Cars aren't always aspirational. Sometimes, they're simply about getting the job done practically, affordably and efficiently. Van-based MPVs are a good example of this rather refreshingly uncomplicated approach to automotive design - like this one, Fiat's Doblo. This is a substantially revised version of the fourth generation version which the Italian brand claims is smarter, more refined and better value.
It'll sell though, for the same reason its predecessor did: practicality.
This issue is high on the agenda for the design of every mainstream family car but conventional hatches must temper this approach to the dictates of style. If you've a growing family requiring space in a relatively compact, affordable five-door vehicle, what you actually need is a box with four wheels, yet one you wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen in at the supermarket. The Doblo has always tried to cater to buyers in search of such thing. But can it stay sensible yet get more sophisticated?
On the road, the Doblo handles better than you might expect it to, courtesy of its segment-exclusive, bi-link independent rear suspension, with dual-rate shock absorbers, high-performance springs and a rear anti-roll bar all tuned to provide a decent combination of ride and roll on most roads.
Fiat's Multijet diesel engine is a perfect fit in a vehicle of the Doblo's ilk and it forms the mainstay of the range. This 1.6-litre unit offers 105bhp and is the alternative to the entry-level 95bhp 1.4-litre petrol variant. Both units have been refettled with the aim of improving refinement. No Doblo is what you would call quick but performance promises to be energetic enough for the kind of use to which the car will be put and the diesel engines should have the muscle to cope with the big payloads that the car is likely to be tasked with.
The petrol unit takes 15.4s to reach 62mph from a standing start and with the 1.6 diesel managing a 13.4s time. More relevant is the torque that's available and 290Nm from 1,500rpm underlines the strength of the diesel unit. Also having a major impact on how the Doblo drives will be its surprisingly advanced suspension system. Recent detail dynamic changes include lighter and more precise gear changes, a more responsive throttle pedal, smarter instrumentation and better noise insulation.
The commercial vehicle origins of the Doblo are clear to see but the boxy dimensions that are essential in a decent van pay dividends by giving the car version a similarly vast carrying capacity. It's never going to be the most stylish thing on the road but blacked-out pillars create the 'floating roof' effect we've seen on many modern passenger cars while the large headlights and a deep grille add impact to the Doblo's front end.
At 4,390mm long and 1,789mm wide, the Doblo remains one of the largest models in the van-based MPV class and has a larger footprint than most family hatchbacks. As for the latest changes, well the main ones are the resculpted front wings, the sleeker bonnet and the bolder front grille. Plus there are revisions to the lights and bumpers, as well as a more stylish body-coloured moulding across the tailgate.
Inside, the car retains its versatility and practicality. Five-seat models have a vast 790-litre boot (up to the parcel shelf) which can be boosted to a class-leading 3,200-litres when all the passenger seats are folded down. Even the parcel shelf does its bit: it can be positioned at different levels and can carry loads of up to 70kg.
Every Doblo comes with Fiat's Start&Stop technology and an optimum gear change indicator to help owners get the maximum fuel economy. The official figures don't make stunning reading initially but you have to remember how much the Doblo can carry. On the combined cycle, the 1.4-litre engine returns 39.2mpg, with the 1.6-litre Multijet offering 51.4mpg. CO2 emissions are 165g/km for the petrol version and 145g/km for the diesel.Click here to find out more about our Fiat Doblo range
Has Peugeot's van-based Rifter compact people carrier sold out and gone a bit posh and less LCV-like? Don't worry. Behind that sleeker looking front end and all that talk of flashy multimedia systems, glass roofs and radar-based city braking functions, you can still buy a basic one that's as useful as the old Partner Tepee model used to be. It's just that you're getting a bit more sophistication this time round.
You might expect a couple of petrol engines and a diesel to be offered, but the Rifter weighs in with no fewer than five Euro6-compliant engines. So what's on offer? The petrol options open with a 110PS 1.2-litre PureTech three cylinder unit - with a 130PS version of the same powerplant also available. From there on in it's all diesel. Propping up the range is a 75PS 1.5-litre BlueHDi unit, then there are 100 and 130PS versions of much the same engine, all with Start and Stop fuel-saving technology fitted. The 130PS 1.5 diesel and the 1.2 130PS petrol models are available with automatic gearbox options.
There's also another innovation that will be of interest to UK buyers, namely Advanced Grip Control. This is a system that provides enhanced traction on roads or tracks with low grip surfaces, allowing the vehicle to continue to make progress in a situation where a normal two-wheel drive vehicle would struggle. It's combined with a generous ground clearance of 15cm with Mud & Snow tyres. It adapts to the conditions encountered by acting on the front driving wheels. At any time, the driver can choose to allow the system to operate automatically in Standard mode, or can switch it into 'Snow', 'Off-road', 'Sand', or 'ESP Off' modes by using a dial on the dash centre panel.
