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

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During a road test such as this, it’s always a pleasure to unfurl the subject car’s secrets over a matter of time and a number of sections and we hope you feel the same about receiving them that way. But today that’s not going to happen because the single most remarkable aspect of the Vauxhall Zafira you’re looking at now is already obvious: the fact we’re writing about it at all.

For this is a car that first went on sale in 2005, the year in which YouTube hosted its first video. In an era where product cycles are so short cars are almost always replaced within seven years and sometimes as few as five, the fact it has survived not only the passage of time, but the arrival of an all new model, the Zafira Tourer, which itself has been revised in autumn 2016, stands as testament to the rightness of its original design.

There’s not a maker of small MPVs which hasn’t, at some time, looked enviously at the Zafira

And a characteristic of a section of the general public. It was Citroën who first spotted that some cars need not be in the first nor even the second flush of youth to sell. 

What they needed was to be cheap and the kind of car bought through need rather than want, circumstance rather than choice. Hence its Xsara Picasso continued to sell well into its dotage not just because it was available for a knockdown price (although at £9995 it was), but also because for a certain constituency of the car buying community, they didn’t require anything more and responded positively to not being asked to pay for abilities that held no value for them.

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This same principle explains the existence of the Zafira for three years after it was effectively replaced by the larger Zafira Tourer in 2011. The old Zafira undercut the new Zafira Tourer by a significant margin at the bottom end of the range and a sizeable one at the top. 

Even so it’s not that much cheaper give the gulf in age and ability. The question is then, how much can you haggle off the price with the dealer (a lot) and can a car as old as the Zafira then be made to make sense?

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Vauxhall Zafira EcoFlex badging
Diesel models emit 134g/km of CO2

More modern MPVs like the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer and Citroen C4 Picasso have recognised that even if you need to carry seven people, it’s still desirable to stand out of the crowd. 

As you can see, back in the middle of the last decade, such considerations were not even on Vauxhall’s radar screen. The result is styling is so bland you can park it in a busy street, run across the road to post a letter, turn around and have already lost your car. It melds into its surroundings, in a perfect disguise of smooth sided, inoffensive, nicely rounded nothingness. Visually at least, it is an automotive non-entity.

The Zafira has, at 0.31cd, one of the lowest drag figures in its class

And that’s not all bad. Had it been wacky of line it might now look terribly dated. Styling it so could have been designed any time in the last 20 year by removing all signs of visual distinction has afforded it a curiously timeless quality.

But it’s still effective. The shape comes with a drag co-efficient of just 0.31, which is still competitive by class standards, a very low loading lip for the rear tailgate and, inside, Vauxhall’s Flex7 seating system. 

Any seven seat MPV that didn’t allow at least five of them to fold straight into the floor might now be regarded as deficient, and the fact the Zafira was the first is now a fact of only historical significance. Even so and despite all the intervening years, Vauxhall’s original layout still works well even though it should be pointed out its more modern competitors have individually sliding centre row seats, the Zafira a simple bench.

Less impressive is lack of any smart door solution: there are no sliding doors at the back nor at they rear hinged to allow unimpeded access to the interior. They just open and close like any normal door.

This Zafira sits on GM’s Delta platform which used to underpin the previous generation Astra and was also used in the US for sundry Saturns, Pontiacs and Chevrolets. So it’s a standard set up of struts at the front and a torsion beam rear axle, but without the capacity to fit the Watts linkage that so improves the ride and handling of the more modern Vauxhall Astras.

In keeping with its position as the bargain bucket Zafira, by the end of its run, the car came with an only limited choice of engines and trim. Petrol Zafiras all had the same 1.8-litre motor but with a choice of 118bhp or 138bhp outputs and it was a similar deal with the diesels: one 1.7-litre motor with either 108bhp or 123bhp. 

All Zafiras were available only with manually selectable gears, five for the petrol models, six for the diesels. Equipment grades started at Exclusiv, progressed through the optimistically entitled Excite and topped of with a Design model.


Vauxhall Zafira dashboard
Driver gets a height-adjustable seat and a reach-and-rake-adjustable steering wheel

The Vauxhall Zafira has a cabin that screams old school Vauxhall and dates from a time where there was not an overwhelming compulsion to give everything a premium look and feel. So what you get is a soundly executed cabin of reasonable quality and engineering commonsense with absolutely no sense of occasion whatsoever.

