Gone are the heady days of two-seaters, soft-tops and a brazen lust for performance, when children enter your life. They are replaced by safety, comfort, space and value for money. And, in keeping with your love of all things tiny, it all needs to be wrapped in a small package.
If proof were needed, then the sales figures tell the whole story, with demand for MPVs and mini-MPVs up 12.8% last year and accounting for 7.9% of the total UK car market. By the end of this year, that could rise to 9% of the car market.
Vauxhall almost cornered the mini-MPV sector with the highly flexible Zafira, which last month secured the coveted Best Mini-MPV title at the Fleet News Awards.
And at the Geneva Motor Show, Vauxhall revealed a company-wide initiative to spread this flexible benefits package throughout its product range, with the launch of the executive Signum and Corsa-based Meriva, both featuring adapted Flex-7 technology first pioneered in the Zafira.
There is little sign of the Corsa in the Meriva. In fact, it looks more like a Zafira. At just over four metres long, it is a shade shorter than a Vauxhall Astra, while it is as tall as a Zafira to achieve maximum headroom inside.
Vauxhall sees the Meriva as a competitor to – apart from the Ford Fusion and Honda Jazz – the Renault Scenic and Xsara Picasso. It is also an alternative for buyers who can't afford a Zafira.
It is on the inside that Meriva really makes in impression against its rivals, with an incredibly versatile seating package, called FlexSpace.
The car starts as a credible five-seater but clever design means the central rear seat can fold down and the outer seats can slide inwards by three-and-a-half inches and backwards by eight inches, making a four-seater with extra room.
The rear seats can also recline or fold forward to create a flat load area, making for an infinite number of seating combinations. Luggage space ranges from 560 litres with all the seats up to 2,005 litres with rear seats and the fold-flat passenger seat down.
Twin Audio, a first for a car the Meriva's size, allows rear passengers to listen to radio or CD independently from front passengers using headphones.
There is also an optional AutoVision DVD entertainment system that allows rear seat passengers to watch films, play music or connect to a games console.
At launch in June, engines will be 1.6-litre 8-valve, 1.6-litre 16-valve and 1.8-litre 16-valve petrol units. In September a 1.7-litre Euro IV compliant common-rail diesel will follow, allowing drivers to avoid the 3% benefit-in-kind tax supplement on diesel. A smaller 1.3-litre diesel is also planned, along with a 1.6-litre LPG version.
There are three new trim levels: Life, Enjoy and Design. Even the basic Life offers electric windows, central locking, ABS and driver/ passenger airbags, while Enjoy adds air conditioning, Travel Assistant, CD player with Twin Audio and more vibrant trims.
With Design, you get alloy wheels, fog lights, tinted glass, black instrument panel with silver rings, leather steering wheel and chrome centre console.
Behind the wheel
I TESTED the new Meriva in perfect real-world conditions for a car designed for families – on a long drive, including stressful inner-city driving at rush hour, with a crying child demanding attention. Welcome to the joys of family motoring.
Like most family journeys, it all started well. Following a wonderful weekend at EuroDisney in Paris, we were heading home. Packing the Meriva with the tonnes of child-related luggage was no problem. The boot floor is just under waist height, without obstructions.
In the front, you are presented with standard fare from the Vauxhall parts bin. Pretty uninspiring, but it gets the job done without fuss. The dashboard curves inwards slightly at the edges, providing a hint of interest, but otherwise it is all quite slabby. Like the Zafira, the gearstick is floor mounted.
I had already tried a manual version of the 1.6-litre 16-valve engine, which was quiet around town, but became boomy when it reached higher revs. The 1.8-litre provides more low down grunt, but the extra power means it sounds a bit rougher than the sweet whine of the 1.6.
The speed-sensitive power steering is well-weighted, providing easy parking and adequate feel at speed, while the suspension damps most bumps but becomes bouncy over undulating roads – a sure route to car sickness.
At motorway speeds, a combination of wind, engine and road noise intrude into the cabin, but it still doesn't drown out noisy children and when they are quiet, you can have a civilised conversation in the front without shouting. Clearly wipe-clean surfaces are going to be more important than handling, but the Meriva can still remain composed around corners and the children will complain before the tyres do.
Vauxhall has done it again with the Meriva. The FlexSpace seating is a triumph in keeping with the Zafira's original design and it offers a great entry point to MPV motoring for the family. Once the diesel engines are fully available, this will be one to watch.
|Model||1.6 8v||1.6 16v||1.8 16v||1.7 CDTi|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||87/5,400||100/6,000||125/6,000||100/n/a|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||138/3,000||150/3,600||164/4,600||240/2,300|
|Max speed (mph):||106||109||118||109|
|Comb fuel consumption (mpg):||36.2||37.6||34.4||51.4|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||53/11|
|Transmission:||5-sp man||and 5-sp clutchless auto|
|Service intervals (miles):||20,000|
|On sale:||June 2003 (diesel Sept 2003)|
|Prices (OTR):||£11,000 - £14,000|