The cars were simply not good enough.
There was little excitement. Poor quality. Little variety. To rejuvenate Opel,
the cars had to get better. Full stop.
Fast forward to 2003 and things look rosier. Opel has posted strong sales this
year. The subject of this test, the highly-acclaimed Meriva, is a case in point
– 800 are sold in Europe daily. With Delta Motor Corporation following Opel’s
brand revitalisation programme (see Special Report elsewhere in this issue), the
South African company decided before the world launch of the Meriva that it would
bring the vehicle to South Africa. Delta says it wants to sell around 200 Merivas
a month. Lofty ambitions certainly, but if half of the claims made for this vehicle
are true, certainly within reach.
What makes the Meriva so special? Well, many MPVs come to the market promising
innovative packaging, but very few actually offer anything new over existing rivals.
The Meriva is different. It features a clever – and patented – rear seat system
that Opel calls ‘Flexspace”. The rear seat is divided into three entirely
independent units – two broad individual outer seats and a narrower centre one.
In their normal position, there is comfortable space for three passengers. However,
the smaller centre seat, including its backrest, can fold down to the same height
as the cushions of the two outer seats. Now for the clever bit – the two outer
seats can then be slid inwards by 75 mm each on transverse rails, dramatically
improving shoulder and elbow room. Next, they can also be slid backwards by 70
mm, resulting in enormous rear legroom. Finally, the seatbacks can also be reclined.
When rear legroom is not paramount, the back seats can be slid forwards by 130
mm, the result being more luggage space. Also, all three rear seats fold flat
into the floor to turn the Meriva into a little cargo van with massive space.
With the seats in their rearmost position, luggage space measures 284 dm3, improving
to 304 with the seats moved forwards. Total utility space, with the rear seats
folded flat, is 1 120 dm3, which puts the Meriva slightly behind the Scenic.
But that’s not all… The front passenger seatback can be folded flat to accommodate
objects of up to 2,4 metres long.
When the customer opts for the Comfort model, as tested here, he or she also gets
a ‘Travel Assistant”. This is a multifunctional armrest that can be attached
to the back of the centre rear seat. It consists of an upholstered armrest that
can be moved back and forth by 70 mm, two extending drink holders, and a large,
insulated storage box that can be used to store CDs, for example. If the centre
seat is needed, the ‘Travel Assistant” folds away neatly into the luggage
The good news continues in the front of the cabin. Compared with its rivals, the
Meriva offers the highest quality levels. Plastics are perhaps not soft to the
touch, but they are soft on the eye, and everything fits very well. During our
time with the car there was not one squeak. The design is sombre, even ‘austere”,
as one tester put it, but the aluminium strip that splits the facia into two,
as well as the optional red and black upholstery, go some way to brightening things
up a little.
Another clever new feature of the Meriva is a ‘Twin Audio” system that allows
rear seat passengers to listen to different music from those in front via earphones
that plug into a floor console between the bases of the front seats. It also includes
a separate control module for volume, track selection etc. This allows mom and
dad to listen to the news on the radio in peace, while the kids listen to a CD
on their headphones.
Besides these features, the Meriva Comfort also offers the usual MPV convenience
items. In the load area there are hooks on the back of the two outer seats, and
a load retaining net that proved invaluable in transporting a stack of motor show
press kits without the driver being beheaded by a renegade CD. There is a hidden
load compartment in the boot’s floor, a drawer under the front passenger seat,
front seatback pockets and pop-up trays with built-in drink holders for rear seat
passengers. All-in-all, we think the Meriva is the most versatile of the current
crop of small people movers. The fact that it manages to do this while still offering
excellent room all-round, makes the achievement all the more impressive.
You sit typically high-up in the comfortable seats. Unfortunately, the driving
position may be problematic for tall drivers, because the footwell is not very
deep, with the result that the driver tends to move the seat backwards quite a
bit. When this is done, a stretched-out arms driving position is the likely result
because the steering wheel is adjustable for height only. And shorter drivers
complained that the A-pillars hindered vision.
Even the base 1,6 Club model is generously equipped – power steering, dual front
airbags, air-conditioning, separate rear ventilation outlets, three 12V outlets,
headlamp adjustment, radio/CD player with six speakers, information display, height-
adjustable driver’s seat, ISOFIX child seat system for outer rear seats, and ABS
with EBD are all standard. Comfort spec adds alloy wheels, side airbags, remote
audio controls on the steering wheel, heated exterior mirrors, electric windows
and the aforementioned ‘Twin Audio” system and ‘Travel Assistant”. A
full range of options is offered by Delta.
The Meriva has a 2 630 mm bigger Opel wheelbase that almost equals the Zafira’s.
Its body is 4 042 mm long, 1 694 mm wide and 1 624 mm high. The result is a typically
monocab, ‘cab forward” look with the wheels pushed right out to the corners.
MPVs are rarely described as pretty, and are rarely expected to be, but the Meriva
is not without its charms. The surfaces are tense and the shoulders and wheelarches
clearly defined. The rear end, with its high-mounted lights, was generally considered
the best aspect of the vehicle. The front is too bland, although the look is unmistakably
The Meriva uses components from various Opels – the Corsa’s MacPherson strut front
suspension, Zafira’s torsion-beam rear suspension and the Vectra’s speed-sensing
electric power steering. All these elements combine to make the Meriva one of
the best small MPVs to drive – but not the best, since the ScŽnic and Picasso
ride more comfortably, and the Renault also has more grip. The Meriva’s ride feels
surprisingly firm at first, but there’s generous wheel travel and damping is very
good. Ridges and other road irregularities are smoothed out without much thumping
reaching the cabin. But it doesn’t feel quite as confidence-inspiring and car-like
to drive as a Renault Scenic, for example. The feeling is more ‘tippy-toe”
when pushed. Then again, the Meriva really excels in what it will be called upon
to do most – inner-city commuting and cruising.
Delta has decided on the 1,6-litre Ecotec engine from the Astra family. More engine
options, including a 1,7-litre turbodiesel, may follow later. The 16-valve 1,6-litre
engine develops 74 kW at 6 000 r/min and 150 N.m of torque at 3 600. The engine
is a refined unit, spinning up to its 6 500 cut-out without difficulty, although
there’s not much power up there so there’s little sense in doing it.
Power is sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox that grated
when rushed in our sprinting tests, but generally proved pleasant, if slightly
rubbery, to use. The engine’s focus is not sprinting ability, but flexibility.
However, the Meriva achieved a competitive 13,46 seconds 0-100 km/h sprint time,
and an impressive top speed of 182 km/h. Overtaking acceleration is above the
class average, with the Meriva generally beating the ScŽnic 1,6 in our in-gear
flexibility tests in every gear.
Fuel economy, typically an Opel strength, was good. We achieved a fuel index figure
of 8,75 litres/100 km, which equates to 11,43 km per litre and a range of 686
km on a 60-litre tank.
The Meriva’s braking system comprises discs all-round (ventilated in front) backed
up by ABS and EBD as standard. In our simulated emergency braking test, the Meriva
clocked an average stopping time of 3,12 seconds, one of the best for MPVs of