It is nothing if not functional. The Flex7 system allows all bar the driver’s seat to fold forward to create a gargantuan load area, bigger even than that of Mercedes E-Class Estate, the largest conventional estate on the market. 

Vauxhall has taken the Zafira’s existing strengths and made even more of them

Even with five of its seven seats in place it’ll swallow 645 litres, which is only a fraction less than the vast Benz will manage with its rear seats raised. Only when all seven seats are in place does the capacity shrink to a small but still not entirely useless 140 litres.

Turn your attention to human occupancy and you’ll find that for the usual complement of two in the back and two in the front, the Zafira is splendidly effective. There’s plenty of everything: leg room, head room and stowage space and while the middle seats don’t slide individually, the bench moves forward to allow you to vary the ratio of space allocated to passengers and their luggage.

To raise the rearmost seats you need to slide the bench forward but then they flip up easily enough and are accessed via a aperture behind the middle seat row that’s small but adequate given the likely proportions of the small children who’ll be using them. 

Indeed while the Zafira is technically a seven seater, it’s more helpful to think of it as a five plus two, the rear most seats lacking sufficient leg room for anything other than very small people and, usually, very short journeys too.

Up the front, the driving position is sound and suitably elevated, and helped by both a height adjustable driver’s seat and a steering wheel at moves in and out as well as up and down. 

Unfortunately the dash design has not aged as well as the exterior of the car. Slabs of largely unrelieved grey plastic punctuated by grey switches weren’t that stylish back in 2005 and really make the car feel its age today.


Vauxhall Zafira diesel engine
The diesel-engined variants are better-suited to this workhorse

There are some great engines at GM which could have been installed in the Vauxhall Zafira, from a peppy 134bhp 1.6-litre diesel capable of nearly 70mpg and sub 110g/km CO2 emissions to a 192bhp, 2.0-litre diesel that would fling it to 60mph in little more than 8 sec. 

Vauxhall chose to save its most appealing powertrains (and any choice of automatic transmission) for the more expensive Zafira Tourer. Instead and as outlined earlier, the choice was a 1.8-litre petrol or a 1.7-litre diesel chugger, albeit both available with two outputs.

The diesels prove effective at dealing with the every day life of a hard-working MPV

Both motors provide performance as unremarkable as you’d expect from a car as antediluvian and dynamically unambitious as this, neither offering a prayer of reaching 60mph in a single digit number of seconds without being pushed off a cliff first. 

Then again, who is ever going to want to buy a Zafira and also want to go fast? Vauxhall did ask the question with the extraordinarily contradictory Zafira VXR and customers – or the lack thereof – provided the answer in short order.

But just because you don’t want to go to the Nurbürgring and set a time doesn’t mean you have no expectations of the way what little performance there is should be delivered. It should at least be a pleasant car to move through the gears. And it is, just about. 

The choice between petrol and diesel is not as easy as it first seems. Instinctively we’d suggest the diesel for, as we shall see, there is a considerable advantage in fuel consumption and what little performance deficit is incurred is unlikely to be regarded as a great loss by the typical customer. 

However Vauxhall charged a substantial premium for the diesel, so much indeed that the low powered diesel with 108bhp was a comfortable four figure sum more expensive than the high powered petrol Zafira wearing the same trim.

Moreover, the petrol engine is far more pleasant to listen to and revs reasonably smoothly and freely towards its redline. It’s pretty short of torque which you’ll notice particularly when travelling with a full load, because you’ll have to work the five speed gearbox more than you’d expect, but at least the shift quality is good and the ratios well chosen. Besides once you’re up to speed and simply cruising on the motorway, it’s a reasonably quiet and civilised companion.

The diesel is a mixed blessing. The economy gains are obvious, but in low power form performance is really very limited. But even if you spend the extra for the more powerful version you’ll have to put up with both its gravelly voice and a rather narrow powerband. More modern Vauxhall diesels have made a huge step forward with refinement levels in particular. 

The most significant number this engine possesses is the 2300rpm where it develops peak torque, notably high by modern diesel standards. Performance below this peak varies between mediocre and glacial depending how far down towards idle you reach. So despite it being a diesel which should be absolutely in its element between 1500-2000rpm, you find yourself having to work this engine too. 

