In a few years, we might not have much of a domestic car industry anymore. And I’ll be grumpy, because despite all the stupid General Motors made out over the years, from crappy products (Equinox) to crappily built products (everything from 1972 to 2002), they really had some cars that were fascinating to car lovers. And that’s part of why they’re going out of business: they made interesting cars with mediocrity. They should have stuck to Toyota’s business plan and made extremely boring cars very well. In Europe, though, that’s what GM did. I’ve just driven the Vauxhall Zafira, and I can tell you that if GM had it in America they’d be trillionaires. Because it’s the most boring car I’ve ever driven.
My brand new, rented test model is the Vauxhall Zafira SRi 1.9 CDTi. What, pray tell, is a Vauxhall Zafira SRi 1.9 CDTi?, you might be asking. Vauxhall is one of GM’s three European brands. As for the name “Zafira,” it is, of course, is a six to seven passenger people mover. And Zafira is also a Hungarian porn actress, as I learned from Wikipedia. I swear.
The Europeans call cars like this people movers because that’s pretty much all they do. Alternatively, they call them MPVs (multipurpose vehicles). These unimaginative names are appropriate for the Zafira, which is as exciting as Kleenex. Among this class of cars, the closest approximations we have in the top two-thirds of North America would be the Mazda5 and Kia Rondo.
The design of this second generation Zafira looks like a big Saturn Astra, because that’s basically what it is – a big Opel/Vauxhall/Holden/Saturn Astra. While my car-geek eyes tell me the Zafira is a cleverly packaged compact MPV, lay people don’t care about the marketing. My girlfriend appropriately asked “why did you rent us a minivan?”
The interior is just as boring as the exterior. Do you know the color “coal?” It’s like black, but coal. Think of such exciting and uplifting things as: charcoal, coal mines, and uh, coal. The fit and finish for the Zafira is quite good by American standards, but nothing to make you think you’re in a luxury car. In fact, some glaring interior design flaws made me wonder whether anyone tested this car before putting it on sale. The radio buttons on the dashboard, for example, aren’t backlit. Why? Because coal is dark.
Fortunately, the seats are amenable to several passengers, because for heaven’s sake, that’s the Zafira’s raison d’etre. The “Flex 7” system lets you flip, flop, and fold the seats into the floor with great ease, or haul around six passengers in relative comfort. So, mission accomplished? Yes. And once the engineers realized they could fit seven people into the Zafira, and that the seats folded into the floor, they went home. That explains the radio.
We can begin with the 1.9-liter diesel engine. With turbocharging, the engine in my test car was up to 150 horsepower (base is 120), and a respectable 236 lb ft of torque. What this means is that from the outside, the Zafira sounds like a rusty, broken old tractor. With a scorching case of herpes. I’ve heard 20-year old Peugeot 505s in my town with better sounding diesel engines. Behind the wheel, the Zafira’s engine is quieter, but ample road noise makes sure to spoil your conversations.
Hit the gas pedal and whooooa that’s some slow, low torque. It’s like driving a very big, very lazy V8 engine. With plenty of twist available, the Zafira doesn’t hesitate to accelerate, it’s just not a fast process. I never felt that it was slow, or that I’d have trouble merging. But there is absolutely no doubt that the “hot” version with a turbocharged 2.0-liter gas engine and 240 horsepower is the one I’d be buying. Except for the rest of the driving.
The Zafira handles just well enough, just firmly enough, and has just quick enough steering to make it not exciting – good or bad. You don’t have the funny experience of driving a Chrysler minivan, or a Ford Expedition in all of its ponderous glory. That’s what makes the Zafira so painfully dull. It’s not fast, it’s not tippy, it’s not slow. It just moves around adequately enough and then delivered 36 U.S. miles per U.S. gallon on the U.K. highway.
Frankly, I’ve forgotten if the car had a transmission at all, or what color it was painted, or if I left anything in it. The Zafira is what the Men in Black would drive in Europe, because it is completely unmemorable.
So, it’s boring, extremely practical, fuel efficient and boring. Shall we slam GM now for never bringing it to America? Well, no, Americans never dig a car like the Zafira. At least if they had sold it in the U.S. it would have been rare enough to be interesting.