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The Vauxhall Meriva, with its rear-hinged back doors, is a more mature car than before, but little more innovative

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The first-generation Vauxhall Meriva was introduced in 2003 and, at a touch over four metres in length, it rivalled a relatively limited number of small MPVs. It did rather well, too, selling more than a million units, thanks to novel features like its Flexspace rear seating system, in which the rear chairs slide inwards and backwards.

This is the second-generation Meriva and was previewed by the Meriva concept at the 2008 Geneva motor show.

Vauxhall and Rolls-Royce are unique in offering doors which hinge backwards

Flexdoors: it’s all about them. Vauxhall’s new Meriva owes a fair portion of the generous column inches it has generated to what are now perceived as its innovative rearward-opening rear doors.

Few manufacturers currently offering doors which hinge backwards independently of the fronts. The arrangement has added a certain intrigue to a car that, for all its virtues, has in the past been perceived as steady but unremarkable.

Remarkable, though, were its sales. The previous Meriva offered novel rear seating and generous cabin space compared with its rivals, which then numbered rather fewer than now. It sold a million units, when converted vans like the Citroën Berlingo Multispace were the primary opposition.

Today, the Meriva has far broader competition, including more advanced and refined cars such as Citroën’s C3 Picasso, as well as extended superminis like the Nissan Note and Renault Captur. It’s even positioned to pitch against larger cars like the Ford C-Max and Citroën C4 Picasso, or conventional family hatches like Vauxhall’s own Vauxhall Astra.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Meriva rear

The Vauxhall Meriva retains a few visual similarities to its predecessor, but this new model is larger and heavier. At 4.3m long, it’s close to 30cm longer than the old Meriva, and with that inevitably comes an increase in weight. Its kerb weight is now more in line with small family cars than superminis, even large, practical ones.

That increase is to be expected, given not only the size increase but also Vauxhall’s intention of taking all of its cars more upmarket when they’re replaced. The Insignia and Vauxhall Astra are both larger and plusher than the cars they superseded.

The Meriva is a relatively sophisticated and appealing small MPV

In this vein, the Meriva gets styling that shares themes – such as the V-shaped grille, some of the side sculpting and the ‘winged’ lights – with its recently introduced siblings.

And it adds an unusual 'wave' in its waistline, designed to ensure that despite the wedge-like side profile, rear passengers (especially small ones) won't feel hemmed in. The last comparable car with such a feature was the Daihatsu YRV, a car which disappeared without trace.

The result is that the Meriva gives off an air of sophistication and maturity that wasn’t present on the old one, even were it not for the rear doors. When they’re closed, the position of the door handle is the only giveaway that, functionally, things are not entirely conventional here.

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Meriva interior

This is where the Vauxhall Meriva will stand or fall and where its forerunner succeeded so strongly, offering remarkable space and comfort in such a small length. The new one offers more of the same, but with extra overall cabin volume courtesy of its increased length and wheelbase. And, of course, those novel rear doors.

Are they a success? A qualified one, yes. When it’s possible to open the doors wide, they undoubtedly offer easier access to the rear seats. They allow better access for installing child seats, because if you’re leaning in through the door, you’re naturally facing towards the seat.

Some of the storage options are impressive

In tighter spaces, however, that’s no advantage; a conventional door aligns your back with the seat you’re sliding into. And what if a driver and rear passenger want to exit on the same side in a tight space? They can’t at the same time, because they end up trapped between the doors, without sufficient space to close either.

In the cabin, there’s a semi-raised, comfortable driving position that’s higher than a conventional hatch’s but well short of being van-like. Spread before the driver is a dashboard which carries forward themes from the Insignia and Vauxhall Astra.

Some of the detail switchgear is the same, in fact, although here it’s better in feel than in early Insignias, as Vauxhall seems to have mastered constructing the buttons with good tolerances and a classy feel. Certainly, the interior ambience is much more mature than before and soft-feel plastics are used widely, going some way to justifying the near-£21,000 price of our SE test car.

The highlights, though, are the rear seats, which can seat three on a bench but work far better as separate chairs for two. The centre part of the rear bench folds and falls slightly, allowing the outer two chairs to be moved backwards and, simultaneously on a rail, inwards to give rear passengers more leg and elbow room.

Some of the storage options are also impressive. For instance, there’s a centre console cubby that can be slid back and forth on a central pair of rails, which, combined with an electronic parking brake and high, forward-mounted gearlever, gives the front cabin an airy feel (although we’d still prefer a conventional handbrake).

With the rear seats in place (and in their forward position), boot space is a respectable 400 litres, and it rises to 1500 litres with the seats completely folded. As with the Corsa, a novel but expensive bumper-mounted bicycle carrier can be specified.

As for standard equipment, there are four to choose from - Life, Club, Tech Line and SE. Entry-level models gets the unique flex door, boot space and rear seat set-up, air conditioning, cruise control, USB connectivity, Bluetooth, 16in alloy wheels and front foglights as standard, while upgrading to Club adds curtain airbags, a chrome exhaust tip and a sliding front cupholders.

The mid-range Tech Line trim adorns the Meriva with 17in alloy wheels, electric windows, heated front seats and steering wheel, parking sensors and folding rear picnic tables, while the range-topping SE models get a panoramic sunroof, Vauxhall's OnStar system, and underseat storage for the front seats.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Meriva engine bay

The engine range of the new Meriva reflects the current trend for downsizing. Vauxhall offers three 1.4-litre petrol engines, two of which are turbocharged, plus one diesel: 1.6-litres (134bhp).

