While Vauxhall’s Combo may not be the most modern van in its class, at least it’s been updated over the years in a bid to ensure that it doesn’t fall too far behind the opposition. Measures taken include the addition of a five-speed Easytronic semi-automatic gearbox to the options list; something that distinguishes Combo from most of its rivals.
Adding a modest £385 to the bill for your van, it’s the sort of ’box that can be used in either automatic or manual mode and allows you to slip smoothly from one to the other. All you need to do is tap the gearshift; there’s no clutch pedal. Semi-automatics are aimed at operators who spend most of their time on delivery work in city centres and have to deal with severe road congestion.
With no need to keep changing gear manually in heavy traffic, the argument runs, there’s less wear and tear on the clutch and the driver will reach the end of his shift less tired than he might otherwise have been. Another argument in favour of semi-autos is that they can lead to better fuel economy.
While they may not cause careful drivers to drive more frugally, they can lead to heavy-footed individuals improving their mpg figures despite themselves according to advocates of the semi-automatic solution. So what’s Easytronic like to get to grips with? We decided to find out.
Easytronic is available solely with Combo’s 1.3-litre four-cylinder 16-valve CDTi Ecotec-4 diesel, one of the smallest and lightest common rail engines in the world. Maximum power output is 75hp at 4,000rpm while peak torque of 170Nm makes its presence felt across a 1,750rpm-to-2,500rpm plateau.
MacPherson struts are employed by the front suspension along with an anti-roll bar while the rear suspension makes use of a torsion tube with compound links plus progressive-rate double-conical mini-block springs. Our test van’s 14in steel wheels were shod with Pirelli P3000 175/70 R14 tyres.
Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering comes as standard. With 2.7 turns lock-to-lock it offers a 10.8m turning circle kerb-to-kerb and an 11.3m turning circle wall-to-wall. You’ll find 260mm-diameter ventilated disc brakes at the front and 230mm self-adjusting drum brakes at the back. ABS is included in the deal along with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Emergency Brake Assist.
We were driving a Combo 1700. Grossing at 1,835kg and thus subject to car speed limits rather than the more restrictive limits that apply to goods vehicles grossing at over 2,000kg, our demonstrator could handle a 595kg gross payload. It could tow a braked trailer with an all-up weight of 1,000kg.
Access to our test van’s cargo area was by means of a sliding door on each side of the body — £420, and all prices quoted here exclude VAT — and twin rear doors. They can be swung through 90°, or through 180° if you release the stays, and open to reveal a 2.8m3 load bay with half-a-dozen cargo tie-down points.
Our vehicle featured a half-height steel bulkhead. It was topped off by a full-height mesh grille for an extra £100. The doors and sides are protected by panels to around one-third of their height but the wheel boxes alas remain vulnerable to minor scratches and scrapes. The van’s rear doors were glazed, but the windows weren’t fitted with heaters and wash/wipe systems were not provided.
Maximum load length is 1,787mm. Maximum width is 1,348mm narrowing to 1,107mm between the wheel boxes, while maximum height is 1,175mm. Rear loading height is 584mm. The back door aperture is 1,238mm wide and 1,139mm high while the dimensions for the side door apertures are 620mm and 913mm respectively.
What with hand-cranked, rather than electric, windows and exterior mirrors that had to be adjusted manually, albeit from within the cab, we’d clearly picked a poverty-spec Combo. At least we were able to benefit from air conditioning — it adds 30kg to the van’s weight and £580 to the final invoice, but doesn’t affect Combo’s payload capacity — and satellite navigation. It costs £850 and includes remote controls on the steering wheel for the stereo radio and MP3-compatible CD player.
The wheel was height-adjustable but the driver’s seat wasn’t; a significant drawback for many users although adjustment is available as an option. Tall drivers are, however, unlikely to complain about a lack of headroom.
Combo’s oddment stowage facilities include a full-width shelf above the windscreen, a glovebox with a cup-holder and a pen-holder on the inner face of the lid, and bins in each of the doors with a moulding capable of holding a can of soft drink. In addition there’s a tray at the bottom of the dashboard, another one to the rear of the handbrake lever along with a cup-holder, and a shelf beneath the facia and just to the right of the steering column.
You’ll also find small compartments behind the seats and under the cargo bed. They’re ideal places in which to conceal items from prying eyes. A driver’s airbag is included in the deal, but no such protection is provided for the passenger.
Blessed by an eager little engine, Combo offers rather better performance than its paper specifications might suggest. It handles well too, with a decent degree of feedback from the steering, but the ride is choppy and wind noise and road roar could stand to be better suppressed. Both drawbacks are reflections of the age of the design.
A doddle to use and quite biddable at low speeds — unlike certain other semi-automatic ’boxes we can think of — Easytronic does not, however, like to be rushed, especially in Auto mode. Try to and you will be rewarded by a succession of jerky gearchanges, each more unpleasant than the last. Allow it to take its time and your journey will be far more pleasant.
Don’t forget to put your foot on the brake and ensure Easytronic is in neutral when you start the engine. Fail to do so and it won’t fire up; a safety precaution. Don’t forget either that the gearbox will change down automatically in manual as well as in automatic mode when you slow down on the approach to a roundabout or junction to ensure you don’t stall.
As far as fuel consumption is concerned we averaged a parsimonious 52mpg; slightly better than we’ve achieved in the past with a near-equivalent model with a manual gearbox.
Remote central deadlocking is fitted and it’s good to see that Combo gets side-rubbing strips and protection for the wheelarches. Vans get scraped from time to time and anything that will combat minor damage has to be worth having.
Combo comes with a three-year/60,000 mile warranty, with no mileage limit in the first 12 months. Emergency roadside assistance is provided for the first year and a six-year warranty against body panel perforation due to corrosion is provided too. Service intervals are set at 20,000 miles and the insurance group rating is 1E T2.
Combo can also be ordered with a 90hp 1.4-litre petrol engine or a 100hp 1.7-litre diesel, although neither engine is available with the Easytronic ’box. It’s up for grabs in Crew Van guise too, with rear passenger accommodation, and the 2000 derivative is available as well, with a gross weight of just under 2.0 tonnes.
With plenty of performance on tap, good handling and responsive steering, Vauxhall’s ageing Combo still has plenty to commend it. The inexpensive Easytronic gearbox is simple to use and a boon around town, just so long as you remember not to rush it. Add to that a roomy cab with plenty of storage space plus a sensibly-designed cargo area, and Combo clearly remains a contender. On the downside the ride can be choppy, noise levels are insufficiently suppressed and the cab interior feels dated. While Combo is still worth considering, it is rapidly being outclassed by younger rivals. General Motors needs to replace it –; and soon. So is opting for Easytronic a sensible move for a Combo fancier? Only if you do a lot of stop-start city centre runs in heavy traffic. Otherwise, you might just as well stick with the manual ’box.