While the soaring price of fuel looks set to solve traffic congestion by forcing everybody off the road because they can no longer afford to run their vehicles, it hasn't happened yet. Town centres remain bedevilled by jams, as do the motorways, and the life of a delivery driver continues to be a misery throughout much of the country.
Happily technology can help alleviate the stress. Sat nav systems make it easier to find many destinations, air conditioning allows you to keep a cool head while you are doing so and developments in transmission design mean that your left leg and left arm won't be worn out by constant manual gearchanging.
While a few manufacturers market a traditional automatic gearbox on selected models as an extra-cost option, others have opted to offer an optional automated manual gearbox instead. Without a clutch pedal, it can be used either as a manual or as an automatic and drivers can flick from one mode to the other with ease.
Order a Vauxhall Vivaro and you can specify a six-speed Tecshift automated manual ’box with either the 146hp 2.5-litre CDTI or the 115hp 2.0-litre CDTI diesel; it cannot be ordered with the 90hp version of the 2.0-litre. We opted for one married to the 115hp lump in a short-wheelbase standard roof van grossing at a nominal 2,700kg. Vivaros grossing at up to 2,900kg are also available as are long-wheelbase derivatives, and both the short- and the long-wheelbase variants can be ordered with a high roof. A Vivaro dropside is listed too, along with a minibus and a short- and long-wheelbase double-cab van.
The beefier of the two 2.0-litres produces its maximum power at 3,500rpm. Peak torque of 290Nm kicks in at 1,600rpm and it's a four-cylinder 16-valve common rail unit like all the engines fitted to the front-wheel drive Vivaro.
Independent wishbones with MacPherson spring struts figure in the front suspension along with an isolated subframe designed to cut vibration. At the back you'll encounter a semi-independent suspension arrangement with trailing links and progressive-rate mini-block coil springs with rubber bump-stops. Our van sat on ordinary 16in steel wheels shod with 205/65 R16C Continental Vanco tyres.
Disc brakes — the 305mm-diameter front ones are ventilated — are fitted to all four wheels and the package includes ABS with Emergency Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) costs extra. With 3.3 turns lock-to-lock, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering comes as standard. It provides an 11.8m turning circle kerb-to-kerb widening to 12.4m wall-to-wall.
Our demonstrator's true maximum gross weight was 2,735kg with a gross payload capacity of 1,053kg. It could haul a braked trailer grossing at 2,000kg.
Access to the load bay is by means of twin unglazed back doors or a nearside sliding side door that conceals a non-slip step. The former can be pushed through 90° or through 165° if you unlatch the easy-to-release door stays and reveal a sensibly shaped aperture that makes for easy loading. There's a non-slip strip at the edge of the cargo bed. Good to see that eight cargo tie-down points are fitted along with two lights. Providing more than adequate illumination, they mean that you don't have to grope around in the semi-darkness when you're loading and unloading at night.
Our van lacked a bulkhead — a load restraint frame was mounted behind the driver's seat instead — there was no cover for the load floor and no load area lining apart from some half-height panels for the doors. These shortcomings can of course be remedied; for an additional charge.
Maximum load length is 2,415mm. Maximum width is 1,663mm, narrowing to 1,268mm between the rear wheelboxes, while maximum height is 1,387mm. Rear loading height is 549mm. The rear door aperture is 1,320mm high and 1,390mm wide, while the dimensions for the side door are 1,285mm and 1,000mm respectively.
In a praiseworthy attempt to promote greater honesty in the van industry, Vauxhall quotes two different load cube figures; 5.0m3 or 5.3m3. The former is calculated according to the VDA method, which involves packing the cargo box with standard-sized wooden blocks. The latter is calculated according to the SAE method, which involves filling the cargo bay with a fine-grained material and measuring how much is used.
Because the material trickles into all the nooks and crannies the latter figure is the more impressive of the two, but is not such an accurate reflection of the van's usable carrying capacity.
Van in-cab comfort has improved so dramatically over the past few years that encountering a new vehicle with hand-cranked rather than electric windows and exterior mirrors that have to be altered manually comes as a bit of a shock.
