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Holden Zafira MPV


There are cars you just can't wait to drive.

The Holden Monaro fits into that category as does Ford's T-Series Falcon or Jaguar's X-Type.

Then there are cars you're indifferent about; we won't name names.

Or cars that spring a real surprise, that creep up on you and knock you out - or at least a little off-kilter.

Holden's Zafira Multi Purpose Vehicle (MPV) fits the last-mentioned category.

MPVs generally don't appeal to me. Usually I have only one passenger and no great need to carry a load greater than the weekly supermarket shopping. All those extra seats are wasted, and I'd rather have a car with four doors and a regular boot.

MPVs also tend to be dynamically inferior to equivalent saloons. They're a little slower usually, a little less precise in their handling, a little - well - duller. Those factors can often be traced to the MPV's origin as a van.

But increasingly small to medium MPVs are based on car chassis, and Holden's first foray into MPV country is based on the Opel Astra front-wheel drive medium/small car (the Zafira is also sold with Opel and Vauxhall badges).

The Zafira takes the Astra platform and clothes it in spacious monobox bodywork that houses a flexible seating layout (Holden calls the car a flexible wagon).

The Zafira has three rows of seats which allow it to be converted from a five-seater to a seven-seater for hauling a team of kids around, to a cargo-carrying two-seater workhorse.

And the seats all stay in the car. The middle and rear rows of seats use a folding and sliding system to create a flat floor. They can be raised quickly to convert the car back to a people rather than freight carrier.

GM builds the Zafira at Rayong, Thailand, and Holden engineers were extensively involved in beefing up the car to cope with Australian conditions.

Steve Manson, the managing engineer for Holden's Asia/Pacific Engineering, says the aim was to build an MPV that performs, rides and handles with the responsiveness and agility of a sedan.

The Zafira is aimed largely at private buyers.

The Zafira comes as one model with a high-torque 2.2 litre DOHC ECOTEC engine, teamed with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. Standard equipment includes dual airbags, ABS anti-skid braking and traction control, air-conditioning, power steering, cruise control, remote-central locking, single play dashboard-mounted Compact Disc player, front power windows and heated side mirrors.

Responses to styling are always highly-personal, but the Zafira manages to be contemporary without polarising extremes of design.

It lacks the quirkiness of Citroen's Xsara Picasso or the 4WD version of the Renault Scenic.

There's a practicality and cleanness of design about the Holden's lines that perhaps reflect its German origins. There's nothing flashy, it's towards the conservative end of the spectrum. But it's neat and tidy and not likely to offend anyone's sensibilities.

We racked up well over 1000 kilometres in the Zafira, much of them in a long down-country trip in atrocious weather conditions.

Frankly I wasn't looking forward to driving nearly 900km in the Zafira in pouring rain and on greasy-wet roads.

The car had felt okay around town, cruised well on the motorway.

But the right vehicle for a relatively high-pressure long distance drive? I kept thinking about Commodores or Falcons. Better still a Subaru Impreza: RX or WRX would do nicely.

But the alternative was my old Toyota Corona so the Zafira won by default.

How wrong I was. Once we were under way we soon settled into a rhythm, the Zafira and I.

The steering was nicely-weighted and gave good feel; we lost front-end grip only once on a particularly greasy piece of road; the engine provided good useable power; the four-speed auto shifted well, changed down quickly when gradients got steeper.

Roadholding was excellent and the car turned-in to corners smoothly and quickly.

We made surprisingly-brisk progress.

The weather got worse on the homeward journey and as the day turned dark by 4.15pm the good headlights and effective windscreen wipers came into their own.

I broke the journey as night fell and resumed the next morning on dry roads.

Here the Zafira proved to have taut, responsive handling. The chassis balance and roadholding were good enough to carry straightaway speed through corners. Very few corners needed much in the way of braking.

The 2.2-litre, 16 valve engine develops 108kW of power at 5800rpm and 203Nm of peak torque at 4000rpm. That's enough to give the Zafira a good turn of speed. In fact, you need to keep a good watch on the speedometer to make sure you don't stray above the limit in open-road cruising.

The only dynamic glitch I found in the car was the front quarter blindspot caused by the chunky A-pillar on the driver's side of the car.

Manson, who drives a Zafira as day-to-day transport, says you soon get used to compensating for the pillar's thickness and change the way you look forward and to the right.

The controls are well-placed, the seats comfortable and the instruments are placed where they should be - straight ahead of the driver.

The Zafira's seating system - Holden calls it Flex 7 - uses three rows of seats (2-3-2). A simple mechanism allows the individual rear seats to be folded beneath the floor line, or unfolded, in seconds. With the two rear seats stowed, Zafira carries five people. The second row bench seat can travel back or forwards by up to 540mm, providing up to 640 litres of additional luggage space. Seating positions are high, offering good all-round vision for the driver and passengers.

To make use of its maximum cargo capacity of 1700 litres, the Zafira's second row seats can be folded and secured against the front seat backs. The high opening of the rear hatch and a low loading sill make loading easy, and the carpeted load floor is flat.

The second row bench seat also split-folds 60/40 and has a through-loading hatch in the centre which can take long objects like skis. When all seven seats are in use, there are 150 litres of storage space behind the rear seats.

Holden says the Zafira achieves fuel consumption of 9 litres/100km on the city cycle and 6.8 litres/100km on the highway cycle (manual transmission) and 10 litres/100km city cycle and 6.6 litres highway cycle with the automatic.

Holden is selling around seven Zafiras a month, a tad short of the 100 sales it targeted for the car in its first year on the market.

Renault's Scenic is the star among the small European-developed MPVs, but the more conservatively-styled Zafira's sales are well aheads of the quirky Citroen Picasso.

The Zafira sells for $39,990 with automatic gearbox and $38,990 with the manual.

As we noted at the start of this test, some cars spring a surprise and in some of the worst driving weather we've encountered for quite a long time, the Holden Zafira certainly did.

It was stable - even in quite vicious crosswinds - and its handling and roadholding couldn't be faulted. Manson and his team have done their job well.

AutoPoint road test team; words and pictures by Mike Stock.

Auto Trader New Zealand