This Rifter model, like its Citroen Berlingo design stablemate, sits on the PSA Group's latest EMP2 platform. As with the old Partner Tepee, there are two wide sliding side doors and they feature electric windows. There are two body styles - 'either Standard Length (with five seats) or Long Length (with seven seats). At the wheel, this model uses the innovative 'Peugeot i-Cockpit' design familiar from the brand's other models.
Peugeot claims even more interior versatility this time round and storage solutions abound under every flap and in every crevice with more ingenious inclusions as you ascend the range. There are three individual seats in the rear that can be folded down with a simple movement using the 'Magic Flat' controls in the boot. Combined with a folding front passenger seat, this feature provides a perfectly flat floor and a load length of up to 2.70m for the 'Standard Length' version and 3.05m for the lengthier 'Long Length' model.
A huge tailgate makes loading easy and there's a class-leading boot volume, increased by 100-litres to 775-litres for the 'Standard Length' model. The boot is easily accessible thanks to the opening rear window in the tailgate and two different height positions for the luggage cover. Around the cabin, there are 28 large and ingenious storage spaces such as the new-generation Modutop multi-function roof that also lets more light into the interior. The 'Top Box' glove box is unique to the segment thanks to the 'Airbag in Roof' system.
Commercial-based MPVs have genuinely come of age. The Peugeot Rifter, and indeed its sister vehicle the Citroen Berlingo, is proof positive of that. But as these vehicles have become more sophisticated, the prices have quietly crept up. Also, the way we perceive and use such cars is subtly different. This Rifter can be had with a slick multimedia system and a ritzy glass roof. It's no longer the sort of thing you'd chuck a couple of muddy mountain bikes into the back of without worrying about the upholstery.
So has the Peugeot lost its way in that regard? Not really. The Rifter's available in a range of trim levels, with the French company looking to cater at the foot of the range to those who want something no-nonsense, while at the same time offering up-spec models to those who want car-like features but more space in the back. The bottom line is that this is still one of the most versatile vehicles that sensible money will buy.Click here to find out more about our Peugeot Rifter range
Vauxhall Combo Life
Vauxhall has long offered MPV passenger-carrying versions of its compact Combo van on the Continent. Now it brings that kind of package to the UK market in the form of this small but spacious People Carrier, the Combo Life.
Combo Life buyers choose between three engines. There's a 1.2-litre 110PS petrol unit. Or a 1.5-litre CDTi diesel, developing either 100 or 130PS. The units are combined with five and six-speed manual transmissions. In addition, in a segment first, a low-friction eight-speed automatic with Quickshift technology can be ordered in combination with the top-of-the-range 1.5-litre 130PS diesel. Under the skin, there's an independent Bi-link suspension system that can provide reasonably supple ride comfort, yet is firm enough to resist body roll and support heavy loads. It's a decent compromise.
Whichever variant you choose - standard or long - you'll find that the driving position pretty good, with the steeply raked windscreen and low bonnet combining to give great visibility. Couple that with big panoramic door mirrors and the result is a vehicle you can be confident about driving even the most congested city streets where the light steering facilitates a tight turning circle, 11.2m in the short wheelbase version and 12.5m for the long wheelbase model. As for refinement - usually a van-based MPV issue - well, the slightly clattery note at start-up settles down quite acceptably once you get up to speed. Ultimately, probably the biggest compliment you can really pay this Vauxhall is that at times, it's easy to forget you're driving a van-derived product.
The Combo Life is available in a 4.4-metre standard length version or a longer 4.75-metre long model, with two sliding rear doors as standard. Both variants have a height of 1.8 metres and are available with either five or seven seats. Style-wise, compared with other van-based MPVs in the segment, this one has a shorter front overhang and a higher bonnet, making it look more balanced. From the front, it displays a typical Vauxhall identity and the high bonnet features two crisp lines, which go from the windscreen down to the grille and emphasise the stability of the vehicle.
As with most van-based MPVs, you get plenty of boot space. The five-seat, standard length version has a minimum luggage volume of 597-litres, while the long wheelbase model has a minimum luggage volume of 850-litres. With the rear seats folded down, the boot volume of the standard version more than triples to 2,126-litres. The longer version of the Combo Life offers even more capacity when the rear seats are folded down with up to 2,693-litres available. For passengers, there are five and seven-seat variants. Either way, you get three individual rear seats, all with ISOFIX child seat brackets, and you can specify an optional panoramic glass roof.
Vauxhall builds more vans in Britain than anyone else, so why can't one of them be diverted towards the passenger market? It's taken some time for the brand to come around to that conclusion, but the Combo Life shows that when done well - as here - this kind of van-based MPV can be quite appealing.
This one is more sophisticated than you might expect, yet it's as big - for people and for packages - as you'd expect an LCV-derived People Carrier to be. In short, it does enough to be spotted by the people who count. People who'll find this Vauxhall difficult to ignore in their search for a compact MPV unafflicted by style pretention or attempts at badge equity. Job done.Click here to find out more about our Vauxhall Combo Life range