Parkers overall rating: 3.9 out of 5 3.9

Update 1: welcome to Parkers

Newest van-based MPV joins the long-term fleet

Black 2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life front three-quarter

Regular followers of my musings – all three of them, in fact – will be more than aware of my fondness for commercial vehicle-based people carriers, so the prospect of running another one as a long-termer was something of a highlight in a year that’s been sorely lacking in lustre.

This time around my steed is this Vauxhall Vivaro Life, the newest car of its kind, depending upon how economical you choose to be with the truth.

As you will be aware of from the main review, while the Vivaro Life only went on sale in 2019, it’s little more than a British-built version of the Citroen SpaceTourer, Peugeot Traveller and Toyota Proace Verso trio that have occupied a sizeable amount of showroom space since 2016.

Black 2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life alloy wheel detail

Save for its Vauxhallised nose styling, and griffin badges inside and out, it’s essentially the same, although I’m hoping it proves to be significantly more reliable – its French-assembled forebears have had an unfortunately poor reliability reputation and a such a high number of recalls that even Donald Trump is campaigning to stop the count. 

Which version is our Vivaro Life?

As per our recommendation in the main review, I’ve gone for the higher of the two trim levels, with the punchiest diesel engine and the longer body. In Vauxhallspeak that makes this the Vivaro Life Elite L 2.0 (180PS) Turbo D automatic – or £44,700 in monetary terms.

Key benefits of this specification grade over the blue collar Edition version are a plusher interior thanks to leather seats (which do feel rather plasticky, it has to be said), three-zone climate control making it easier to modulate the vast cabin’s temperature, a glazed roof to illuminate the otherwise sombre interior and electric side doors to make entry and exit even more of a doddle.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life glazed roof

Options-wise, I’ve been modest. Internally the middle-row three-seater bench has been replaced by a pair of captain’s chairs (£800) and a foldable table (£495) that moves to and fro using the same rails as the seats.

Outside, the only change was to go for metallic paint (£545), although in retrospect one of the lighter or brighter choices than Diamond Black would have been preferable.

Combined with the Elite’s very dark rear privacy glass, the combination looks – depending on your perspective – either like the kind of VIP transport used in The Apprentice or a private ambulance. Few vehicles cause more panic when parking up outside an old people’s home.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life middle row captain's chairs

Overall, the asking price adds up to £46,540, which many people keep telling me is either a lot of money for a Vauxhall or a lot of money for a van. Or a combination of the two. Either way, in the coming months I’ll be assessing whether or not it’s good value. 

Early positive impressions?

Most immediate of things you notice within a short time behind the wheel is how easy the Vivaro Life is to drive. Sure, it’s a long beast, but in terms of width it doesn’t feel any broader than a conventional large family car. Nothing scary for urban driving, then. At least until you have to find a parking space.

If you’re a regular driver of medium and large vans you’ll be aware that more often than not you still look down rather than ahead at the dashboard, but not so much in the Vauxhall. You sit high, so have excellent all-round visibility, but the positioning of the instruments and controls feels more like that in a conventional car. The head-up display merely augments this arrangement.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life head-up display

Doubtless, both of these points relate to the fact that underneath everything you can see are underpinnings known internally as EMP2. This basic hardware – albeit in different lengths and widths – is found under all manner of other PSA products including the Citroen C5 Aircross, DS 7 Crossback and Peugeot 508.

It's a similar story with the 2.0-litre, 180hp diesel engine and its eight-speed automatic gearbox, which can also be found in those and other models. It’s a useful ally for the Vivaro Life where it needs to persuade people to consider switching from a ‘normal’ MPV as it delivers sensible pace, even when loaded with passengers or cargo.

Hopefully the fuel efficiency will climb a little from the 30mpg it’s been hovering at over the first 1,000 miles once the engine’s been run-in some more.

Black 2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life bonnet open

As an aside, when you have a look at the engine you’ll quickly appreciate how low down it sits compared with the bodywork, as well as noticing how comically short the bonnet itself is. 

Any initial niggles?

There are, but they’re design flaws rather than things breaking off or failing to work properly, chief of which is the steering wheel that’s offset to the left of the otherwise fine driving position.

After a few short drives you tend not to notice it, unless you have the opportunity to drive something else occasionally – then you’re very aware of it when you climb back in the Vauxhall. It also makes its presence felt on longer journeys where you’re conscious after a couple of hours behind the wheel that your right arm feels more strained than your left one as a consequence of having to reach further across.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life dashboard

At this early stage the middle-row captain’s chairs are pointing forwards for space efficiency, but the plan is to install them backwards for most of the time the Vivaro Life is with me – I much prefer the more sociable feeling it creates, and by having the middle row seats against those up front, visibility through the car to the back is improved too. I’m concerned that the rear seats won’t slide far enough back to make this feel truly comfortable, though. Await a future update on that.

Where cars have Apple CarPlay functionality, I tend to use it rather than the manufacturer’s own operating system and navigation. In the Vivaro it displays via a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen which is sufficient, but lacks the sharpness of graphics and richness of colour you’ll find in a Mercedes V-Class or VW Caravelle.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life lacks smartphone storage space

While the display itself is a minor grievance, more frustrating is that the cubby next to the USB port on the dash – there’s no wireless charging plate – is too small for many contemporary smartphones, meaning I either tend to leave it resting on the passenger seat or feed the cable over the steering column where it’s just about long enough to rest the phone in the highest of the three door pockets. 

