IT took a woman to point out just how useful what appeared, at first glance, to be an eccentric rear-door arrangement could be.

The new Vauxhall Meriva has rear-hinged back doors, which swing open towards the back of the car at an angle of almost 90 degrees. It is certainly different, but for a while I could see no great advantage.

One glance from my wife though and she said: “That’s brilliant.”

Someone with long experience of lifting a small child into a rear child seat and helping elderly people into the backs of cars instantly spotted the advantage of not having to twist around a door.

The doors are not the only new features in the new-look Meriva, which has shed its former rather chubby, cuddly image for the ‘blade and wave’ swoop-and-sweep styling first seen in the more aggressively-styled Insignia.

That increase in presence is matched by physical growth, with a longer wheelbase offering more interior space, shifting the Meriva out of the small multi-purpose vehicle category and into the five-seat compact MPV class where, with prices ranging from about £13,000 to £21,000, it will compete with rivals such as the Ford C-Max, Renault Scénic and Citroën C4 Picasso.

That move up a class has led to a wider choice of engines, ranging from 75- to 140-horsepower, including three versions of the 16-valve, 1.4-litre unit, and two diesels, a 1.3- and 1.7-litre. Later this year, the engine line-up will gain two more diesels — a low CO2-emitting ecoFLEX model, powered by a 95-horsepower 1.3 CDTi unit, and a second, more powerful version of the 1.7 CDTi.

The peppy, turbocharged 1.4-litre test model proved ideal for nipping around town, yet comfortable and relaxed to soak up longer motorway journeys.

Families are the clear target for the Meriva and with children on board every inch of space is vital. To make the most of that, a clever new three-tier storage system is fitted between the front seats, sliding along a dual-rail base and providing storage for everything from bags and magazines, to MP3 players, CDs and colouring books.

The new Meriva’s storage bin and cubby count has also increased, with features like a 1.5-litre bottle holder in each of the front doors. Further space has also been freed up by use of an electronic parking brake.

Front seats too are new and bigger. Based on those in the Insignia and the new Astra, the driver’s seat is height-adjustable and the backs of the front seats on the SE model are fitted with fold-down tables.

The rear seats can be quickly folded and both outer rear seats can be moved forwards and backwards and also slide inwards to provide more shoulder-width and legroom in a four-seat layout.

The boot floor can be raised to bumper height for ease of loading and to increase under-floor stowage. A useful shopping bag hook is also fitted. An integrated rear bicycle carrier, that can carry up to two bicycles and slides out from behind the rear bumper, is also available.