On reflection though, it may not be quite such a surprise to fleet drivers. Van fleet managers understandably like to save cash whenever they can and many still tend to the view that the more electrical bits and pieces you specify on a light commercial, the more there is to go wrong; and getting faults fixed can be expensive.
But while the entry-level Vivaro's three-seater cab may be short of creature comforts, it doesn't lack storage space. Facilities include bins in each of the doors with a moulding that can grasp a large bottle of water or a flask, a lidded but not lockable glovebox with a shelf beneath it and another shelf half-hidden beneath the steering column.
You'll find cup-holders at each end of the facia — one of them plays host to the removable ashtray — along with two small cubby-holes. In addition the dashboard boasts a handy hook from which you can hang a bag full of containers holding your Friday night takeaway treat from the local curry palace. A radio/CD player is standard as are air recirculation and a driver's airbag.
When panel van makers first started to move the gear shift from the floor to the dashboard, the idea was to make it easier for the driver to slide across the cab and emerge safely on the pavement side of the vehicle. This laudable ambition is somewhat frustrated in Vivaro's case, however, because the shift is mounted on a moulding that bulges out from the front of the facia and gets in the way.
Prominently positioning the button for the hazard warning lights next to the gearstick is a sensible move, however, and we've no quarrel at all with the driving position. It gives the occupant a commanding field of vision, both ahead and to either side of the vehicle. Both the steering column and the driver's seat are height-adjustable.
Tecshift is a remarkably easy 'box to get used to. Switching from automatic to manual mode and back again is a doddle, and so are manual gearchanges. Push the lever away from you and you go up the 'box, pull it towards you and you go back down again. It's as simple as that and a dashboard display constantly informs you which mode and which gear you are in.
Hit a button on the dashboard and Tecshift selects the right gear to pull away in if the road surface is slippery. You can also press a switch that allows it to choose the correct gear to move away in if the van happens to be heavily laden.
It's not a 'box that cares to be rushed, but that's something you get used to. Rather more worrying is the jerky and uncertain low-speed performance offered in both manual and automatic guise. It makes manoeuvring difficult; a concern if you're picking your way around a congested yard or trying to park.
On the positive side the solidly constructed Vivaro handles well, with plenty of feedback through the steering, offers drama-free braking and in 115hp guise will happily tackle any amount of high-speed dual carriageway and motorway work. At lower speeds, however, it seems a little lacking in punch and on one or two occasions we found ourselves yearning for the 2.5-litre instead.
The unladen ride can be bouncy — things improve significantly with a bit of weight in the back — and we'd strongly recommend operators to specify a bulkhead. Otherwise drivers will soon be complaining about the high level of wind noise and road roar emanating from the rear of the vehicle.
As far as fuel economy is concerned we averaged 39mpg, which is about the same as we got when we sampled the manual version of the same vehicle a couple of years back.
Still boasting looks that are as distinctive as they are stylish, Vivaro comes with remote central deadlocking and there's a switch on the dashboard that the driver can press to secure all the doors. Deep side rubbing strips should help protect the body from minor scratches and scrapes although we'd prefer to see them at waist, rather than sill, height. Our van was finished in metallic paint for an extra £345 excluding VAT.
Service intervals are set at 18,000 miles and Vivaro is protected by a three-year/100,000 mile warranty, with no mileage limit during the first 12 months. The first year's cover also includes a roadside rescue and recovery package. The body panel anti-perforation corrosion warranty lasts for six years and a stainless steel exhaust is a standard feature.
Still cutting a dash in the high street, Vauxhall's Vivaro continues to boast stylish good looks. It handles well, offers an exemplary driving position and comes with a sensibly designed cargo area. On the downside the cab interior, though practical, really needs a makeover, the van can be a touch too noisy if no bulkhead is fitted and the unladen ride can be choppy. Nor are we entirely enamoured with the mid-range performance of the 115bhp 2.0-litre CDTI diesel, although it seems to get into its stride at motorway speeds. And Tecshift? While it's certainly easy to use and we're always in favour of anything that reduces driver fatigue, we're not convinced that it's worth an extra £800; especially given that the standard Vivaro comes with a perfectly acceptable six-speed manual gearbox.