By on November 3, 2008

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.

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25 Comments on “Review: 2009 Vauxhall Zafira...”

  • avatar

    wow 36mpg highway is impressive, even if the rest of the car is dull. Sounds like they got inspiration from toyota or honda…dull, functional, great mpg. What was msrp over there?
    Do we have any 7 passenger carriers here in the US that hit 36mpg highway?

    Edit: What was msrp over there?

  • avatar

    Small people movers like this exist in the US – Mazda5, Kia Rondo, but are far from the mainstream yet. GM planned to bring a small people mover to the US – the Chevy Orlando, but put that on ice. The Zafira would make a great Saturn though.

  • avatar

    Be thankful it wasn’t a Toyota Innova. My white box, despite being RWD has sucked the very soul out of me… until I realized I could drift the sucker on sandy highways in the desert.

    No go out and get an Alfa wagon!

  • avatar

    Entertaining review, thank you!

    But, you’re saying we shouldn’t bash GM for not bringing this thing in the US, yet they would be trillionaires if they did?

    I believe the later, they should (have) put even more euro or asian design elements, even boring, in their NA cars.

    I enjoy the early morning car reviews on TTAC, keep up the good work!


  • avatar

    The dash and door panel look like sandpaper. Do my eyes deceive me or was Justin’s right arm exfoliated?

  • avatar

    It’s supposed to be dull, it’s a peoples mover. The only thing that people are interested in when buying this thing is that it can haul their three children and stuff, and has decent fuel economy. European suburbia is smack packed with these and other ssimilar ones. Not to mention that it is one of the most common taxi cabs.

  • avatar

    It makes me think of a miniature sprinter, though the sticker was probably closer to the real thing.

  • avatar

    Have you driven a Kia Rondo? If so, how does the Zafira compare?

    I very much want something like this that is fun to drive. Maybe the 240-horse engine would do it. Or maybe Ford’s similar S-Max.

    Justin, any chance you can go back and do a comparo between the two?

  • avatar

    Robstar: The list price is £20,880, so at today’s rate that’s $33,500.

    Ingvar: It’s quite common as a taxi I guess, although here in Newcastle more than half the cabs I see are Skoda Octavias.

  • avatar

    European MSRP doesn’t really say much…When cars come to America they are usually halve the price all of a sudden. Basically it is an Astra with added space like the review says, so best bet is to add about 2 maybe 3 thousand to the Saturn Astra prices if you wanted to estimate what this would be.

    No go out and get an Alfa wagon!

    Or not. Despite the 159 being beautiful, it’s a mostly GM spec chassis, as are many of the engines. In fact, if you choose the diesel, you’ll basically get the same one as this Vauxhall has (because GM robbed Alfa’s JTDs and paid a couple of billion for it eventually). Anyway, the 159 is too heavy and doesn’t drive like an Alfa. Alfa acknowledged that and is considering cutting the model cycle of the 159 short.
    You could drive an older 156 though. Or the new Mito. Or the Brera/Spider, but then again, that would be the same story as the 159. Best wait for the 149.

  • avatar
    John R

    Yeah, it might be (would have been) interesting to see GM bring that over and give the Mazda 5 some comp, but I fear it would meet the same fate as the Astra. Too expensive.

  • avatar

    I rented one of the prior gen Zafira diesel MPVs when I went to the UK in 2005, and found it much like driving a tractor crossed with a VW microbus.

    More power than a microbus but sounded like a tractor. Steering column tilted as if I were driving a BUS.

    My poor left leg about cramped up until I couldn’t stand it (couldn’t figure out what the matter was initially). Then it dawned on me – while I initially learned on a stick shift in 1973, I hadn’t really had one for ages. And the clutch pedal on my rental Zafira was about as “light” as driving a Duece And A Half Dodge truck back in the Air Force days…

    They build this in Brazil (with flex-fuel gas/E85 four cylinder engine no less) – and obviously this would provide for a lower price-point.

