Whilst debate remains unresolved as to whether in 1984 it was Renault, with the Espace, or the Chrysler Corporation, with the Plymouth Voyager who invented the MPV (or MiniVan, if you are speaking American), there is less doubt that it was Renault who took the concept down a size with their 1996 Megane Scenic. It was an instant hit, not just with the Car of the Year judges, who put it at the top of their ratings, but also with the public who found the combination of a compact package with lots of space, impressive versatility and the fact that the car was little different to drive from a conventional hatchback to be just what they were looking for. Competitors arrived at quite a rate over the next few years, mostly based on the big-selling C-segment hatches that they continued to offer. What was then GM Europe were among them, with their Zafira arriving in 1999. Based on the recently released fourth generation Astra, it scored by offering the option of 7 seats using a clever packaging trick called Flex7 which allowed seats not in use to fold completely in to the floor, giving excellent luggage capacity. It sold well, so it was no surprise that a second generation model followed in the first half of 2005. By the end of the first decade of the twentyfirst century, though, the Crossover was gaining in popularity and the days of the MPV seemed less certain. Not so uncertain as to stop the development of a third generation Zafira, though, but this one showed that Vaxuhall-Opel had had a rethink and although largely based on the Astra, the new car was significantly larger than the second generation model. It was so much bigger, aimed more at the Ford S-Max than the C-Max, that it was called Zafira Tourer and the old model was kept in production, for a further three years. Perhaps not surprisingly, sales of the new model have never got close to its antecedents, which is as much a market statement about MPVs as any comment on the Zafira itself. A mid-cycle refresh in 2016 change the front end design to look a little more conventional and there were the usual mechanical updates, a new dashboard and a lot of new equipment and safety it added and at this point the name reverted simply to Zafira again. There have been minor changes since then.
A 7-seater is not the sort of car that I would typically book as a rental in Europe, but such is the way that car allocation goes that sometimes that is what you get no matter what you reserved. That was the case when I arrived at the Hertz Desk at Madrid’s Barajas Airport to collect a car I would drive for a weekend before a “year start” work meeting. As I’d not driven the current Zafira, having asked what else they had on offer, none of which exactly stood out, I decided to take it and see if there was any underlying reason why the car has not sold as well as its maker had hoped.
The Zafira has been offered with a variety of petrol and diesel engines since launch. The majority of sales have been for diesel models, but this one was a petrol. It was a 1.6 litre unit, which has not been offered in the UK where the only petrol model was the familiar 1.4 Turbo unit. It came coupled to an automatic gearbox. The engine was willing enough but ultimately this Zafira was not very fast. That’s perhaps not a surprise, as this is now a large car and you might think it was more of a 2 litre sort of car than one with this sized-engine. In practice, the engine was generally up to the job, with ample acceleration to allow me to keep up with the traffic. The gearbox came across more like a CVT than one with defined ratios. That means that it was smooth in operation but it also means that it was a bit sluggish to act as especially when decelerating, making it quite hard to slow down and stop smoothly. Engine noise is well muted but there was quite a lot of wind noise which at times made me wonder if I was in a tunnel. Stop/start features and it operated well, as most systems now do. I drove a total of 880 km over the weekend and needed 65.3 litres during that time so I could return the car full. That computes to 38.2 mpg, which is a decent result for a car of this size with a petrol engine.
