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Car reviews - Holden - Zafira - 5-dr people-mover

Our Opinion

We like
Seven-seat capacity, seating versatility, engine performance, vehicle dynamics
Room for improvement
Sombre interior, use of a lap belt, premium entry price, safety equipment level

30 Aug 2001

FOR Australian families looking for an alternative to a small four-wheel drive, station wagon or medium-sized people mover, Holden's new Zafira should tempt like no other vehicle before it.

The reason is straightforward. No other manufacturer - not even Renault with its clever little Scenic - has found a combination quite like this one.

Others, including the French, have created an attractive, compact wagon that leaves a large amount of room within. They've piled on equipment, found superb storage solutions and installed seats that perform callisthenic feats.

But none have introduced all of the above with a seven-seater and without the need to remove either seats or head restraints.

Drop off some furniture at gran's, pick up the kids, return home - convenience is at the core of this Euro star.

And more than that, Zafira is a leader in its class when it comes to engine performance and road manners that stem from its Astra underpinnings and comprehensive engineering work undertaken for Aussie conditions.

Rather than make a pre-emptive strike with the Astra's 1.8-litre engine, Holden waited for a new-generation 2.2-litre unit - soon to appear in other Opel-sourced European cars - to surface.

The benefits soon become apparent. Despite being more than 140kg heavier than its chief rivals, Zafira has no problem moving its mass and a nuclear family around the suburbs and beyond.

Sure, engine performance will suffer when seven people are aboard. No prizes for guessing that one. But charged with shifting the more relevant mix of two parents, two or three kids and their cargo, the 2.2 impresses with its strong pulling power, its clean-revving and quiet nature and, a rarity among four-cylinders, the good pairing it makes with the smooth-shifting - though at times partial to gear-hunting - four-speed automatic transmission.

A return of 11.1 litres per 100km over our test loop also earned it praise.

In the handling stakes, the Zafira is the closest this type of vehicle has come to behaving like a passenger car.

It sacrifices some ride comfort to get there, and the high centre of gravity ensures it does not acquit itself as well as, say, the Astra. Yet the vehicle maintains excellent control during directional changes and delivers an unanticipated amount of grip.

An impetuous approach to cornering will soon reduce front-wheel adhesion - another given for this class - however, the effective (non-switchable) traction control system keeps a tight rein on excesses. Fitment of four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) helps, too.

The package does not come without its drawbacks. A whistle off the wing mirrors arrives at highway speeds, the front windscreen wipers should have a broader sweep and the (otherwise viceless) steering gives rise to kickback across rippled corners.

Most important of all, European NCAP crash testers have criticised the performance of Zafira's restraint systems and warned that the bodyshell could pose risks in a severe accident.

Despite the inclusion of dual front airbags, this makes the absence of side and curtain airbags, rear seatbelt pretensioners and three-point seatbelts for all occupants (the second row uses an inferior lap belt in the centre position) - all of which are found on the Scenic - all the more striking.

The driver is well catered for with a car-like seating position, steering wheel height and reach adjustment, seat height adjustment, cruise control and supportive, firm seats. On the flipside, front seat travel is limited and the small driver's footrest does not suit size-10 feet.

As is the case with most "Opel-Holdens", the cockpit is dark and sombre but the instrument cluster and dash fascia are uncluttered and functional. Placement and layout of stereo and temperature controls, for example, is first-rate.

The so-called Flex7 seating arrangement will doubtless be Zafira's biggest drawcard.

There is negligible cargo space when the two individual rear seats are upright, however, the conversion to six or five seats - and liberation of a useful amount of room - is a simple matter of sliding the middle row forward, pressing the release button on either rear seat and letting it fall neatly into the floor recess.

An excellent 540mm of travel is provided for the centre row bench seat, allowing plenty of either legroom or cargo space. Versatility is further aided by the inclusion of a skiport in the centre position, a 60/40 split-fold in the seatback and another easy vertical fold operation that allows the entire bench to slide up neatly against the front seats, leaving a flat floor and space akin to a commercial van.

There's not enough room for a trio of adults or baby seats across the centre bench, though placement of anchorage points on the seatback saves the latter from impinging on the slide function. Sash height adjustment on the window seats also improves the seatbelt fit for children.

That said, child seats must nonetheless be removed to allow access to the rear seats, further complicating an awkward two-lever tilt/slide movement of the centre row that does not return to its original position.

Once there, rear-seat occupants will find enough room for the head, shoulders and feet, though legroom and ultimate comfort depends on where the centre row is positioned. With all rows in use, someone is sure to be cramped.

Storage solutions are plentiful but not nearly as clever as the Renault Scenic - there are no under-seat trays, under-floor bins, front seatback pockets or overhead options, while the twin-tray arrangement at the outer side of the front seats is useful for small items but unsuitable for a large street directory.

Luggage tie-down hooks and holes in the headlining for an optional cargo net are provided, as are head restraints for all positions. Yet centre occupants miss out on cup holders and electric windows.

All up, this is a package that commands attention and deserves to succeed. The one lingering concern is its secondary safety credentials - and when it comes to the crunch, this could be the deciding factor for potential buyers.

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