While Vauxhall’s Zafira model has come under fire (literally) of late, Iain Robertson believes that the most recent model remains a model of MPV relevance and, in ‘Tourer’ guise, it is a virtuous machine, without doubt.


The Multi-Person Vehicle has been transformed successfully into the Multi-Purpose Vehicle over the past 25 years. From those early iterations that were generally van-based, with sealed windows and poor air circulation that merely added to the woes of the claustrophobic and served the requirements of corporate personnel movements, as well as prolific fathers, who could not keep their trousers on long enough to stem the flow of progeny, to examples of the breed, such as the latest Vauxhall Zafira Tourer, their market relevance has seldom been stronger.


It has always seemed that the more ingenious the packaging solution, the greater would be the consumer response. When Renault epitomised the new generation of junior-league MPVs, as it unveiled the Megane-based Scenic model at the 1996 Geneva Motor Show, the French carmaker foresaw its future in mere niche potential. The reality was almost ten times greater.


We all recognise that the egg is the most efficient shape in most respects, for aerodynamic, accommodation and convenience reasons. The Megane Scenic’s ovate outline could cleave through air most efficaciously and it demonstrated that accessibility to its cabin was unparalleled by cars sharing the same footprint. Yet, while an improvement on the often cramped quarters presented by the average family hatchback, despite its in-floor storage bins, flip-up tables and sliding seats, Scenic still seated just five and seven was always deemed a more apposite number.


Well, the Grand Scenic did arrive no less than seven years later, by which time the rest of the market had awoken to the immense potential of a grown-up family hatch that embodied a long list of pertinent, purchaser pleasing features. Vauxhall-Opel (General Motors’ European vehicle arm) was as hot as it could be on Renault’s case. While it took three years after the Scenic’s reveal and involved the assistance of Porsche to engineer its innumerable attractive features, the Zafira, actually shown as a prototype in 1997, at the Frankfurt Show, commenced series production in early-1999.


Based on the Astra model of the period, similarly to the Scenic’s relationship with the Megane, it was an overnight success story, largely due to the tremendous ‘Flex-7’ seating arrangement that offered unheard of levels of practicality and ease of operation, while also leading other carmakers into devising their own methods of seat-folding. The Honda Jazz (and later Civics) being a case in point, with its Zafira-influenced flip-up seat base arrangement, albeit in sub-compact hatchback form.


Vauxhall was on a winner, right up to the most recent iteration introduced in 2011. Mind you, although mildly trim updated recently, with the introduction of GM’s excellent ‘Whisper Diesel’ 1.6-litre engine to the range, the Zafira has now left the MPV tag behind, Vauxhall preferring to refer to its latest model as ‘Tourer’ instead. Old cynic that I am, the Zafira remains a notional MPV to me, although its outstanding refinement and cosseting on-road manners would seem to underscore the touring capabilities rather better.


In typical MPV form, the Tourer retains its seven-seat arrangement, even though ‘Flex-7’ is now relegated to the realms of Vauxhalls’ past. Yet, five of those seats would be appreciated equally by the owners of elegant family cars of at least one class higher than Zafira. Clad entirely in a mix of perforated leather seat facings, with faux-hide (Morrocana) side bolsters, armchair comfort is very much the order of the day, enhanced with extendible thigh cushions on the front pair. Styled ergonomically, they provide support in all the right places to ensure that long-distance cruising will be very much within most drivers’ and passengers’ capabilities and there is plenty of head, shoulder, arm and leg room available. Whether you consider it to be penny-pinching, or just operator convenience, only the driver’s perch is multi-adjustable with four-way electric lumbar support. The pair of extra, cassette-like seats in the rear are concessions best-suited to children, although smaller adults will find them convenient for short trips, where one rather than two cars would be the preferred transport option.


