Lost in Space, Lost in Translation.

The car-hire tombola springs a surprise.

All imges: the author

For reasons that will be obvious to all, Driven to Write’s generous travel and entertainment budget has been conspicuously underspent over the past two years. Fearing that the suits on the sixteenth floor of DTW Towers might repurpose it for even more lavish fixtures and fittings to garnish their executive office suites, or that a certain DTW colleague(1) might run amok restocking the sherry cellar, I managed to persuade our esteemed editor to sign off(2) on an overseas assignment involving an extended road test of an as yet unspecified rental car.

So, bags packed, my partner and I headed off to Tenerife, excited to see what the car-hire wheel-of-fortune held in store for us. Two years ago, on our last visit to the island, a Citroën C-Élysée was our prize. The editor had stipulated that it must again be something from the Group-A value end of the spectrum, and from the cheapest car-hire company I could find(3), so I settled on Cicar, a Canary Islands local company that seemed to be the lowest priced on-airport(4) operator.

And so to the car, which turned out not to be a car at all, but a diesel-engined van, specifically, an Opel Combo van with twin rear sliding passenger doors and windows all round, which is styled as the Combo Life MPV. The nice gentleman at the Cicar desk told me that I was the fortunate recipient of an upgrade and, after a long flight and running the gauntlet of a somewhat chaotic scrum for passport control and Covid checks, I would have been grateful for anything with four wheels (as long as it wasn’t another Polo, the overly familiar default option).

First, some background to the Combo Life. When PSA took over General Motors’ European operations in March 2017, it prioritised the early discontinuation of models based on GM platforms and drivetrains, to eliminate the licensing fees on such models that were payable to GM as a condition of the sale. One such model was the 2011 Zafira Tourer, an MPV based on the Astra. PSA was in the final stages of development of its third-generation Citroën Berlingo and Peugeot Partner / Rifter small van / people carrier and it was a simple operation to redesign the front end of the new model to turn it into a superficially plausible Opel / Vauxhall product(5).

Launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2018, the new model was available in two different wheelbases and overall lengths, 2,780 and 2,970mm (109½” and 117”) and 4,400 and 4,750mm (173¼” and 187”) respectively. The longer wheelbase model could be fitted with an optional third row of seats, making it a seven-seat MPV replacement for the Zafira, in functional if not stylistic terms. While undoubtedly  van-like in appearance, it is actually based on PSA’s ubiquitous EMP2 platform that has underpinned a wide range of Peugeot and Citroën passenger cars and crossovers since its launch in 2013.

We located ‘our’ Combo Life in the car park and first impressions were positive in the evening twilight. Nobody would ever accuse it of being pretty, but it was nearly new and in near-pristine condition. It looked rather smart, with gleaming white paintwork and contrasting dark tinted glass. Even though it was the SWB five-seat version, it was rather bigger than I had imagined. The sliding rear passenger doors opened to reveal a low, flat floor and masses of head and leg room for the rear seats.

One oddity was that, rather than being fitted with the top-hinged tailgate that seems to feature in all advertising for the Combo Life, our example instead had double side-hinged van doors. These were asymmetric, with the larger door correctly positioned for LHD markets on the left-hand side(6). The boot was enormous. Even loaded just to window level, if could have taken our two cases three times over. The claimed boot space up to the parcel shelf is 597 litres.  The (already quite scuffed) painted top surface to the bumper would certainly benefit from some form of protective covering.

I took my place behind the wheel. The driving position is, as might be expected, pretty van-like, with a high-set steering wheel, pedals and gear lever. The low floor came as a surprise when I reached down to release the handbrake: it was a long way down to the floor and the low-set cupholders. The gear lever sprouts from a bulge in the centre of the dashboard. The action was rather rubbery and imprecise, apparently a consequence of its cable-linkage.

Predictably, you are surrounded with hard, hollow plastic mouldings without a soft-touch surface in sight, but really, who cares in this sort of vehicle? There was the now obligatory ‘floating’ touch screen mounted high in the centre of the dashboard. Being almost entirely unfamiliar with these evil, distracting devices, I won’t attempt to comment on its functionality, other to say than it came with Bluetooth and Android Auto, but not Apple CarPlay.  Happily, the heating and air-conditioning is still controlled by physical buttons and dials below the screen.

There was an extraordinary number and variety of storage compartments for the accumulation of junk. I gave up counting upon reaching double figures. Most useful was one with a lift-up cover directly in front of the driver, above the instrument display. Annoyingly, anything metallic (e.g. coins or keys) placed in it rattled around loudly for want of a non-slip mat inside, a production-line fit that would have cost a few cents.

