While the bulk of car-buying focus may have been towards ‘SUV’ in recent times, notices Iain Robertson, another specialist sector has been wedged between the light commercial and family car scenes that might harbour even greater merit.

There is no denying the fact that Volkswagen has long appreciated the world-wide appeal of the ‘SoCal’ surfing set. There is scarcely a budding rock band that has not been touched by the efficacy of a Ford Transit. Before MPVs started to scrape their semi-luxurious niche markings with the more-than-2.4-kids domestic sector, the panel-van-with-windows (and rudimentary seating) served purpose for Roman Catholic families everywhere.

Light vans have never carried a grubby inference around Europe and it is commonplace for the Italian, Spanish, Greek, or Portuguese wood, or stone working artisan, the local plumber, or electrician, to transport unashamedly a family of five beach-side, for post-Sunday service lunch at the controls of an unsafely-overcrowded Piaggio tripod. In many ways, the multi-purpose light van meets economic, fiscal, spatial, status and accessible needs significantly better than any family car could ever hope to.

Vauxhall has been smart enough to recognise that the release of a ‘Limited Edition’ double-cab van that feels more car-like than any van deserves to, while costing its potential owner somewhat less than either of the hopped-up models mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece, is more than a mere market test. Tipping the scales at almost two tonnes (1,985kgs), yet promising a payload of almost a tonne (970kgs), behind a cabin with practical and surprisingly comfortable seating for five adults and driver, this bestriped and decaled Vivaro is a customised van-par-excellence.

In fact, its excellence commences with a flexible cockpit that dips into the brand’s broader parts bins with leather-bound steering wheel and gearknob, placing a fitted carpet set beneath three-abreast occupants’ feet. There exists a far more welcome ‘soft touch’ to the interior accoutrements, even though the dashboard is a typically commercial slab of moulded hard plastic. Yet, within its confines are a mix of top-cubbies, clipboard-slots, drinks-holders and trinket-boxes, all of which appeal to the vehicle’s industrial intentions but which offer space for modern paraphernalia: the hand-held ’puter, the GameBoy, ionic water-bottles, mobile communicators and so on.

Access is via remote-control fob and beneath both front and rear benches, after lifting the flip-forward squabs, is basic but worthy storage space for even more in-cab possessions. The car-like aspects abound, with electric front windows, electrically adjustable and heated large door mirrors, and a huge range of both driver’s seat and steering column manual adjustment. Air-con maintains seasonal comfort levels, cruise control eases motorway treks and both ‘auto-on’ headlamps and wipers aid driver laziness. A full-function touch-screen provides sat-nav, trip computer, digital stereo access, Bluetooth connectivity and a useful rearwards camera view. There are also USB and aux-in sockets for all that mobile electronica.

Externally, apart from the black graphics on the Flame Red paintwork, glossy black alloy wheels and ‘GT’ stripes along the base of the doors, of which the rear pair are side-sliding, this Vivaro is all he-man-van. It is a relative ‘monster’ and every bit as lengthy as a double-cab pickup truck, but has the added benefit of an entirely enclosed, 4.0m3 load area that is accessed via the twin-opening, windowless rear doors that can be extended from their normal 90-degrees to 180-degrees apertures. Although involving an extra cost of £865, the optional resin-coated laminate floor, wheel-arch and side panel coverings not only provide an easily cleaned ‘boot’ but also aid refinement levels.

Having mentioned one set of extra-cost options, the test van also carries the upgrade NAVI 80 IntelliLink service (+£1,272; the rear-view camera factors in additional £295) and flush-fitting but sliding side glass in the rear cabin doors (+£60). These items raise its £28,648 list price to £31,140 that also includes the annual road tax of £240 and the usual £55 first registration fee.

Although you might expect an agricultural turbo-diesel to power this hard-working relative heavyweight, the excellent Vauxhall ‘Whisper-Diesel’ bi-turbo that displaces a mere 1.6-litres but develops a decent 142bhp and features ‘stop:start’ technology sits beneath the bonnet. It drives the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission, which benefits from car-like gearing for its upper ratios (29mph per 1,000rpm in 6th), although first gear is more of a crawler-type. Should your ‘car-van’ be drawn into hauling a trailer, there is a useful 250lbs ft of torque available from a modest 1,750rpm and an 80-litres (17.6g) fuel tank capacity to make near-800-mile continental jaunts doable on a regular basis. Its Official Combined fuel economy is given as 44.8mpg, while CO2 emissions are contained at 164g/km.

Apart from the slightly agricultural nature of the manual gearbox, which baulks slightly, should it be rushed, and the driver being caught-out occasionally by the very low first gear, the outstanding refinement of the engine and its punchy delivery means that 0-60mph can be covered in around 11.5 seconds. It is the van’s aerodynamics that limit its top speed to around 110mph (on German autobahns, naturally). Yet, there is such a wealth of mid-range pull that swapping cogs constantly is seldom a consideration.

Of course, both VW and Ford have sold ‘custom’ versions of their vans, sold at a premium. This is the first opportunity for Vauxhall to follow suit. Be under no illusion, it is a superb vehicle but, more importantly, it is covered by a full manufacturer’s warranty.

Conclusion:    If, like me, you are slightly tuckered out by the seemingly endless profusion of pseudo off-roaders that are populating the new car scene these days, maybe the time has come for you to contemplate a customised van, as a viable alternative? The ride quality can become a little nuggety on give-and-take road surfaces, which is the only real betrayal of the Vivaro’s commercial roots and is no worse than most SUVs. However, its practicality, refinement, broader comfort levels, space utilisation, in-built equipment and greater ride height soon underscore its overall value. Priced at a similar level to most pickup trucks, possessing an in-built integrity more accustomed to dealing with building sites, a Vauxhall Vivaro Doublecab kind of makes sense and also helps you to join the fashionable set most effortlessly.