The view outwards is wonderful, not least because of the depth of the side glazing but primarily due to the panoramic sunroof and the equally impressive panoramic windscreen. While Citroen was one of the first players to adopt a sliding front section of headlining, which glides back usefully into a cavity, the Gallic expression of airiness is accompanied by a cheap mix of trim rattling and taller front seat occupants clashing foreheads with lowered roof section. It is not a user-friendly solution. Thankfully that of the Zafira is somewhat better engineered and even the resulting inverted ‘T’, which carries the rear-view mirror and the various frontal sensors (auto-wipers and lights) within its packaging, is nowhere near as distracting.


Acting sometimes as a sun-blind, the manual action is easy and stops firmly, wherever you wish it to. I found that, apart from low sun ahead, I drew the blind backwards as often as I could, as the view forwards could range from determinedly ‘beetle-browed’ to wondrously light and airy, another means by which to remove the claustrophia that exists in many MPVs. The windscreen features an ultra-violet ray deflection coating that inhibits glare, although vision into the front of the car is also limited.


Another useful convenience factor lies in the ‘Flex-Rail’ centre console system that carries both storage bins and drinks holders and which can be slid fore and aft in its various sections. To be fair, it is not of much use to middle-row occupants but the amount of useful space, supported by twin dashboard bins ahead of the front passenger and deep door pockets, will answer many paraphernalia security requirements. Incidentally, the rear luggage space is immense (710 litres), because the flip-up rearmost seats fold flat within the floor. Access to it is easy and removing items from the completely flat boot-floor is made easier by the lack of lip. Naturally, the middle row of three seats can be folded individually, or altogether, to maximise the rear space. However, there is another nice flourish in the cockpit, which comes from the red illuminated strips that run on either side of the centre console and in all door trims.


As the latest Astra model will surely gift its less cluttered dashboard controls to Zafira Tourer in the next generation of the car, while Vauxhall owners will be familiar with the cluster of confusing buttons, it can take some time for strangers to the centre console to navigate their ways around the micro-switches. They are neither logical to look at, nor operate with any efficacy. Yet, the usual steering column stalks operate with a durable and dependable touch sensitivity, even though the ‘information panel’, which displays in a glaring red, needs to be dimmed down somewhat to make it more legible.


Externally, the Zafira Tourer follows the style theme already established by other models from the brand. One of the improvements made with the recent upgrade is a change to the headlight units, to incorporate the day-time running lamps. However, the rest of the car is very stylish and enhanced by the lower chrome trim on the side windows and the chrome bar across the rear hatchback. It is offset by the 17-inch alloy wheels fitted uniquely to this Elite trimmed model.


As mentioned earlier, the latest 1.6-litre turbo-diesel engine powers the Tourer and delivers a solid 133bhp, accompanied by a sturdy 236lbs ft of torque at a lowly peak of 2,000rpm. The resultant spread of usable potency makes this car a truly superb open-road cruiser. A delightful six-speed manual transmission slices up and down the ratios as speedily as you wish. Economy testing the car on my customary 50-miles repeatable route, I did struggle to attain the 68.9mpg Official Combined guide figure, although I felt that 57.4mpg was a most respectable and readily achievable return. This dipped to 39.3mpg, when turning on the performance, which is still a good figure.


The exhaust emits a low 109g/km CO2, which equates to zero VED in year one and £20 annually thereafter (until the new excise duty regulations come in next year), aided by the ‘stop:start‘ facility. Insurance is rated at Group 16E, which makes it equally cost-effective. Given its head, the Zafira Tourer is said to be capable of 120mph, despatching the 0-60mph sprint in around 10.4 seconds, which means that it is more than competent in most average driving situations.


Finally, its handling envelope complies with its Touring model description. While body roll is well contained by judicious damper action, the suspension springing is not too firm, which affords a comfortable ride quality and a pleasingly loping gait. Only very minor cross-tarmac road surface imperfections upset otherwise smooth and fluent progress.


Conclusion:     Pricing the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer Elite at £27,930 might be termed a bit ‘steep’, were it not for the fact that the test model is actually very highly specified, although most buyers will probably opt for the full range of equipment anyway. Comfortable, spacious and good looking, the Tourer meets people-carrying needs to perfection and yet amplifies its role as either a family, or business vehicle.