We joined the island’s spinal TF-1 motorway, heading west. I was pleasantly surprised by how subdued both wind and road noise were, even at the 120km/h (74mph) speed limit. It was by no means whisper-quiet and was probably flattered by the ultra smooth road surface, but impressive nevertheless for a big box-like profile with a cavernous interior. Even with just the two of us and our luggage aboard , the 1.5-litre, 99bhp (74kW) diesel engine had to be worked hard and required frequent gear changes to cope with the road’s continual changes in inclination. For anyone intending to carry a full complement of passengers and luggage, the more powerful 128bhp (95kW) version, which comes with a six rather than five-speed gearbox, would be money well spent.

The engine was willing enough up to around 4,000rpm but became rather harsh thereafter. Bizarrely, the rev-counter is red-lined from 6,500 rpm. I can only assume that applies to the petrol-engined variants because one would need to be a maniac to push the diesel that far. Opel claims a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 12.5 seconds, but that seems pretty optimistic to me.

The seats proved to be comfortable and supportive, although the upholstery had an oily synthetic feel, doubtless chosen for its durability and stain-resistance rather than appearance. The floor is covered with black carpeting that has the texture of Velcro, a poor choice and likely to prove impossible to keep clean. Rubber matting would seem to be more in keeping with the utilitarian nature of the Combo, but was probably a step too far for the marketing types to countenance.

There was much to like about the Combo Life, but don’t expect much in the way of driver engagement. The soft ride, light but feel-free steering makes it a pleasant cruiser at moderate speeds, but something of a handful on Tenerife’s twisty mountainous secondary roads.  The underpowered diesel engine adds to the chore, but that will soon be consigned to history: earlier this month (January 2022) Stellantis announced that it was discontinuing production of internal combustion engined versions of its Citroën, Peugeot, Opel and Vauxhall passenger vans. In future, they will be EV only.

Is the Combo Life in any way, shape or form an Opel or Vauxhall? Certainly not.  From thirty metres, it is recognisably a Peugeot and that impression does not change on closer acquaintance.  Unlike the latest Corsa and Astra(7), which have been given a distinctive post-GM style of their own, the Combo Life is pure Peugeot / Citroën in design and execution. That doesn’t make it a bad vehicle, merely an inauthentic(8) one. Giving Stellantis the benefit of the doubt, one hopes it is merely an expedient stop-gap solution until a proper brand strategy is implemented.

That said, the Combo Life has many practical virtues and as such feels resoundingly French rather than German in character. If I needed such a vehicle, I would choose the Citroën Berlingo version in preference even to the Peugeot, simply because it has a more interesting visage.

 

(1) He knows who he is.

(2) It was at DTW’s New Year’s Eve party, and drink might have played a part in the editor’s uncharacteristic largesse.

(3) Not enough drink, apparently.

(4) There are others that are even cheaper, but they require you to call for a minibus to pick you up and take you to an off-airport lot, which is all a bit of a faff.

(5) The Opel / Vauxhall version was actually co-developed with PSA long before the takeover, under an agreement made in 2012 to replace the re-badged Fiat / Tofas Doblò.

(6) But are, annoyingly, not reversed for RHD markets.

(7) More so the Astra, with its distinctive Visor front end design. It is a racing certainty that the Corsa will receive this when it is facelifted.

(8) For maximum inauthenticity, you can buy a Toyota-branded version of the Partner van, called ProAce City, and the Rifter MPV, called ProAce City Verso.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

37 thoughts on “Lost in Space, Lost in Translation.”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I hope you and your partner enjoyed Tenerife. I’ve only been there once in 1995, to celebrate my parents’ 30 year wedding anniversary. We used to celebrate every five years with a holiday trip abroad.

    Our rental car at the time was a Renault 19 convertible. The rooms in our hotel were double booked at the time and the travel agency had a rental apartment for us instead, which was actually rather nice. To make up for this error they offered us a rental car for our entire stay. It was something really small and because we didn’t make a fuss about the whole thing, which apparently is something a lot of people do, they upgraded us to the Renault. As they say kindness goes a long way.

    I like that Peugeot, sorry Opel. A box on wheels is sometimes all you need. Not sure if it makes for the ideal holiday car, but I somehow always look forward to driving a van, which is something out of the ordinary in my case. If only it had rubber floor mats 😉

    1. Good morning Freerk and greetings form Los Gigantes, Tenerife. We’re here for another fortnight and enjoying the escape from the English winter. The Combo Life certainly would not be my first choice for a hire car, but it does just fine and we don’t use it a great deal in any event. As I said in the piece, at least it wasn’t a Polo, so had novelty value. I’m now more used to the gearlever and the change is fine, if imprecise.

