Bigger and better Zafira refuses to be left behind
Vauxhall's family-friendly people carrier, the Zafira, has been around since the last century (1999, to be precise) and for a lot of that time has been able to claim market-leading qualities. Most of this centred on its flexible seating arrangements, which would allow up to seven to be squeezed in what was, comparatively, a small car.
Of late, as the opposition has caught up and overtaken the Zafira – I'm thinking particularly of the Ford S-Max – the Vauxhall has been in danger of being left behind as a dated model, both in looks and value for money.
Not any more. A 2012 refresh has brought a brand new model to the forecourt – the bigger and better Zafira Tourer.
While it may carry the same name, this is a completely new and different car to the standard Zafira and is seen as a more up-market and premium version.
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The Zafira Tourer is a bigger car all round than the standard Zafira, some 20cm longer, which allows better levels of comfort for passengers. The car now looks far more modern and striking – its "face" is framed by large bold boomerang lighting units, which sweep from the headlights to the fog lamps and incorporate Vauxhall's unique wing-shaped daytime running lamps.
The trapezoidal grille houses the Griffin badge, while the bonnet incorporates the distinctive crease featured on other Vauxhalls, creating a dynamic, progressive look.
In the Zafira Tourer's cabin, visibility has been improved thanks to a redesigned front layout, with slim, hydroformed A-pillars, sleek B-pillars, large side windows and repositioned door mirrors (now fixed directly to the door panel). The door mirrors, which come in two-tone combinations, are topped with a shiny black gloss finish that matches the car's body colour.
Adding to its feeling of spaciousness, an optional panoramic windscreen and large glass sunroof can be specified. This panoramic windscreen, which first appeared on Astra GTC back in 2006, offers generous views, with the top of the windscreen extending back to the front row of seats. The large glass sunroof also stretches all the way to the rear of the vehicle.
Use of high-quality fabrics in the interior mark the Zafira Tourer out as a more luxurious vehicle as well as a practical and versatile MPV. A range of new trims are available and there is a higher percentage of soft-touch surfaces compared with the current Zafira.
With more than 30 storage compartments, the Zafira Tourer is still immensely practical. FlexRail, Vauxhall's innovative storage system, which can also be found in the current Meriva, is available on key models and complements the already generous stowage-cubby count.
In total, 710 litres of storage space is available, 65 litres more than the current model, with a maximum storage capacity of 1,860 litres (up by 40 litres) when the three single seats in the second row are folded flat.
Despite all the above, it is the car's seating possibilities and flexibility for families that will garner the Zafira the most attention.
A significant development from the previous model is with the middle row of seats. This was previously a bench and meant all three seats had to be lowered at the same time. However, there are now three individual seats, which means you can have a number of different configurations.
The seats can slide longitudinally by 210mm (100mm forwards, 110mm backwards) independently of each other and can be folded flat, creating an even load floor. In addition, the backs of the three seats can be reclined in four different positions (to 0, 16, 20 and 24 degrees).
Thanks to the easy-to-reach loop handles that are coloured for better differentiation (red to fold down and black to pull upright), the seat backs can be completely folded down in one simple movement for maximum versatility without having to remove seats or headrests.
Taking things one step further is the "Lounge Seating" system available on selected models, which provides second-row passengers with the kind of seating space normally found in a large executive saloon car.
Where this system is specified, the three seats in the second row can be transformed into two exceptionally comfortable seats with lots of extra legroom and shoulder space. The outer seats slide up to 280mm backwards – a best-in-class dimension, and 70mm more than in the standard version – and then slide 50mm towards the centre of the cabin, a unique feature in this segment.
A clever and easy-to-operate folding/rotating mechanism then transforms the back of the middle seat into comfortable armrests for the passengers in the outer seats. Vauxhall/Opel has filed for a patent for this system, which is unique in the industry.
In this two-seat configuration in the rear, the Zafira Tourer offers second-row passengers optimum space, comfort and ergonomic seating.
There are five engines on offer in total. The two petrol options include a 1.4-litre with 139bhp and a six-speed manual gearbox – a six-speed automatic is optional. This will complete the 0-60mph benchmark in 9.9 seconds. The second petrol engine is a 1.8-litre that produces 139bhp, with a five-speed manual gearbox. This will reach 60mph from a standing start in 10.9 seconds.
The three diesel alternatives are all two-litre CDTI units with a choice of 109bhp, 129bhp and 163bhp power outputs. My test car was the middle of these three with an ecoFlex designation, which added a start/stop feature to the engine for added fuel economy, quoted as 62.8mpg on the combined cycle.
The update chassis contributes to the Zafira's very smooth ride, which seems to soak up the worst that British roads can throw at us at the moment. Acceleration (0-62mph in 10.6 seconds) is not breathtaking, but nor would you expect it to be. But overall the Zafira was a delight to drive; I had six aboard at times and it never struggled once. Yes, the third row of seats are inevitably smaller and lighter than normal, but not to the point when any of my (fully grown) passengers complained.
Trim range runs from ES to Elite, through five stages. Even the simp- lest ES version gets ESP+ stability control, twin front, side and curtain airbags, cruise control, wheel- mounted audio controls for the MP3- compatible stereo, air conditioning and the Flex7 seating system.