The trouble with pioneering new technology and carving a new niche is that you might as well strap an enormous target on your back for the opposition to aim at. Rest assured they will take a shot and, in the case of the seven-seat Vauxhall Zafira, they did. Yet while the VW Touran, second-generation Renault Scénic and Honda FR-V brought a prestige badge, feel-good interior and further packaging innovation respectively, the Vauxhall, currently in its sixth year, is still selling strongly and remains class-competitive with its flexible seating and driver-oriented dynamics. The new car gives Vauxhall the opportunity to address the original’s weaknesses with a smarter exterior, more upmarket interior and improved powertrains. Despite the much-publicised woes of parent company GM, Vauxhall is a car maker with a spring in its step of late. The new Astra has been well received and there are a string of turbocharged VXR models to get excited about, including the 237bhp Astra VXR and, of course, a hot version of this Zafira. Much of Vauxhall’s current confidence is evident on the new Zafira, which effectively transposes most of the Astra’s sleek design onto the people-carrier’s boxier shape. The result is a rakish MPV, with the peeled-back headlights and crease running up the bonnet helping to create a much bolder nose. It’s not wildly exciting, but quietly smart all the same. Interior packaging The innovative Flex7 seven-seat system has been carried over largely unchanged. The difference is the vastly improved quality inside. Our high-specification Design model felt expensive and very well made. It shares the same dark, sharply edged style as the Astra – and so lacks the warmth and varied textures of a Renault Scénic’s interior, for instance – but the controls are nicely laid out and the driving position is far less van-like than the previous model’s. The middle row of seats slides back and forth, depending on how much legroom is required, and also flips up and forwards for maximum boot space. In the boot you’ll find FlexOrganiser, a mesh of nets on sliding rails to secure and separate your luggage. The third row of seats pulls smoothly out of the floor, but its low-slung position when erected will leave adults with their knees around their ears. And providing enough legroom for adults in the middle row makes it uncomfortable for six-footers behind them. The rear seats are best viewed as occasional chairs. There is, of course, still the disadvantage of very little luggage space with all three rows of seats up. Only the Fiat Multipla and Honda FR-V, which offer two rows of three chairs, have effectively found a way around that problem, but obviously they offer one seat less. A couple of nice touches are the damped action of the middle seats when you release the backrests, and the new handbrake, which is in the style of an airliner’s throttle and allows for an extra storage area. Our test car had the panoramic roof option – not cheap at £850 – that provides four slender panes of glass with electric blinds. In the middle above occupants’ heads are five generous storage boxes. From the outside, this central area is raised like the roof scoop of a Lotus Exige and is finished in gloss black. With the metallic grey paint of our test car it looked particularly effective. Oddment space is otherwise a weak point of the new car. Under the bonnet A range of trim levels will be available, from Expression via Life, Club and Design to SRi. Petrol engines will include a 103bhp 1.6-litre, 148bhp 2.2-litre and a 197bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged unit. A 138bhp variable-cam 1.8 and the 237bhp 2.0-litre turbo in the VXR will follow. Diesels are the usual 1.9-litre engines: an eight-valve 118bhp and the 16-valve 148bhp unit driven here. This has to be the best installation of this engine yet, such is its outstanding refinement and smoothness in the Zafira. The diesel is very driveable, too, with good throttle response, and the 236lb ft of torque makes overtaking effortless. On the road the new Zafira feels agile, disguising its lofty proportions with decent body control. This doesn’t come at the expense of ride quality, even with the 17-inch alloys of our test car. The ‘sport’ mode – selected by pressing a button on the dash – sharpens throttle and steering response. The Zafira might not be hugely exciting, but it is very competent by midi-MPV standards and you can enjoy driving it, up to a point, something you’d never say about a Scénic. Vauxhall claims prices will remain largely as per the old model’s, with the range starting at £12,995 for a 1.6-litre Expression and rising to £20,445 for this 1.9-litre CDTi Design. Air-con is fitted on all models and from Club spec upwards six airbags are standard. Vauxhall has just announced a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating for the new car, too. The second-generation Zafira is a very impressive MPV. It isn’t revolutionary this time around, but it refines the original concept extremely effectively. Only a group test will decide if the Zafira returns to the top of the class, but on this showing there seems every chance it will. Adam Towler

Our Verdict

The Vauxhall Zafira seven-seat MPV is versatile and well made but is now showing its age

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