      One thing that pleasantly surprised me about the Combo was the very effective ‘hill-hold’ feature that allows you to do hill starts without using the handbrake. As a driver of automatic cars at home, I hadn’t realised how common this feature has become. It’s a boon for kerbside parking on the hilly streets of Los Gigantes.

    2. My car came with fitted rubber floor mats. I love them. 🙂

      Hope you are both enjoying your holiday Daniel. You shouldn’t run out of boot space at any rate.

    3. Chris, this reminds me of a trip I once made from Copenhagen Airport to Struer. A friend of mine flew in from Helsinki and I had arranged for a rental car. I rented a Golf size car, one size bigger than the ubiquitous Polo. They gave us a Toyota Auris Hybrid.

      The car itself was indeed Golf sized and not very memorable, but the hybridization had caused a lot of the bootspace to be taken up by a battery pack. Somehow I expected a Golf sized boot, but sadly the space that was left over was barely enough for my small suitcase and my friend’s carryon. On the way back we picked up another friend and dropped him of at Billund airport. His luggage sat right next to him on the back seat.

      It was frugal, but the luggage space was too small for such a car. A poor choice of rental vehicle I think.

    4. Your mentioning of the hilly roads on those idlands in the Atlantic reminded me of a dream I once had: opening a brake pad and clutch replacememt shop on Madeira.

    5. That’s a brilliant idea, Dave! Tenerife has its hilly areas, but Madeira, as I recall, is extraordinarily so. That said, those clever ‘hill-hold’ devices must save a lot of wear and tear on clutches and brakes. I wonder how they work?

    6. At least for VAG products there are two kinds of hill-hold devices.
      They sell you an electrically operated hand brake as standard and a hill holder at extra cost.
      The electric handbrake is exactly that: calipers with electric motors instead of hydraulics that are activated manually and disengage as soon as the ESP sensors detect ‘pull’ on the car.
      The hill holder device uses ABS hydraulics and sensors to automatically engage by hydraulic pressure on every standstill and disengage as soon as the pulling force is enough to prevent rolling back.

    7. Thanks for that, Dave. Interestingly, the hill-hold function on the Combo seems to work in both directions: if I’m facing downhill and trying to reverse into a kerbside parking space, it stops me rolling forward then I lift off the brake pedal. Clever stuff. I guess it makes ‘handbrake starts’ obsolete.

    8. I discovered on my own that my Honda Fit has a hill-holder. It’s not mentioned in the brochure nor did the salesman say anything on the test drive. The fact I had to drive 100 miles to the other side of the state to find one with a manual in the first place makes me think he didn’t pitch many. Not as bad as the Kia salesman who described the Soul’s “Intelligent Variable Transmission” *after having driven the manual car around* but still…

    9. My first personal experience with electric handbrakes and hill hold function was on a trip to Croatia where our rental car was a Golf VII. I used the electric handbrake as I would have a manual one, releasing it by hand on (numerous) uphill starts. Only afterwards did I find out that the brake would have been released automatically.
      My current A4 has such a mechanism and it’s annoying. It makes a clearly audible whirring sound when it’s applied and it often makes a ‘clonk’ when it is released and above all it makes the car start with a jerk because it can’t be released progressively.

  2. Good morning Daniel, and hope you’ve had a pleasant holiday indeed.

    This Opel/Vauxhall/Peugeot/Citroën/Toyota vehicle may be relatively utilitarian to today’s standards, but compare it/them to the likes of the successive Renault 4 f4 and 4 f6 Combi that I’ve enjoyed growing up in. Or the “Kamer-Eend”, as i used to name the Citroën 2cv fourgonnette at the time. These almost litterally consisted of a tin box patched to the front of a small family car. I recall them as immensely loud inside, so your experience with the Combo on that part siggnals immense progress as well. A very likeable type of car due to it being anything but pretentious.

    1. Good morning Joost. The comparison with the Renault 4 is a good one because the Combo Life really is its spiritual successor. If I had young kids and their chattels to haul around, such a vehicle would be a perfect choice. Interestingly, nowhere on Vauxhall’s (and, presumably, Opel’s) website does the term MPV appear, even though that’s a perfect descriptor.

  3. Daniel, any writer who can make one laugh by use of footnotes is to be treasured. Chapeau.

  4. I assume that is a regular Spanish number plate, so that the vehicle will eventually be re-sold in mainland Spain.
    This habit of marketing the same vehicle through different manufacturers became comical when Mercedes put their grill on Renault vans…

    1. The revived Alfa-Romeo Romeo and Lancia Jolly / Super Jolly surely cannot be far off. Maybe even a DS fourgonette to take on the Lexus LM…

    2. Coincidentally, the last piece I wrote before leaving for Tenerife was on one such mutant and the limits to which one can stretch an automotive brand. I’ll keep the subject to myself for now, so as not to spoil the surprise!