The new Meriva is larger and heavier than the model it replaces, and for the majority of applications, the 138bhp and 148lb ft turbocharged 1.4-litre engine prove more than sufficient. At MIRA, we recorded 0-60mph in 9.4sec (against an official 10.3sec from 0 to 62mph), which is fractionally faster than an Astra equipped with the same engine.

One of the turbodiesels might suit it better, especially if you're doing lots of miles

This forced-induction engine is more linear than it is punchy, and it delivers a smooth, measured response. It is at its best in the mid-range, where it is quiet and responsive.

The same engine is available with 118bhp and 147lb ft which serves up a 11.5sec 0-62mph time and a naturally aspirated 1.4-litre which develops 99bhp and 96lb ft for a more leisurely 13.9sec 0-62.

If longer runs are going to be a common occurrence, the diesel will be more relaxed. The 1.6-litre unit replaces the 1.7 Isuzu-sourced unit, which only gets gruff above 4000rpm and is relatively weedy. The diesel breaks the 10sec barrier to 62mph. It does so by 0.1sec.

With all-round discs, the Meriva performed well in our braking tests, stopping in less than 50 metres on wet and dry surfaces. However, in light use the brake pedal could do with better modulation to make the Meriva easier to drive smoothly at slow speeds.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Meriva rear cornering

As with the previous Meriva, the current model doesn’t use the platform of another car in the Vauxhall range. Rather, it’s a unique monocoque that, in common with most cars, uses some modular components and sub-assemblies beneath in the interest of economics.

Suspension at the front is by MacPherson struts, with a torsion beam at the rear, and at both ends the systems have been borrowed, with modifications, from the Zafira. Unusually, Vauxhall has changed from an all-electric steering system to a beefier electro-hydraulic set-up. UK cars even get specific tuning.

The 11.5-metre turning circle is disappointingly large for such a small car

In the business of going around corners, as with its performance, the new Meriva feels impressively grown-up but not tremendously exciting. It’s a trade-off that seems entirely sensible, given its intended use and audience.

Although there is a fair amount of body roll, once settled into a corner the Meriva finds good grip in dry conditions; it recorded 0.93g during our measured test. And so it should, given that this is a small MPV wearing the same tyres you’ll find on a rear-drive V6 Mercedes C-Class.

While it is possible to brush up against the limits of lateral grip through one corner, the Meriva is not a car to be driven with prolonged vigour – not because of any fundamental lack of ability, but because the body lean can feel ungainly. Better to drive in a more measured style, safe in the knowledge that the Meriva has grip in reserve and no nasty habits. There’s enough steering weight to work against without becoming overbearing, but little sense of connection with the front wheels.

What we do have more concern over is the turning circle: 11.5 metres is disappointingly large for such a small car. It’s not so large that it is likely to thwart intended manoeuvres very often, but the sense of applying full lock and still not being quite sure if it’s possible to complete a turn in one hit makes the Meriva feel like a larger car. No doubt the wide tyres are to blame.

Wheels and tyres are also the likely culprits for the brittle ride at slow speeds. Generally, the Meriva is a comfortable car with a suspension set-up designed more for gentle bump absorption than for body control. However, at urban speeds it fidgets more than it should.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Meriva

Those who come straight from the previous Vauxhall Meriva to this one will notice one thing that doesn’t quite tally between the two: the significant step up in price.

However, this price is in keeping with those of its new-found rivals’. It depreciates at a not-dissimilar rate, too; better, in fact, than some because it is predicted to avoid the steep first-year drop of a Citroën.

Our recorded economy figures, as ever, failed to match the manufacturer’s claims

Our recorded economy figures for the 1.4-litre turbo model, as ever, failed to match the manufacturer’s claims. But by no more than usual. Drive carefully and you’re likely to better the 31.2mpg we averaged over our whole test. On our touring route, the test Meriva returned a respectable 37.0mpg. Official figures suggest 44.1mpg should be possible.

Low-power versions of the same unit suggest it will cover 3.8 more miles per gallon, and with CO2 emissions of 117g/km undercut the range topper by 5g/km.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Vauxhall Meriva

Although Flexdoors are one of the reasons for the second-generation Meriva’s being, in the end they’re one of the less remarkable things about the new Vauxhall.

They’re just doors; they open in a way that has some inherent advantages but also inherent disadvantages. They’re less practical than sliding doors, for instance.

The Meriva remains a ‘good’ all-round car

Certainly, they’re not enough to turn an average car into a good one or a good one into a great one. So the Meriva remains a ‘good’ all-round car, one that manages to be as practical as intended with a welcome extra dose of maturity and refinement (most of the time) over its predecessor.

But whereas the old Meriva offered conspicuous space and value for its supermini size, at its new premium-flavoured pricing the new car finds itself against rather more serious and capable opposition.

Twenty large buys you a lot of car, almost wherever you go shopping. Still, it’s only what Renault charges for a top-spec, five-seat diesel Scenic.

It’s attractive, cleverly designed, roomy and refined, and would make as practical a second car as most families are likely to need.

Vauxhall says the frugal 1.6-litre EcoFlex will be the bigger-selling option in the Meriva range, but in our book, the 1.4 Turbo deserves the greater success.

It’s still overpriced, for sure – but believe it or not, this car gets closer to justifying its inflated pricetag than any other model in the range.

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Vauxhall Meriva 2010-2017 First drives