    Question is – will GM survive long enough to get any to your neighborhood Saturn dealer? Will they even try? I doubt it and seriously doubt it.

  • avatar

    The reason vehicles like this rarely, if ever, make the jump is that they make it very hard to sell the larger, higher-margin crossovers. The same is true of wagons.

    Take Mazda, for example. They cannot charge 20% more for the 6 wagon over the sedan, and there’s a limit to what people will pay for the 5, but they can charge the moon for the CX-7 and CX-9. That Mazda even sells the 5 amazes me, because there are suits at Mazda NA who are probably twitching about lost CX-9 sales. In this respect, Mazda is quite forward-thinking: in bad times, people still want frugal people-movers.

    Saturn has the same problem: the Zafira (and Meriva, and Aura/Vectra wagon/hatch) would cannibalize Outlook (and Vue) sales, and would do so for lower margins. And GM is nothing if not a slut for high-margin cars. Never mind that the Zafira, Meriva and Vectra wagons would give Saturn a reason to exist, would allow GM to concentrate on the Traverse and Malibu, and would give them entries in a space that, in North America, is dominated by weak players (Mazda, Kia, VW).

  • avatar

    Kia, a weak player? Not where I live.

    Over the last (3rd) quarter, in the Grand Traverse region of (northwestern lower) Michigan, the top selling new vehicles have been:

    1. Kia Optima
    2. Chevrolet C/K pickup
    3. Kia Rio
    4. Kia Sportage
    5. Saturn Vue
    6. Honda CRV
    7. Hyundai Sonata
    8. Chrysler Town & Country
    9. GMC C/K pickup
    10. Kia Spectra.

    Amazing, no?

  • avatar

    Kia, a weak player? Not where I live.

    I should clarify: “weak” as in “doesn’t have GM’s dealer network or infrastructure”.

    Kia and Mazda are tiny next to GM, yet both have carved out a niche for themselves in a way that GM should, but hasn’t, managed to do with Saturn. GM has products, like the Zafira, that could compete in that space and would get them traction in the urban, higher-margin markets they fail in right now, but for whatever reason they don’t seem to want to try.

    Where I am you can’t move without seeing a 5 or Rondo, and it’s more noticeable the nearer to Toronto you get: all Civics, Matrixes and Mazda3s. Even the Astra is starting to move, albeit slowly and in spite of GM’s best efforts to hamstring the thing.

  • avatar

    I can never judge a car that I never drove.

    This car reminds me of the Pontiac Vibe. It might have the same handling.

  • avatar

    Given the rash of recent complaints about obnoxious transmission programming, a forgettable transmission is probably a virtue…

  • avatar

    Every report I’ve read says the Ford version of this type of car is a lot better.

  • avatar

    The Ford S-Max is actually a class above the Zafira in Europe, and is actually a fair bit larger, so comparisons between the two aren’t really valid. One might compare the Ford Focus C-Max to the Zafira.

    I think these types of vehicles will catch on in North America once gas prices go back up and stay there. Like other posters have said, the Mazda5 is VERY popular in Canada. It is really a shame that GM didn’t have the foresight to bring a competitive car like the Zafira over while it was still fresh. If GM did decide to bring this over now, it would already be dated, much like the current Astra. I don’t think the problem with the Astra is that there isn’t enough advertising or awareness, it is that the product looks and feels dated compared to newer vehicles. Hasn’t the current Astra been around in Europe since 2003-2004?

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    changsta :

    The Ford S-Max is actually a class above the Zafira in Europe, and is actually a fair bit larger, so comparisons between the two aren’t really valid. One might compare the Ford Focus C-Max to the Zafira.

    That was my understanding, too. But the thing is, there’s plenty of pricing overlap between the Zafira and S-Max (the same could be said of the 3-Series and 5-Series, of course). But also, with the Zafira available with 7 seats, it’s tough to compare it to the 5-seat only C-Max.

