While the seven-seat Zafira is doing very nicely in the mini-MPV sector, the five-seat Meriva will be aimed at buyers wanting an even more mini- mini-MPV, but not a vehicle as small as the even teenier Agila, and it makes you question quite how much more up and downsizing within vehicle sectors there can be.
In the case of the Meriva, the answer is plenty, as long as they are done as well as this. For a start, the Meriva is a mini-MPV with lots of character. It has Vauxhall's fairly rational and conservative set of body creases that also appear on the Vectra and Signum, but they create a tidy-looking compact package.
But inside is where the main story is to be found and there are a number of elements that stand out. Two are the excellent, supportive and rather sporty seats, and the best dash in the Vauxhall line-up: it is clean, clear and crisp, with a silver strip running through it, although the quality of plastics varies between very good and very wobbly. The seating position makes you sit straight-backed and primly as most MPVs do, and the silvery bands around the dials lift the view ahead.
Because the windscreen is relatively narrow, the pillars at the front do inhibit diagonal sight lines, particularly on the driver's side as the A-pillar is broad, and you find yourself ducking and diving like a prize fighter on medium to tight bends to see round it. Other than that visibility is fine.
In the back, the seats perform a variety of tricks. The most straightforward is that the two outer seats slide backwards and forwards to free up legroom or boot room. Then, with the centre seat folded flat, the two outers will slide towards the middle, giving more shoulder room.
The model tested here came with the Travel Assistant, full of cubbyholes and pockets, attached to the back of the middle seat and could be swung back into the reasonably-sized boot. It can also be removed far more easily than the larger unit in the Signum.
All rear seats will fold flat into the floor as well. In all, it is a very well-conceived system, building on the Flex7 operation in the Zafira with a few improvements – and two fewer seats, of course. Add in the headphones to keep occupants in the back seats amused, a number of nets, trays and pockets and the Meriva is a car with the very clear purpose of carting the family about.
So once the kids are stowed and the bags packed, what is the Meriva like on the move? The 1.6-litre 16-valve petrol engine is fine if a little noisy and the brakes are snatchy at low speed but other than that the driving experience is workmanlike.
It will not leave drivers with a smile on their faces and that's not really the point, but with its compact dimensions and wheel-at-each-corner stance, it is easy to manoeuvre and park in town.
The Meriva is the best car in the Vauxhall line-up, fulfilling all the criteria of well-used space, ingenuity and practicality intrinsic to a successful mini-MPV.
Time will tell whether drivers really need the seven seats and marginally extra space the Zafira offers over the Meriva, or whether this car will attract a completely different set of buyers.
Vauxhall Meriva 1.6 16v Enjoy
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £12,325
CO2 emissions (g/km): 179
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 19%
Graduated VED rate: £145
Insurance group : 5
Combined mpg: 37.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £4,625/38%
Depreciation (11.65 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,990
Maintenance (1.91 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,146
Fuel (10.12 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,072
Wholelife cost (23.68 pence per mile x 60,000): £14,208
Typical contract hire rate: £296.16 per month
Three rivals to consider
In terms of equipment to keep the kids happy, for the money nothing can beat the Fusion which comes with a CD player and DVD player in the rear, as standard. However, it does not have the space of the other three models on test here and the Xsara Picasso has the most airbags, while the Meriva has the child-quelling headphones in the back, like the Fusion. In terms of ingenuity, the Meriva is best value, while the Nissan and Citroen offer the most interior space.
Vauxhall's Meriva outstrips the others by a distance on service, maintenance and repair and should cost fleets about £1,100 over three years/60,000 miles. The most expensive, the Citroen, would cost just under £1,500, so no car here has servicing costs that make it a deal breaker. All have very reasonable SMR costs, probably due to tyre wear not being a high cost area for most mini-MPVs.
The Fusion is by far the best on fuel in this test, with a bill of £5,352 over three years/ 60,000 miles. Despite having a 1.6-litre engine like the Picasso and Meriva, its size and subsequent light weight is the key reason for its better showing. The two bigger 1.6-litre cars are exactly the same on fuel costs, while the 1.8-litre Nissan Almera Tino, unsurprisingly, comes last. It would cost about £400 more in fuel than the Citroen and Vauxhall over the same operating cycle.
A significant win in depreciation terms for the Meriva. With CAP estimating it will retain 38% of its cost new after three years/60,000 miles it has the highest residuals of nearly any Vauxhall and costs only 11.65 pence per mile. Conversely, the base-spec Picasso manages only 29% over the same period. The similarly lowest-in-the-range Almera Tino manages 32%, while the Fusion comes in at 34%, illustrating that the practical space of the Meriva rather than DVD players are what the second-hand market wants.
The Meriva takes a solid victory in the wholelife costs analysis through good servicing costs, excellent residual values and a decent fuel bill. The Fusion manages second because of low fuel consumption and the second-best residual value, while the relatively thirsty Almera Tino and heavily-depreciating Xsara Picasso come third and fourth respectively. However, both are the most spacious which, as a key criteria of any MPV, could offset any wholelife cost losses.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
The light little Fusion blasts the rest on tax thanks to having the lowest CO2 emissions. At 157g/km, it falls into the 15% benefit-in-kind band and would cost a 22% taxpayer only £418 a year in tax, while the Meriva will cost £515. The Almera Tino is the most expensive for the same taxpayer at £564, while the Picasso weighs in at £544. But none are going to break the bank, especially when sliced into 12 monthly portions, so a BIK tax bill is not a major factor for driver choice here.
AN easy win for the Meriva. It feels a whole step forward in the evolution of the mini-MPV compared to the others here with its clever seating and tidy interior, combined with good running costs and excellent residuals. The Fusion is just too small, while the Almera Tino and Picasso are just that bit too expensive for the small space increase they offer over the Vauxhall.
At a glance