Meriva opens a new door in design

As car bores will tell you, there's nothing new about suicide doors, writes Richard M Hammond.The notion that rear hinged doors offer greater access and more dignified egress is well documented.

As car bores will tell you, there's nothing new about suicide doors, writes Richard M Hammond.

The notion that rear hinged doors offer greater access and more dignified egress is well documented. There's a reason why Rolls-Royce is one of the few manufacturers to have put the time and effort into overcoming the strict safety regulations required for their employment on modern vehicles, after all.

Vauxhall may appear to be an unlikely contender to add its name to a list of manufacturers that includes Rolls-Royce and, well... not much else, but the potential benefits far outweigh the bureaucratic grief involved in getting approval for the rear-hinge system present on the new Meriva.

'Yes,' you may be thinking, 'but the Mazda RX-8 and Mini Clubman have had suicide doors for years.' And you'd be right; but the systems on those cars overlap, meaning the rear doors can only be opened if the front doors are opened first.

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The Meriva uses an electronic system worthy of Fort Knox to ensure the rear doors can not be opened while the car is on the move, but can be opened independently once it has come to a standstill. This overcomes the restrictions that resulted from catch-failure incidents decades ago, leading to both the unflattering name 'suicide doors' and their highly-regulated use in Europe.

So Vauxhall can comfortably claim a segment first, but they're more than a gimmick. Opening to nearly 90 degrees they do exactly what they were designed to - offer a maximised portal for access to the rear.

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While the initial focus is bound to be on the new 'FlexDoor' layout, there's a great deal more to the new Meriva. Quite literally in fact, because it's a more substantial car with a roomier interior than the outgoing model. Although the roofline has actually come down, the new model is both longer and wider with a bigger wheelbase, translating to a real feeling of space inside.

Interior space is matched by practicality, with the flexible rear seating system allowing the seats to be moved forward and backwards independently, folded flat or moved inwards causing the central seat to disappear and creating two rear seats with additional shoulder room.

The boot is also flexible, allowing for a floor at sill level deeper, while at the front there are two sizeable cup holders in the front doors and a decent size glovebox.

The highlight, however, is a new rail based system between the front seats. It can accept a storage bin and arm rest assembly that can then be moved forward, back to serve the rear passenger or removed completely leaving just the trinket trays and room for a bag. It's a smart way to add flexibility to the cabin, even if the rails do impinge on rear legroom for the central rear passenger.

Despite all the attention to passenger usability, the driver has not been neglected. The driving position itself is excellent and the attempts to resolve the visibility issues created by the A-pillar design of the outgoing model have been addressed, if not entirely resolved. Even so, the large glass house designed to appease younger passengers also benefits driver visibility.

There's a greater feeling of quality at the wheel, too. The driver in particular benefits from the trickle down of materials and equipment from the Insignia and Astra. Upmarket dials and switchgear and a standard electric parking brake are the most obvious upgrades. A full length glass roof is standard on the top SE trim level, but the less extravagant trim levels of Expression, S and Exclusiv are sensibly and generously specced, too.

The upmarket feeling also extends to ride and handling. The wider track of the more sizeable platform adds a surefootedness to the driving experience and the ride is firm but compliant. Although it can feel a little choppier on well-worn surfaces it's never crashy, finding an excellent balance between passenger comfort and driver feedback and control that's certainly no accident.

The firmer chassis means the well-weighted steering is as responsive as you'd want from an MPV, rounding out an impressively tailored package.

The 1.3-litre and 1.7-litre diesel engine options are initially available, the 1.7 offering the only automatic option - a new six-speed transmission. 1.4-litre petrols make-up the rest of the range in various states of tune from non-turbo 98bhp through turbocharged 118bhp and 138bhp examples.

Using a five-speed manual, the 118bhp unit proves potent enough. A little less smooth than the high-powered six-speed combination, it's none-the-less refined and tractable, proving at home in a range of environments.

Bearing in mind that the previous version sold 112,000 examples in the UK alone, the fact that the new Meriva shows improvements across the board bodes very well for Vauxhall.

It would be easy to be distracted by a single element, but that wouldn't do justice to the rest of a very impressive package.


Price: �17,365 on the road

Engine: 1.4-litre petrol unit developing 118bhp and 129lb/ft of torque

Transmission: Five-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels

Performance: 0-62mph 11.5 seconds; top speed 117ph

CO2 emissions: 143g/km

Economy: 46.3mpg (combined)

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