Although this Zafira is based on what is now the previous generation Astra, it does also share some underpinnings with the larger Insignia. Making the car larger in all dimensions with a longer wheelbase and wider tracks was intended to create more space and also to allow the car to ride more comfortably as well as being better to drive. Whether they really achieved the second of these goals is perhaps a moot point, but the Zafira is decent enough to drive, even if it is certainly beaten in this respect by one of its main rivals, the Ford S-Max. The steering is on the light side, but there is some feel so you do have some idea as to what the steered wheels are going to do. Handling is best described as predictable, allowing for tidy progress on some of the bendy country roads that I found once off the autopista. Perhaps more importantly, the ride is good, with the car proving comfortable on admittedly mostly well surfaced roads. The test car came on 225/50 R17 alloys. The brakes were also well up to par, though this car featured the inevitable electronic handbrake operated by a button in the centre console, which was no issue as this was an automatic, but which is less than an ideal for a manual car. The Zafira was easy to place on the road and manoeuvre thanks in no small part to the good visibility. There is a massive windscreen and the large side front quarter windows make it easy to see forwards and generously sized door mirrors and a rear-view camera made seeing alongside and behind relatively easy as well. Safety features were a high priority for this generation Zafira, although the Lane Departure Warning system was as annoying here as it is in most cars. The Speed limit recognition feature was rather more useful. All versions of the Zafira come with a range of standard safety measures aimed at reducing your chances of having an accident, including electronic traction and stability functions, tyre pressure monitoring and bright LED daytime running lights. Each also comes with stuff to help keep occupants from harm if an accident became unavoidable, such as six airbags and Isofix child seat mounting points, although it’s surprising there’s only two of those in a car with so many seats. Not everything is standard, though, so if you want driver assistance systems such as automatic emergency braking and blind spot monitoring these are available only in an optional pack that also contains adaptive cruise control and which costs a lot extra. Having said that, though, the Zafira Tourer did achieve the full five stars when it was tested way back in 2011, so safety was evidently fine by the standards of the day.
There is a very clear family resemblance to other Vauxhall-Opel products inside the Zafira, with many of the same components used as you will find in the latest Astra. Overall quality is decent, though nothing spectacular, with plenty of soft-ish touch plastics and a mix of bright “metal” and darker gunmetal highlights to relieve the rather large expanse of black plastic that comprises the dash moulding. Fit and finish seemed good, and although there are lots of parts shared with other models, the design looks like it was made for the Zafira. A curved binnacle covers the two large dials, for speedo and rev counter, and between these in the upper area of the display are two bar chart gauges for fuel level and water temperature, whilst below this is a digital display area for trip computer functions. You can cycle through the various menus for this using a button in the end of the left hand column stalk. The stalks – thankfully conventional after the dalliance with on-touch items a few years ago – operate indicators and wipers, whilst the lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. There is an auto dipping feature for main beam as well as auto lights and wipers in the spec of the test car. The steering wheel boss has buttons for the cruise control and audio repeaters. The centre of the dash was simplified massively in the mid-cycle facelift with most of the buttons replaced by functions integrated into the infotainment display screen and this was further upgraded in 2017 with the latest Navi 4.0 IntelliLink system. The 7″ colour touch screen sits between two air vents and is used for the audio and navigation functions as well as some car settings. The only remaining buttons are for audio volume and tuning. Navi 4.0 IntelliLink is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The navigation system delivers route guidance and offers European roadmaps displayed in 2D or 3D. Thanks to OnStar, all passengers can surf the internet using their mobile devices via the OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi Hotspot. As an alternative to speaking to an OnStar advisor and when it is safe to do so, you can also have destinations sent straight to the Navi 4.0 IntelliLink navigation system via the My Vauxhall/Opel smartphone app. The audio properties of the system were fine and the graphics on the display were crisp and clear. Beneath this unit are the buttons for the dual zone climate control.
Seat upholstery in all but the very top of the range model is cloth and it that sort of hard-wearing but not really that nice sort of material that you find in all low to mid range cars. Seat adjustment is all manual, with plenty of reach and range for the seat and backrest. Although you do sit higher than in an equivalent hatch model, there is so much headroom that you still feeling like you are in the spacious car that indeed this Zafira is. I did quite a long journey on one of the days that I had the Zafira and can confirm that the seat comfort proved good.
