Opel Meriva: Vauxhall Meriva review

It was the powered elevator that made the skyscraper possible, they cheerfully tell you at the Empire State Building.

It was the powered, rear-hinged "suicide" door that made the Rolls-Royce Phantom possible and now, erm, the Vauxhall Meriva.

Vauxhall is getting rather good at shooting BMW's foxes. Just a few months after BMW proudly debuted the speed limit-sign recognition camera on the 7-series, Vauxhall cheekily introduced it on last year's Car of the Year, the Insignia.

Now it usurps the rear-hinged doors on the Phantom and the MINI Clubman with the slightly more prosaic Meriva.

Back in 1961, the independent suicide door was deemed unsafe at any speed and banned by the EU.

It was BMW's determination to reintroduce it on the Phantom that posted a new set of safety standards for such technology.

This means that when it goes on sale this year, you can pop your little darlings in the back of the Meriva, safe in the knowledge they are enjoying the same safety interlocks as the Sir Alan Sugars of this world.

Trickle-down technology, it seems, is more effective than Mrs Thatcher's "trickle-down wealth".

After seven years at the top of its class in Europe, the Meriva is overdue for replacement and Vauxhall says the market demanded a larger car rather than a direct replacement, which serendipitously allowed it to use the suicide door idea that had been knocking round the engineering department since 2005.

"It was a grand way to alight, I felt just like the Queen," said my great grandmother, memorably recalling her pre-war Rover with its rear-hinged doors. The Meriva lends just such a sense of occasion.

You pull on both handles and the doors swing open like the wardrobe entrance to Narnia. Klaus Nuechter, Opel's vehicle line executive for small cars, says the additional cost is about 100 euros per car, but marketing felt it was well worth it.

Not that the Meriva is merely a set of interesting doors with wheels attached. Basically a shrunken Zafira with five seats, it is 80mm wider and about 20mm longer than the outgoing Meriva. It is also a great deal funkier looking, with a distinct nose and many elements of new Vauxhall/Opel face.

Hella LED headlamps and clever cut lines reduce the visual weight of the front and the kinked lower window line increases the view out for child passengers thanks to an additional two inches of glass depth.

In the cabin, Vauxhall has lifted components and entire sub-assemblies from its Insignia.

So what's not to like about having a high-class steering wheel, a chrome-bezelled instrument cluster and intriguing pods of air-conditioning, heating and ventilation controls?

The seats are comfy and large and come from the Insignia and Vauxhall's "salt list" team has made sure its 100-strong list of typical Meriva owner possessions will fit into the storage spaces.

New to the Meriva's list is a woman's handbag. To accommodate this and other bits, the centre console has aluminium rails and a host of sliding boxes and arm rests that can also be transferred to the rear.

Also carried over from the previous Meriva are the rear seats, which carry three adults abreast, or on an upgraded slider, the two outer seats slide back and inwards, the centre seat becomes an arm rest and suddenly the little car's a limousine.

With a MacPherson-strut front and twist-beam rear suspension, the Meriva won't garner technology awards for its chassis, but this is a huge improvement over the first-generation model.

On winter tyres in a snowy Frankfurt there was a lot of vibration at the steering wheel and road bumps were handled abruptly, but the overall chassis balance seemed good, with a smooth ride at normal roads speeds.

The steering uses an electrically-powered, hydraulically-assisted system and it is light, positive and direct. It's early days, but we can say that dynamically new Meriva is a huge improvement on it predecessor, more than acceptable for its class but unlikely to dislodge the Ford C-Max as one of the world's most comfortable cars.

On the road, the new Meriva feels pretty substantial, but not bulky. With the dashboard lowered and further away from the driver, you see more of the road and can place the car better.

The old model was much criticised for its three-quarter views and Vauxhall has reworked the windscreen pillars and the quarter light windows to improve these.

Petrol engines will all displace 1.4 litres, with one naturally aspirated unit and two turbos delivering 120 and 140bhp.

Diesels will be a choice of the 1.3-litre GM/Fiat Multijet unit and a 1.7-litre turbodiesel in either 100bhp or 120bhp output. There will also be a tuned-up GSi petrol version next year.

We drove the top model petrol, which is brisk rather than fast, the civilised side of raucous and quite a lot of fun, especially with the slick, six-speed transmission attached.

It does, however, make you wonder how much of a boss's motor the naturally-aspirated petrol version will be.

More to the point, the Meriva feels so special it seems rather a shame to order it in nuclear-winter spec.

As soon as you see the rear-hinged doors and how much thought and work has gone into them, you want the rest of the car to live up to those high ideals.

It is more than a set of suicide doors, but when you climb through them into the back of the new Meriva, you expect something much better than the average.

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