    3. To say nothing of their attempt to Mercedesise* the Nissan Navara pickup into the X class. As it happens I saw one the other day, the second I recall coming across, and was somewhat surprised that they had found another punter with a sufficient level of gullibility to purchase one.
      *If this isn’t a word it should be!

  5. What an unpretentious and efficient vehicle! It would bomb resoundingly in the US market but I would be ecstatic to have a worthy replacement for our 13 year old Mazda5. A third row of seats in this market obligates one to a vehicle longer than 200”, compared to the Mazda’s 180”. Certainly not the same level of accommodation but that last row is for occasional use anyway and affords plenty of room, when folded down, to bring home the occasional second hand piece of furniture thanks to the near vertical rear window. Maybe the long reach of Stellantis will bring a vehicle like this to our shores but chances are slim, I imagine

  6. It wasn’t a party. It was a work gathering. Nothing to see here. Move along.

    1. Best not to mention Andrew’s mid-evening dash to the Co-op with the wheely suitcase then…😉

    2. Dear Eóin Doyle, you don’t have to try to play it down. When you had one of those work gathering years ago, there were obviously some friends from overseas who subsequently had the audacity to write a song about that so-called “work gathering”:

      Even if, probably on the advice of some lawyers, the scene was moved to another location, we all know what “really happened”.
      I’m curious how you will explain the previously hidden pool.

      Was Daniel even allowed to book a hotel (with a bed)? His report only describes journeys with this “car”…

    3. Ah, that might explain the editor’s choice of Christmas present for my holiday reading:

  7. As we walked into town for lunch today, I spotted a vehicle about which I had completely forgotten, the Fiat Doblò. The current model has been production since 2010, with a facelift in 2015, and is pretty much the same size as the Partner/ Rifter in both SWB and LWB forms. I wonder why it hasn’t already been replaced with another badge-engineered variant of the Partner / Rifter? Maybe that’s next on Stellantis’ to-do list?

    1. I see that the Doblò (a version of which was the previous-generation Combo!) is produced in the Tofaş factory in Turkey, and perhaps they have good enough reasons to keep this older, simpler van around – notably for America (both South and North where it’s available as a Ram ProMaster City). Even the previous-generation Berlingo/Partner is currently produced in Russia together with an Opel Combo badge-engineered version that hasn’t existed before. That said, the Combo Life and the passenger versions of the Berlingo/Rifter are currently only available as EVs in most of Europe (leaving Toyota with a monopoly on ICE versions thanks to their better CAFE score) and it wouldn’t hurt to expand Fiat’s EV model range by offering a version of that?

  8. Daniel, I hope you had a nice holiday despite the constraints of the editor.
    I certainly had a lot of fun reading your Upgrade-adventure. Wonderful. Thank you.

    Based on my experience with rental car upgrades, I usually suspect the worst and have learned to say “Thanx, but No thanx” in time.

    Being able to sell a Peugeot MPV as an Opel doesn’t say everything, but it says a lot about the clientele. But I don’t want to digress into the negative, the sun is shining…

    1. Hi Fred, you’re right, I’m sure: rental ‘upgrades’ are often to some piece of old tat that’s sitting around gathering mould in the corner of the lot, but I don’t mind that. Especially if you’re only using it sparingly, as is the case with us in Tenerife, something inappropriate or hilariously bad can be fun to experience.

      That said, I’ve never been brave enough to plump for the ‘manager’s choice’ (or called something similar) offered by some US car rental companies, whereby they give you whatever’s lying around for a prearranged charge. We do some serious driving when in the US and the potential embarrassment of being stuck with a Chrysler Sebring for three weeks and 2,000 miles was too unbearable to contemplate.

      My best upgrade was offered by a very nice young lady by the name of Christmas (really!) at Boston Airport back in 2015. She spotted that for what we were paying for a ‘VW Jetta or similar’ plus extra for sat-nav would cover a Chrysler 300C, which had sat-nav as standard. The 300C was delightful, perfect for a touring holiday, and very much at home on US roads.

    2. Daniel, your comments about your unexpected upgrade remind me of a trip to the US many years ago when I booked what the hire companies call an intermediate four door, typically at the time a Mondeo sized car of about 2.4 litres. I was selected for an upgrade to a 300C, they being new at the time. It was as you say very suited to America, although the claimed 3.7 litres produced a rather lesser level of go than the 2 litre FTO I had at the time.

