Johannesburg - Unlike some markets such as those in Europe, panel vans have always been left to fight for the scraps on South Africa’s sales charts because this is bakkie country, after all.

In many ways that is easy to understand - they are trendy looking, good for both work and play, and rough terrain is never really a problem.

Yet for some business applications, a panel van is still a more sensible option because your load is invisible and securely locked away. You can also stack stuff to the roof skyscraper style, and with the greatest of ease thanks to sliding doors. It’s just the occasional bulky item that might pose a problem - since you can’t load over the edges like you can in a bakkie.

But it all comes down to what you plan to load, and if your stars align in the van galaxy then there are still many good options on the market. On the compact side of things, the Volkswagen Caddy has been the default choice for more than a decade, but now Opel has re-entered the fray with its all-new Combo panel van and after spending a week with it we can confirm that it’s actually brilliant to drive, but first let's see how it stacks up as a van… or how things stack up in it...

Like the Caddy, the Combo is available in two sizes: Standard, which measures 4403mm in length, and the LWB, which buys you 4753mm of metal.

The Standard Combo has a minimum load volume of 3.3 cubed metres, according to Opel, and a payload of 650kg - versus 3.2m3 and 745kg in the Caddy's case. Opt for the LWB and you get 3.9m3 upwards and a 1-tonne payload (versus the Caddy Maxi’s 4.2m3 bay and 815kg payload).

Access is through a single sliding door and barn-style rear doors. 

The loading area is separated from the cabin by a large, full-height bulkhead, which is not only good for safety, but it makes for a quieter cabin too.

Out on the open road the Combo is really not much noisier than an average car, and by van standards it is impressively refined. 

It certainly doesn't fall short of car standards when we're talking standard features. There’s no ‘workhorse’ spec here, just one model grade and it comes with all the basic comfort features such as air conditioning, a four-speaker audio system with USB input and Bluetooth connectivity and electric windows. The features list also includes things you might not expect at this level like auto headlights and electric mirrors, while safety features include dual airbags, ABS and ESP stability control.

The cabin looks modern and smart too, and we liked the fact that the radio is placed at the top of the dash, minimising the effects of distraction.

Yet the driveability and economy is this van’s trump card. 

You get a 1.6-litre turbodiesel engine as standard, which pushes 68kW and 230Nm. Performance is better than those figures suggest and it felt more than sufficiently gutsy at highway speeds, but what impresses most is its smoothness - there’s no lag and it feels responsive even from the lower reaches of the rev range.

Economy was admirable too, our car sipping around 6.3 l/100km in a mixture of conditions.

The Combo only comes with a five-speed manual transmission, which is not ideal for constant urban slogging, but this vehicle is at least very comfortable to drive, with a nicely weighted clutch and smooth gearshift action. I felt less fatigued after a long commute to the office than I have in many cars. The ride quality, even unladen, is reasonably good for a van too.

But how does it stack up in value terms?

The Standard model comes in at R315 675 and the LWB will set you back to the tune of R350 400.

The former model matches the Caddy 1.6 petrol, but gives you a vastly superior and fruglar engine, while the latter comes in at 25 grand less than the diesel Caddy. However, if you’re penny pinching, you might want to look at the Renault Kangoo 1.6, at R254 900, albeit with less features and a 1.6-litre normally aspirated petrol engine, or the more rudimentary Toyota Avanza 1.3 panel van, at R244 000.

All considered, the Opel Combo is not the cheapest way to haul a load, but if you care about how pleasant your van is to drive, this German is the best deal right now as far as we’re concerned.

IOL Motoring