. At the time of choosing our Combo combination, the Life was offered with a 1.5-litre diesel engine, with 100 horsepower, or a 1.2-litre petrol engine with slightly more power (110), but the petrol unit wasn’t available with the extended size, and for us, space is always the first consideration, so we’ve gone with the diesel, mated to a five-speed manual gearbox.

It’s a long time since I lived with something that has just 100 horsepower, and I’ve certainly never tried to pull six people and a dog along with that little pulling power. It’s OK, as long as you think very carefully before deciding to overtake something. Don’t, for example, attempt it on a hill at 60mph when fully loaded. The upsides are you are forced to relax as a driver, and the fuel economy is something to marvel at. In fact, it’s the first car where my read-out is beating the quoted official figure. Vauxhall says 42mpg, and I’m getting nearly 50mpg. It’s years since I got much past 30mpg, so I’ll take the power hit for a bit.

Final word on this car for the first month has to go to those sliding doors. Until you’ve had young children repeatedly not look before they open their doors straight into the car in the next bay, you don’t realise what an blissful blessing sliding doors are. I parked the Combo Life at Gatwick's short-term car park last week, in a tight bay, and smugly slid back the door to retrieve my suitcase. Sometimes, it’s the little things that count.
Vauxhall Combo Life
Month 3
Mileage: 3145
Cost: £0

The beady-eyed among you might notice a slight change to our Combo Life in this month’s report. That’s because it’s a different vehicle. It’s exactly the same as our previous one: the long-wheelbase, seven-seat version with the 1.5-litre diesel engine and the five-speed manual gearbox, and it’s even the same colour. But this one is a slightly (by a matter of weeks) newer Combo, as it was still being built for us in the factory when this blog started, so we had a stand-in while we waited for our actual Combo Life to rock up. Which it has done, just in time for month 3.

There are a couple of small changes inside: the storage bin behind the steering wheel has gone (sad times, as my kids say) to make way for the pop-up, heads-up display, the button to turn off the lane-departure warning system now actually works and the ventilation panel half way down the dash, which was a series of manual buttons, has been replaced by a glass screen with toggle switches, which looks more contemporary. So a net gain, but I do miss that large cubby hole on the dash and would sacrifice the head-up display, a glass panel showing your speed and the speed limit, to have it back.
But our saga this month involves roof bars and top-boxes, which is no doubt a common tale of woe around this time of year. Each summer we go on a self-catering holiday to Cornwall, which involves duvets, food, wet suits, fishing rods, buckets, clothes, shows and a mountain of alcohol and cereal. Space is at a premium, and we’re already loaded up with the six of us plus dog on board. So it is no slight against the Vauxhall that we needed a top box too.

Roof rails for a Vauxhall Combo Life are not easy to find. Being of a van-based nature, the Vauxhall does not fit standard roof bars, and putting the numberplate into Halford’s system results in blank stares and shakes of the head. We probably should have figured this more than 24 hours before kick-off. But there you go.

In the end Vauxhall itself came to the rescue and couriered us the roof rails, on the eve of departure. I realise not every Vauxhall owner will get this service, although I was hugely impressed that, when I rang the nearest dealer to try there, and no one answered as it was 6pm, I got a call about an hour later to say that they were sorry to miss this terribly important anonymous call and could they be of any assistance, as whoever I was, I had obviously needed something from them. Nice one.

By 8pm (we were leaving at 6am the next morning), we had only both just finished work, the kids needed feeding, and packing seemed a laughable dream. We opened the courier box to discover, instead of roof rails ready to rock and roll, strips of rubber that need cutting to size, several lengths of metal bars, some brackets and some screws. And a really, really long series of instructions involving a measuring tape we didn’t have.

My partner sighed heavily, and set to work, taking off the handsome roof rails which I presume are just for show as they’re too thick to clamp anything to. At about midnight he was done. Impressive. Except then we realised our top box’s underneath clamps weren’t far enough apart to reach both roof rails - obviously, being a van, the rails are a long way apart on the roof, and, naturally, not adjustable.

Which is how we ended up driving to Cornwall and back with ugly roof rails that whistled in the wind at speed, no topbox and four boys sitting on boxes of cereal. Excellent.
Vauxhall Combo Life
Key specs
Model: Vauxhall Combo Life Energy XL
List price: £23,765
Price as tested: £25,535
Engine/gearbox: 1.5 turbo diesel, five-speed manual
Power: 100 horsepower
Top speed: 106mph
0-60mph: 13 sec
Economy: 42.4mpg
CO2/BIK tax liability: 115g/km/28pc
Boot space: 806 litres (3rd row up)/850 (3rd row down)

Everything extra fitted to our car:
Multimedia Navi Pro: £450
Wireless charging: £105
Child pack: £250
Parking pack: £400
Metallic paint: £565

Interested in buying a Vauxhall Combo Life?