  • avatar

    I have one! A 2002 1.8 liter 16 valve model and I love it. I bought it used with around 30.000 miles and one previous owner last year for US$9000 and change. My wife uses every day to get my daughter to preschool, complete with her wheelchair (she has CP). I have a 1997 Citroen Xantia TurboCT.

    I agree completly with the forgetable part. Its a boring, slow, people mover. But believe it or not, I’ve taken my mother, one of my brothers, a couple of his friends, my wife and my daughter on a 3 hour trip to the beach, complete with a mountain pass, and the thing just moves people with ease.

    Mine is also a ‘CD’ model, which is the top of the line model sold where I live. Top of the line for a 2002 Zafira includes (don’t laugh): automatic transmission, dual air conditioners (one for the rear passengers with separate controls),a cassette radio with steering wheel controls and 4 airbags.

    And of course, its ‘coal’ inside :)

  • avatar

    So what if it is boring?

    36mpg is just awesome. This would be a great replacement for our 1st gen CR-V 5 spd.

    You might call it boring but it is no worse than our aged CR-V which at 166K miles has been a very, very useful if somewhat unrefined vehicle due to slow acceleration, road noise, and engine noise. Note that it has never been underpowered or slow on the interstate but it might not meet the expectations in ride, speed, power, noise, etc for a certain portion of the American buying public.

    Next time I want something as good and useful as our beloved CR-V but with slightly better mileage. It gets a reliable 26 mpg these days tank after tank but we want something that gets 30 mpg or better. The Zafira’s 36 mpg would be even better and a stick would be welcome.

    GM might think they might not be able to sell these to the aversge American and they might have trouble b/c the average consumer is so fickle. Wants mixed up with needs. That said Honda sold alot of those unrefined CR-Vs and Elements but Honda went the extra mile and made their products last.

    I think this review might simply suffer from an author with a differnt set of expectations in a vehicle. It’s not a bad vehicle – it just doesn’t meet what he likes in a vehicle. Get me a Zafira in TN or send me to England and I think my review would read differntly.

    I hope the Zafira comes to a Saturn dealshership near us. I’ll certainly give it a close look in about 40K more miles.

  • avatar

    Yet another vehicle that screams for a small diesel engine.
    I know the HD pickups corner the diesel market, but if people could actually drive these sized SUVs/CUVs/wagons with a 2.0L diesel, they’d buy one in a second provided they had access to diesel.
    To the earlier post(s) about high Euro/low dollar prices – we are VERY lucky here in the states with our vehicle taxes on every front – fuel, import, sales, licensing, etc. If you want to wince while reading a website, compare a midsized car from Holden Australia to, say, an imported Honda Accord Euro/Accord. OUCH!!!

    Which reminds me – are there any Holden drivers out there that could put a review or two on this site? Just curious.

  • avatar

    Had one of these in Spain a couple of years ago, with delivery kilometerage on the clock. After a week of trying to climb the 1-in-3 slope to the villa there was a load “clang” from underneath – the weight of 3 brits and 2 ‘merkins caused an engine mount to break. So they gave us a replacement which was exactly the same.

    It was fine up to about 130 km/h but wandered at anything more.

  • avatar

    I had a Zafira 2.2 direct on an 03 plate and i was extremely impressed with its power and performance it is a very pratical car and is ideal for the family man i have 4 children and it seats them all comfortably, I have just changed my car and now have a 09 Zafira with a 1.9 cdti which is not as powerful on pull off then the 2.2 but once the turbo kicks in it really does move and I have the auto which is a six speed and really smooth when changing up the diesel is very noisey and with the windows down you can really hear it no some thing you want early in the morning or late at night i’ve only done 140 miles in it so far and the pull off seems to be getting better but not perfect. The rear seats are small but I’m 5ft 8 and i can sit comfortly in the back in them overall i would give this car 4 out of 5 as it fills all of my needs and with the quick seat change it can be a great car for loading up.

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