    3. The most memorable upgrade I got was a bright yellow BMW Z3M. An interesting experience.
      Once at SFO airport I got an upgrade to a Lincoln from Hertz. The guy that came with me took the wheel and my job was to look for Helicops through the sunroof. He gave the car some real stick on our way to Alameda and the engine blew up. The rescue truck brought a Toyota Tercel…

    4. Two experiences at the extreme end of the extreme regarding “upgrades” were:
      – I had ordered a Golf Diesel for the (cheap) journey from Cologne to Munich. I got a Land Rover Discovery. Despite moderate speed on the motorway journey, I could have used the hand of the petrol gauge as a fan.
      – An 8-seater van was ordered for a 5-person film team with equipment. The “upgrade” was a Mercedes E-Class Coupe.

      Years later, when Forrest Gump gave his life lesson about a box of chocolates in the film, I knew exactly what he meant.
      But it could have been worse…

    5. In Los Angeles back in 2014, the Mustang convertible we had pre-booked six months previously was unavailable due to a Ford recall, so we were offered an upgrade…to either a full-sized Chevrolet Suburban SUV or a Mini hatch! Needless to remark, I declined and took a Camaro coupé for 24 hours until they managed to find us a Mustang convertible. The negotiation involved was tortuous and bizarre. It went like this:

      Daniel: “Do you have any Mustang convertibles being returned later today?”
      Alamo Branch Manager: (Checks computer) “Yes, three.”
      D: “Great, can you please just hold one of those for us and we will swap over tomorrow?”
      A: “I’m not allowed to hold cars. It’s first come, first served.”
      D: “Well, I’m here now and you don’t have the car I specifically reserved, or an equivalent convertible.”
      A: “I can give you anything else we have on the lot.”
      D: “Thank you, but if a customer reserves a convertible, it’s because they want a convertible.”
      A: (Stares at me blankly.)
      D: “How about I call up at 8.30am tomorrow and, if you have a Mustang (or Camaro) convertible, you hold it for me for the 30 minutes it will take me to get here from our hotel to swap over?”
      A: “Um, I’m not supposed to do that, but I suppose I could.”
      D: “Great! Thank you.”

      Moral of the story: Alamo managers should be encouraged to think on their feet and not just slavishly follow ‘the rules’.

  9. PSA” prioritised the early discontinuation of models based on GM platforms and drivetrains, to eliminate the licensing fees on such models that were payable to GM as a condition of the sale.” Quote
    One has to wonder/worry about who is responsible for maintaining spare parts availability for ‘real’ Opels in the years to come….

    1. Hi Mervyn. I assume that Stellantis has inherited whatever legal obligation GM had in this regard. I suppose as long as there is money to be made out of supplying spare parts, then availability will continue, then it’s over to pattern parts and scrap yards.

    2. Until the mid-Nineties Peugeot had an exemplary spares part service with a dedicated department hunting parts worls wide for your 403 or 404 if you needed them. Nowadays you can’t get bodywork parts for a 605.

  10. Hah! Gives me a great flashback to when I visited my boyfriend in Portland a few years ago and booked “Corolla or similar” only to arrive at 9 PM and be told, “take whatever you can find out there”. The only thing that wasn’t a sad little CUV or Kia Rio was a gleaming white Chrysler Pacifica, and I didn’t waste a second firing up the big 3.6 Pentastar and high-tailing it outta there. There might have been more nimble cars to take on a day trip along the coast, but having grown up in an American minivan, I adored the remote-start, power sliding doors, and heated seats and steering wheel (and for his part, my boyfriend appreciated the big Chrysler, too!) While the Combo may be from a bit more of a utilitarian corner of the Stellantis van family, it sounds like it let you guys have a great time as well! Sometimes a good MPV is all you need on vacation. Hey, my parents even picnic regularly in the trunk of the Honda Odyssey!

  11. What’s the Spanish translation of the German translation of Ludospace 😁? Enjoy your holiday, Daniel and partner, I say entirely un-jealously from a grey, cold and wet continent..🙂

  12. In 2019 the military honor guard at a St. Louis Blues hockey game had among it’s flags one with the Enterprise logo (that St. Louis-based car rental company being the arena’s naming-rights holder). The jokes wrote themselves;

    – The person carrying it signed up to carry one of our nation’s proudest symbols (or similar).

    – The sad thing is, even though he picked the flag up going out on the ice, because it’s after business hours he had to return it to an airport location.

    – (from an all-too-often-seen bumper sticker slogan) Stand for the flag, kneel for the cross, idk do the hokey-pokey for the sponsor’s logo?

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