Instead, they fold flat or disappear into the floor, making it a breeze to alter the interior layout. You don't need muscles, and you barely need to read the handbook to start changing the seat configuration thanks to Vauxhall's determination to use switches and levers which match those commonly found in its hatchbacks and estates. FLEX7's ingenious design will be warmly welcomed by anyone who has ever tried to remove, or more accurately, replace a seat in other MPVs.
These seats are heavy, they gather mud and damp (which can then block runners) if deposited on a pavement or lawn after removal, they are bulky items to store which is a real problem if you don't have a garage, and reinstalling them is a tricky task even for two people, with the seats showing the same respect for hands and fingers as an Arab court sentencing a thief.
On the other hand, removable seats do create optimum flexibility, especially where boot space is the primary requisite. The Renault Scenic, for example, which is about an inch shorter and narrower than the Zafira has 1,800 litres of rear storage space, compared with the Zafira's 1,700 litres.
But if you regularly require that degree of boot space you're probably better off with a van, and the majority of Zafira buyers are more likely to use the seats than fold them flat. And in such family mode, the small MPV-based on the Astra's platform - fares well, offering a load volume of 600 litres with five seats in place - 120 litres more than in the spacious Astra estate. Much of this extra space is gained in height, rather than depth, and the Zafira features a practical low-loading height.
Extra space can be generated at the expense of the legroom of middle row passengers, with the second row of seats able to slide forward by 200mm. Judicious adjustment of this middle row is necessary when the Zafira has to become a seven-seater, because while leg room is adequate, and certainly more generous than in other lower medium hatchbacks, the second row has to compromise its space to ensure a more comfortable position for the back seat passengers.
Even people six feet tall can comfortably fit into the rearmost seats, thanks to angled seat squabs and a raised roof line, although access is awkward for the arthritic. It can also be an anxious ride for those who live in fear of a rear end shunt, for while the Zafira's crumple zone protects the whole passenger area, Vauxhall engineers recommend the middle row is used before the rear seats. Boot space declines sharply too in seven-seater mode, to just 150 litres, less than half the space available in the Astra hatchback's boot, and making the car an unlikely companion for a seven-strong family on holiday.
It is, however, a fine driver's car offering an exceptionally refined drive, with an excellent ride and decent handling for such a tall vehicle. The only gripes are large A-pillars which can obscure vision when turning to the right, and rather short windscreen wipers which may clear a space equivalent to a hatchback's field of vision, but still leave a significant area of glass untouched.
Zafira designers have worked harder to keep the car's centre of gravity as low as possible, with a reconfigured fuel tank fitting under the seats, and while it remains to be seen how the Zafira behaves in front of the scariest elk, on snaking mountain roads its 15in wheels gripped well. Drivers will have to accept that the height of the driving position means MPVs of any variety will never provide the feel or balance of lower-slung saloons and hatchbacks, but the Zafira's 1.6 and 1.8-litre petrol engines are no sluggards, and a high performance diesel will follow.
A 200-mile road trip on a variety of roads in Portugal to test the petrol engines suggested that families who regularly fill the full seven seats are better off with the larger 1.8-litre 115bhp unit. With three adults and their luggage on board, this engine pulled up long inclines with ease and remarkable refinement, emitting a feisty growl when pushed.
Its EC combined fuel consumption is only 0.8mpg worse than that of the 100bhp 1.6 (33.2mpg compared to 34mpg), which appears a price worth paying, although the 42.8mpg 2.0Di becomes available in the autumn it may well prove the best option of all when it goes on sale in the autumn. The 1.6 Zafira will be the entry level model, with prices pencilled in at about £14,500, and its standard specification includes electric front windows, remote central locking, tinted, heat insulating glass, a load area cover and halogen headlights.
With so much glass around, however, air conditioning is more of a necessity than a luxury, and it is standard fit on the Zafira Comfort, which also gains a height and reach adjustable steering wheel, electrically heated and operated door mirrors and roof rails. The top of the range Zafira Elegance adds ABS, a CD-stereo, leather steering wheel, fog lights, six-spoke alloy wheels and chrome trim on the grille.
Automatic transmission is an option with the 1.8-litre petrol engine, and includes a sport setting for rapid driving, but while this will undoubtedly be popular for urban school runs, it may not be appropriate for many Zafira customers.
For one thing, the automatic interrupts the feel of the engine braking, which can be disconcerting for a newcomer to an MPV, and secondly, with a full complement of passengers or cargo on board, the greater flexibility of a manual gearbox will probably be preferable.
Overall, the Zafira represents a sturdy and handsome addition to the swelling ranks of MPVs. It has a solid Teutonic feel about it, and the FLEX7 seats are a genuine stroke of genius. As a five-seater alternative to a lower medium estate car it provides an enticing, if more expensive choice, but for drivers who regularly need to carry both seven adults and even a limited amount of luggage, the Zafira is too small. Yet such limitations have not held back the Scenic's runaway success, and Renault will have a real fight on its hands to retain business in a sector of the market which is rapidly losing its niche tag and moving into the mainstream.
Fleets are expected to account for half of Vauxhall Zafira sales when the car goes on the market in May. Vauxhall expects to sell 25,000 Zafiras in 2000, including a 10% migration from large MPVs, 40% from lower medium cars, and 50% from upper medium cars. The majority of conquests from the car sector will currently be driving estates, and Vauxhall sees a real opportunity in the business sector for fleets to use the Zafira as a work vehicle on Monday to Friday, before changing it back to a family wagon at the weekend.
Significantly, more than half the target Zafira buyers will be conquest business for Vauxhall, which views the new MPV as its fourth brand after Corsa, Astra and Vectra, rather than a niche product. Pricing will be critical, although Vauxhall insists the Zafira's wholelife costs will be strong thanks to high residual values and service and maintenance bills identical to those of the Astra.
Bill Parfitt, Vauxhall's fleet operations director, said: 'We think fleet managers will welcome the Zafira on to their choice lists, and we are looking forward to some very keen contract hire rates.' He said prices would range between £14,500 and £17,500, crossing the top end of the Astra range and the lower part of the Vectra range.
The outstanding issue is whether Vauxhall charges a premium for the Zafira over the Astra estate in the same way that the estate carries a £750 supplement over the five-door hatch. At least Vauxhall has the advantage that its three trim levels - Zafira, Zafira Comfort and Zafira Elegance - avoid direct comparison with Envoy, LS Club, CD, CDX and Sport which feature in the Astra.
Renault charges a premium of between £1,000 and £2,000 for the Scenic over an equivalent Megane hatchback. Its entry level Scenic 1.6RN hits the road at about £13,000 with a similar spec to the Zafira, so Vauxhall cannot afford to be too confident in its pricing.