WHEN Opel launched the Zafira in 1999, it pioneered the art of cleverly collapsing an extra pair of seats to provide a choice of luggage space or seating for seven. The system was dubbed “Flex 7” and similar systems can now be found in the Toyota Corolla Verso, Renault Grand Scénic and Volkswagen Touran, the Toyota actually going on a step further by making provision for both rearmost rows of seats to fold.

Whereas the latest MPVs from Toyota and Renault, for example, have introduced sportier lines, the styling of the Zafira remains boxy but spacious and functional. Our previous Zafira test car had the familiar 1,8-litre engine, but this one was fitted with the latest Ecotec 2,2-litre powerplant, already seen in the outgoing Astra Classic model. This delivers 108 kW and 203 N.m as opposed to the 1,8-litre’s 92 kW with 170 N.m of torque.

Apart from a new grille, the exterior remains unchanged since our last test in 2001. Bumpers are colour-coded, but there are black door handles, and side- and bumper mouldings. Sturdy roof rails add to load carrying capacity, but would likely seldom be used as the interior is commodious enough for most families’ needs. Due to the large rectangular windscreen, the wipers sweep from the centre outwards, to give the front passenger improved visibility in wet weather, leaving the unswept area in the centre top of the screen.

The interior is a mixture of decent quality instrumentation and features, but is spoiled by some downmarket plastics and ventilation knobs. A central facia-top display gives a clear read-out of the audio setting and trip computer operations, but is partially obscured by the steering wheel. Cruise control buttons are mounted on the tip of the indicator stalk, putting them in easy reach. Unfortunately, however, their miniature size makes them fiddly to use. Dials are large and neat with a white background and chrome trimming, complemented by chromed interior door handles. The sound system is not a custom built-in unit – fast becoming the design norm – but of the slot-in type with a very small removable security panel that can easily be lost. On the plus side, remote sound controls are fitted to the steering wheel.

The seats differ from the usual form-hugging tailoring we expect from an Opel. The Zafira’s are very hard, with little support and too much of a bulge in the lumbar region. Lumbar support adjustment is fitted up front, but even in the softest setting it was too much for most testers. Comfort did improve on a long trip, where hard seats fare better than soft ones. The driver’s seat and the steering wheel are both height adjustable, and a small footrest is provided for the driver’s redundant left foot. The front passenger seat can be folded flat to form a table, and the larger of the 60:40 split middle row seats collapses in similar fashion, revealing a flip-up arm cushion and dual drinkholders. A full set of headrests is fitted, with the third row’s being retractable for ease of folding.

Despite these occasional seats being thinner in order to save space, they proved remarkably comfortable. Even legroom was sufficient, with only entry and exit a bit of a squeeze. Although the rearmost windows are fixed, there are so many vents dotted around the cabin that occupants get that “aircraft feeling”. A separate fan speed control is fitted at the rear. A generous array of storage bins is placed around all seats. There is even a cylindrical tube beneath the middle row containing a removable, retractable cargo net. The large tailgate reveals a family size luggage area that swallows a full 416 dm3 expanding to 1 536 dm3 with all seats folded.

The Zafira is easy to manoeuvre, thanks to good visibility and a commanding driving position. The doors do not lock automatically when driving away, so the driver must depress the door tab to secure the interior. The steering set-up feels fine, with just the right level of weighting, but lacks feedback from the road. We found that the cruise control worked best with the gearbox left in normal mode, as this cut down on over-enthusiastic down-changes on slight inclines. Otherwise, we preferred the sport mode, in which gearchanges seem quicker and smoother. Acceleration from rest to 100 km/h was a modest 11,57 seconds, but not too bad for a vehicle weighing a ton-and-a-half. Top speed was impressive at 193 km/h, which is largely academic for this style of vehicle. Perhaps the most annoying aspect was a droning noise, either induction or exhaust induced, and at it’s worst when accelerating. This spoilt an otherwise very smooth and well-insulted ride.

Brakes initially feel sharp but progressive, and stopping times are impressive for the vehicle’s size with a sub three-second average. Handling shows the usual understeer tendencies with some body roll in corners, but is pretty good all-round for an MPV. On the safety side, dual front-and-side airbags are fitted.

Test summary

A worthwhile option for a large family, the Zafira AT should prove especially satisfying on longer trips, where cruise control and auto-shifting takes some of the strain off the driver. The combination of a largish engine and autobox means that fuel consumption will not be light but, at cruising speeds, a better figure than our 12,2 litres/100 km index should be obtainable. The advantage of the extra power is worth the extra cost for driving ease and the ability to maintain a steady speed in hilly countryside.

Original article from Car