You sit quite high in the middle row of seats, too, and here also headroom is not in short supply. There are decent amounts of legroom even with the front seats set well back, and there is ample room for three to sit across the car. The floor area is flat, but the centre console does extend well back and is a large and tall unit. Rather than being a bench, the second row comprises three separate seats that can be folded and moved fore and aft through 210mm, giving third-row passengers the potential of some extra room compared with the previous Zafira. That said, the rear-most row of seats is still only really suitable for children. It is quite hard to get in, and once installed, space is not particularly generous in any direction.
There is negligible boot space when the third row of seats are erect, as is almost always the case with three-row cars. This back row is split 50/50 and the seats do drop down to create a flat floor for the boot which becomes quite generous when the Zafira is in 5-seater mode. The middle row of seats are split asymmetrically, and these also fold down to give a flat load area which is huge. There is plenty of provision for odds and ends in the cabin. The glovebox is on the small side. There is a lipped recess above it which would only be useful for very small items, but you also get door pockets and sizeable cubby in front of the gearlever and then there is what Vauxhall call their FlexConsole, which is a central storage system running between the front seats. An armrest module, incorporating a 2-level stowage cubby, and a cup holder slide and lock into the desired position, giving front passengers greater flexibility while they’re on the move. Rear seat passengers get bins on the doors and there are pockets on the back of the front seats.
Vauxhall badging for the Zafira is specific to the UK, with all other markets getting an Opel model, but apart from the marque badge there are no other differences in styling and design. But what does vary by market are the engine and trim choices, and these have also been altered during the production life of the Zafira. In the UK, the choices since the mid-cycle facelift have been the 1.4T engine with 138 bhp, or the 1.6 and 2.0 litre diesel units, with outputs of 136 bhp and 170 bhp respectively. Some European markets saw a 120 bhp version of the 1.4T unit as well as the 1.6 SiDI unit that featured in the test car, offering either 136, 168 or 197 bhp. All cars are front wheel drive only. UK market trims were changed as part of the mid-cycle update, with lots of different versions offered. Early cars came in ES, Exclusiv, Techline, SRi, SE and Elite trims, but this was changed in 2016 so the UK range now comprises Design, Energy, SRi, SE Techline and Elite forms. Design cars have most of what you need, with the standard roster including alloy wheels, manual air-con, cruise control, four powered windows, remote locking and front- and rear parking sensors, and that’s on top of the safety and infotainment kit mentioned earlier. Energy cars add front foglamps, privacy glass and a few extra bits of exterior chrome trim, along with sat-nav, while the SRi drops the navigation (unless you specify it as an option) and replaces it with bigger alloys, sports seats, sports pedals, and a leather steering wheel. SE cars give you automatic lights and wipers, climate control, an electric parking brake and the Lounge Seating. On top of that, Techline trim reinstates the navigation. Bizarrely, top-tier Elite trim loses the nav once again (again, unless you specify it as an option), but comes with leather upholstery, a panoramic roof, a panoramic windscreen and heated front seats instead. There seem to be an awful lot of different trims for Spanish market cars, with no fewer than 32 different versions listed, some with 5 seats and others with 7. The Spanish range starts with the Expression trim which only comes with the 120 bhp 1.4T engine. Above this are Selective, Excellent, Family and Innovation. Not all trims are available with all the engines. Spanish buyers could also have a 140 bhp LPG powered version of the 1.4T unit as well as the petrol powered (138 bhp 1.4T and 136 bhp 1.6T) and 1.6 (120 and 136 bhp) and 2.0 (170 bhp) diesels. Although there was no badging to indicate it, I think the test car was in Innovation trim as this appeared to be the only trim that had the 1.6T engine and an automatic gearbox.
The Zafira struck me as a decent enough car, but without any particular stand-out feature. It is pleasant enough to drive for a car of this type, and is roomy for five with the ability to add a couple of small additional passengers if you need. It is well finished and equipment levels in this mid-spec car are generous. That’s exactly what many people are looking for, but, seemingly, not quite enough of them, as Vauxhall deleted the model from their UK range during 2018 and we are told that Opel versions will run out across Europe during 2019, with no direct successor planned. The Crossover really does seem to have won!