Motoring: Road Test - I'd rather take the Scenic route

We'll all be driving MPVs soon. But maybe not this one. By John Simister

Ask a child to draw a car. What would you get? At one time, a car with a bonnet, a roof, and a boot sticking out of the back. As drawn now, the boot has disappeared because most modern cars are hatchbacks. And within a decade, children could well be drawing cars that look like slope-nosed vans with windows.

The industry predicts that the majority of us will be driving mini-MPVs, the solution to a problem you didn't know you had. The breed's current generic is the Renault Megane Scenic, a spectacular sales success which mixes a full-size MPV's versatility with the compactness of a hatchback. The Scenic is everywhere. And where are its rivals?

For a bafflingly long time, they were nowhere to be seen - unless you count the smaller Mercedes A-class. Now, though, the Vauxhall Zafira has arrived to end Renault's two years of hay-making, and others are poised to follow.

While acknowledging the Scenic's success, Vauxhall moves the game on - thanks to an idea dubbed FLEX7. Here we have an MPV for every purpose. It's slightly bigger than a Scenic and, like the Renault, it borrows heavily from a mainstream hatchback (in this case the Astra), but it has seven seats to the Scenic's five. Proper seats, too.

It's a packaging masterpiece - so good that you might never discover the rearmost seats if you didn't already know they were there. They hide in the rear floor when not in use, with a floor-mat to disguise the evidence. You want to convert your Zafira from five-seater-with-huge-boot to seven- seater-with-need-for-a-roof-box? Proceed as follows:

Slide forward middle seat row. (It's a single, three-seater bench, more of which anon.) Remove rear floor-mat, pull handle on back of flattened, face-down rear seat. Top of its backrest is pulled out of hiding place under middle seats, entire seat unit does somersault resulting in cushion part rotating through slightly more than 180 and backrest part clicking into place against strategically-placed bracket. Repeat with other rearmost seat, open small box between seats to discover seat-belt clasps, slide middle seat row back again. You now have a seven-seat Zafira.

Even better, you haven't had to haul heavy seats from your garage to the car, nor have you gouged pieces of trim or sworn at recalcitrant catches. And that middle seat? It's all in one unit, so you can't fold it away in sections (apart from lowering or reclining the backrest halves separately), and neither can you take it right out. But you can hinge up the cushion to verticality, hinge the backrest more upright to make a seat sandwich, and slide the whole lot right forward. The result is extremely spacious.

Other promising attributes abound, too. The dashboard is curvier and smarter than the Astra's, and there are 10 cupholders so three of the occupants can have two drinks on the go, and it should feel good to drive given the current Astra's aptitude here. And it even has black plastic wheel-arch lips, like GTIs used to have.

We can deduce from this that the Zafira is aimed at young, family types who have grown out of their sporty hatchbacks but want something a bit more lifestyle-y. More's the pity, then, that for all its clever components, the Zafira as a whole is about as sexy as a taxi-cab. Yet the Scenic hits the spot, oozes adaptiveness of outlook and carefree spontaneity of activity. Why?

Maybe it's because the Scenic is rounded and curvy and looks like a topologically-distorted Renault Megane hatchback. The Zafira has the more conventional outline of bigger MPVs, and tilts at utility. I reckon that changing the shape of the rearmost side windows would achieve the switch from minibus to family capsule. Emphasise the wedgy waistline, sweep the windows' baseline upwards - job done. Possibly.

There are three trim levels, and three engines: 1.6 litres, 1.8 litres, and a 2.0-litre, direct-injection turbodiesel. I've driven the first two of these, beginning with the 1.8. It felt quite lively but its short-legged gearing, the better to pull a load of people, made for fussy cruising. The view out was as panoramic as an MPV's always is, except for when the screen pillars got in the way, and the steering had a sporting crispness to it.

Where the 1.8 went wrong was in its ability to stay serene over undulating roads. It heaved and wobbled about, even with a light load on board, thereby hinting at inadequate rear suspension damping. "It's an early example," said Vauxhall. "Try another one."

So I did: a 1.6. It proved slower, obviously, but still sufficiently speedy and muscular to do its job. But the ride quality felt just the same, suggesting that the suspension remains in an unfinished state. Until that is sorted out, this family car of the future, though full of clever ideas, remains in a state of suspension.

Specifications

Vauxhall Zafira 1.8

Prices: pounds 16,250 (Comfort), pounds 17,500 (Elegance).

Engine: 1,796cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 115bhp at 5,400rpm.

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 115mph, 0-60 in 11.7sec, 28-33mpg

Rivals:

Mercedes-Benz A190: pounds 17,990. Smaller, but infinitely more intriguing - especially now that it boasts a sporty new 1.9-litre engine.

Mitsubishi Space Star 1.8 GDI GLS: pounds 15,335. Like the other rivals, this is a five-seater only. Lively and roomy, but with a bland interior.

Renault Megane Scenic 2.0 RXE: pounds 16,920. The original mini-MPV, and still the best all-round buy on the market. A facelift will take place soon.

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