It also helps explain why both diesel Zafiras come with six speed gearboxes: the distance between peak torque and peak power on the lower powered engine is just 1500rpm so you need lots of gears to keep the engine in this optimal band.


Vauxhall Zafira front quarter
The ride is comfortable, with reasonable body control

So just when you’re convinced there is nothing that could be possibly of any interest to an enthusiastic driver in the slow, dull looking and ancient Vauxhall Zafira MPV, a corner appears on your route. 

More in hope than expectation you turn the wheel expecting at best substantial body work and zero steering feel, at worst heavy understeer accompanied by outraged protestations from the tyres. 

The Vauxhall Zafira is among the best handling compact MPVs

Except that’s not what happens: the Zafira responds eagerly to your commands and angles accurately onto your chosen line with well checked body movements with even a reasonable account of conditions underfoot being provided through the steering. 

True this is not a car that’s going to cause sleepless nights for Ford C-Max engineers, but for a car without an apparent sporting bone in its body, it is an unlikely and impressive attribute to discover.

Especially when it has not been achieved at the expense of ride quality. When using a rear suspension as expedient as a torsion beam (whose major attraction to a car manufacturer are that it’s easily packaged and very cheap) traditional thinking says the scope of tuning available is so limited that even if your engineers are on top of their game, it can be set up for ride or handling, but not both. 

A more unlikely myth-buster you may not find: the Zafira’s pleasantly cushioned yet controlled ride shows clearly there can be exceptions to this rule, even in the world of sluggish MPVs.

Braking performance is more than adequate for the modest performance available, and comes with a firm yet pleasantly progressive feel.


Vauxhall Zafira
Vauxhall's Zafira has been a trend-setter since 1999, but has never been trendy

How expensive is the Vauxhall Zafira really? Much less than the headline figures suggest, at least to those buying new. 

Though it needs pointing out that not that even the top specification is exactly lavish. Another way Vauxhall maintained profit margins on this Zafira (and interest in the Zafira Tourer) is by paring back the goodies.

The discounts on offer are astonishing

So if you want even alloy wheels, Bluetooth or a trip computer, you’ll need a mid-spec Excite model, while items like electric rear windows and rain sensing wipers are standard only on the Design version.

Given the massive discounting, resale values are actually reasonable and it’s worth remembering the Zafira came with a lifetime warranty so long as the mileage stays below 100,000 miles.

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Sadly neither engine will return much to the gallon on the way there. Both petrol models record 39.2mpg while even the diesels register an unimpressive 55.4mpg, meaning both models will have expensive tax discs and unfavourable benefit in kind assessments for company users thanks to their respective 168 and 134g/km CO2 ratings. 

When there’s a Citroën C4 Picasso with sub 100g emissions and a recorded 74.3mpg, you can see how far the world has moved since this Zafira went on sale.


2.5 star Vauxhall Zafira
The ageing Zafira is probably a better bet as a used purchase

It is hard to see anyone desiring a Vauxhall Zafira, crossing the road to look at one or suffering insomnia the night before a test drive. Of almost all cars on sale and certainly those that would classify themselves as MPVs, this is a car you buy because you need the facilities it provides and it provides them at a price you can afford.

There is nothing wrong in that and the very fact the Zafira remains on sale so many years after its introduction proves the efficacy of the formula.

As a new car the obsolescent Zafira is hard to recommend, unless you drive a hard deal

Its problem is one without solution. When it was new in 2005, the Zafira was one of the best MPVs on sale and duly went on to top the sales charts as had its game-changing predecessor. But it’s not just in looks that the world has moved on far, far beyond the point occupied by this car. 

The Citroën C4 Picasso is a wildly better prospect in all regards save its handling and is state of the art so you’d expect it to be vastly more expensive. But it’s not – indeed even the seven seat Grand C4 Picasso range starts at much the same money as that of the Zafira, leaving the only real difference as how much more you can persuade a Vauxhall dealer to lop off the price than a Citroën dealer.

It’s not enough. Even now the Zafira is not a bad car, but it is a once good car now grown old and made mediocre by the passage of time. In short and unless it fits your bill very precisely indeed, there are many better alternatives more deserving of both your time and your money.

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Vauxhall Zafira 2005-2014 First drives