What questions will we answer in this long-term review?

Primarily, I’ll be finding out whether the Vivaro Life has a genuine place in the market, between the upmarket V-Class and Caravelle at the pricey end, and the smaller, more conventional Ford Galaxy and Volkswagen Sharan at the other.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life third row seats

I’m also keen to find out whether some of the cost-cutting elements, such as the third row of seats not being able to slide further back, have robbed the Vauxhall any chance of being a truly flexible people carrier because chair positioning is restricted.

Van-based cars like the Vivaro Life are all-too-easily dismissed, especially by families who could really benefit from one but are put off by its size and commercial vehicle origins – it will be interesting to see if the Vauxhall’s good enough to change people’s opinions.

Mileage: 1,238

Fuel economy: 30.0mpg

Black 2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life rear three-quarter

Update 2: driving experience

Can Vauxhall’s largest model be fun to drive despite being van-based?

I find it difficult not to develop soft spots for cars that surprise and delight. Motors that within their arsenal of talents is the additional appeal of it performing brilliantly at something you weren’t expecting. It gives me a bit of a buzz.

Given the variety of generally fine-handling cars that are based on architecture that the Vivaro Life shares the fundamentals of – Peugeot 508 especially – I had high hopes of correctly guessing what the Vauxhall’s key surprise would be even before I’d turned a wheel.

Reader, I was wrong. Consequently, there’s no need for Cilla Black theme tune vocals to play in the background while I describe the driving experience.

Gently does it 

On most roads, at most speeds, the Vivaro Life is proving to be a competent, benignly safe family bus. Corner with consideration, ease on and off the pedals with care as you slow down and accelerate, and all is fine. No drama, but no excitement either.

That’s fair enough, you say – its purpose is to ferry folk about safely, not be a point-to-point superstar as you clip every apex on all manner of winding, undulating B-roads.

While I’m cool with that, it doesn’t stop me yearning something that makes it feel special – either exceptional comfort or impeccable balance when you’re in it alone and want to hustle the Vauxhall along. It’s all just a bit too ordinary.

Comfort is compromised 

Let’s take comfort first. Bitter, sour and pungent personal experience tells me that a car with a cosseting, floaty ride quality might make me happy, but it induces motion sickness in any one – or all – of my three kids. Their innards are much calmer when the imperfections of the road surface are telegraphed to their bodies using the seats, floor and other touchpoints as conduits.

Here the Vauxhall scores decently because it does this while still rounding-off the sharpest edges of the ruts and bumps without ironing them out flat enough to bring on a series of Technicolor yawns.

Personally, I’d have liked to be able to specify adaptive suspension to soften-off the firmness further when they’re not being taxied about, but it’s not on the options list. Presumably the projected sales levels of such an extra was too small to justify the engineering expense.

What’s also obvious when they’re not present is how less accomplished it feels without some weight towards the back of the car.

With just the driver on board, not only does the rear suspension have more of a tendency to crash over poor surfaces, you can often hear it working as the noise is amplified by all the empty space behind you. This in turn causes the seats to vibrate in their rails and various pieces of plastic trim to rattle.

Handling has room for improvement 

Particularly unsettling for the Vivaro Life are the kind of roads it unfortunately spends plenty of time being driven on in rural Lincolnshire – several series of swift, sweeping bends, with varying cambers and often with pockmarked asphalt.

Point the Vauxhall along stretches like that while you’re driving it passenger-less and you become acutely aware of how unsettled the rear end is, causing the whole body to shimmy as skips around poorly surfaced corners.

Slowing down considerably controls it, but then you immediately open yourself up to being overtaken on the next sizeable straight.

Adding passengers on the third row also remedies the worst of it, that extra weight over the rear axle helping stabilise those additional body movements when cornering.

A solution – of sorts 

Like many things in life, I discovered a cure for this recalcitrant behaviour completely by chance when a few weeks ago I obtained (another) load of old car brochures for my archive.

Five rear seats folded over, I loaded the Vivaro Life with 42 bankers’ boxes full of glossy literature. At a conservative estimate there was approaching a tonne of paperwork – and me – on board, all well within Vauxhall’s stated maximum gross vehicle weight of 3100kg. Even a visual check from the side confirmed that it looked horizontal.

2020 Vauxhall Vivaro Life filled with boxes of car brochures

That 200-mile drive back made the Vauxhall feel like a different vehicle. No bouncing about around corners, no rattles from the interior as the bodywork tried to flex – just assured, comfy progress, spoiled only by the need to accelerate harder than usual away from junctions and roundabouts. Oh, and brake that bit earlier as I approached those same junctions and roundabouts…

So, the surprise and delight aspect I’ve confirmed so far is that while the Vivaro Life’s decent at hauling people around, it’s even better at shifting a lorra lorra cargo. Who’d have thought it, being van-based and all.

Of course, being in the car alone also helps with social distancing, so I’ll take that as a win as well.

Mileage: 2,644

Fuel economy: 30.8mpg