Fleet News

Vauxhall Zafira 2.0 GSi Turbo

Vauxhall

Review

##Zafgsi--right##THE car industry has been in existence for more than 100 years, so it would not be unreasonable to assume that manufacturers now build every conceivable type of car to meet the needs of every individual.

But this is not the case as scarcely a year goes by without learning of yet another four-wheel-drive city car or estate cabriolet. I'm being facetious, but Vauxhall is about to unleash on the unsuspecting fleet market the 'hot people carrier'.

This is not to be confused with the 'GTi of MPVs' which was launched this summer in the shape of the Honda Stream. Unusual and quirky though the Stream is with its seven-seat layout and frisky 154bhp 2.0i-VTEC, it cannot hope to compete with the Vauxhall. Making its way to UK showrooms in limited numbers is the Zafira 2.0 GSi Turbo. The car is badged Zafira OPC elsewhere in Europe in recognition of the work done by General Motors' Opel Performance Centre to turn the revolutionary MPV into some kind of fire-breathing monster.

At its heart is the 2.0-litre turbocharged ECOTEC engine as fitted to the Astra Coupe Turbo. Power is up slightly and Opel's engineers have transformed the Zafira chassis and underpinnings to ensure they are up to the task of carrying up to seven people in a rapid, yet safe manner.

The car will use the GSi badge in the UK because people will recognise it from previous high-performance Vauxhalls, and to protect the home-grown brand within GM. If it was badged OPC, Vauxhall says it will lead to speculation that GM was preparing to ditch the company name.

It also marks the first in what will be a series of special high-performance models wearing the GSi badge and developed by OPC. Having such an unusual high-performance variant will also create a 'halo' effect for the rest of the Zafira range.

Vauxhall believes the Zafira GSi Turbo will attract MPV or estate car drivers who want more performance, but haven't been able to indulge their preferences for reasons of practicality.

Conversely, there will also be those drivers who currently drive something a bit racy, but now need extra versatility and convenience.

So the Zafira creates a niche of its own for now, and to find anything remotely similar and off-beat around the £20,000 mark you would have to look to the larger SEAT Alhambra 2.8 or perhaps the Subaru Forester S-Turbo, which did for small off-roaders nearly three years ago what the Zafira GSi Turbo has now done for people carriers.

Vauxhall says only about 1,000 Zafira GSi Turbos will be sold in the UK in a full year, and will be keeping a keen eye on the opposition to see whether anyone will be brave enough to offer an alternative.

Is it inconceivable that there will be a Honda Stream Type-R or Renaultsport Scenic? It doesn't seem so strange now.

Having spent a week behind the wheel of a Honda Stream in August, and preferring its more energetic performance over the 2.2-litre Zafira, I expected the GSi to be merely mildly entertaining.

I also thought the front tyres would be eager to misbehave and the overall driving experience to be a mixture of rapid straight-line performance along with vomit-inducing cornering ability. I imagined I'd be saying at the end of two days with the car that the Zafira GSi Turbo was a pointless exercise.

People who wanted a high performance car would go for a saloon or coupe, while those who wanted versatility would choose a 'normal' MPV.

I am now ready with my grovelling apology to Vauxhall. The Zafira GSi Turbo is excellent. It does have a disconcerting appearance with its deep front spoiler and mesh grilles, and those imposing 17-inch alloy wheels initially look out of place. Its interior, while containing part-leather Recaro front seats, white sports dials and a steering wheel from the Astra Coupe Turbo, retains all the versatility of a conventional Zafira, including the ingenious Flex-seven seating system where the two rearmost seats fold flat when not in use.

As with any range-topping car costing almost £20,000 there is air conditioning, a trip computer, a CD/radio, electric windows and mirrors, while safety features include front and side airbags as well as full-length side curtain airbags.

The GSi is also equipped with ABS including electronic brake force distribution, traction control and an electronic stability programme.

Drive the car up to 2,500rpm and it feels much like any other Zafira, except for a firmer ride. Wake up the turbo, however - and it already has one eye open by the time you reach 2,000rpm - and the Zafira surges forward with breathtaking speed.

The rev limiter seems to come in all too soon in first gear, and by the time you hit it again in second the car is doing 60mph.

You can feel the front tyres struggling to put down the power when accelerating hard, but it doesn't drag the steering wheel in either direction and takes just fractions of a second to build speed cleanly again. The Zafira GSi Turbo is a fun car to drive on challenging roads, too. It offers plenty of grip in even the tightest of corners with a reluctance to understeer unless pushed too hard. The steering is communicative and feels very similar to the Astra Coupe Turbo except that the driving position is much higher and more comfortable.

Vauxhall says that the car should be carrying four people for ideal balance in corners - any less and there is still a hint of body roll before the car squats firmly around the turn.

The longer you drive the Zafira GSi Turbo, the more you appreciate its abilities and the work that has gone in to making driving it such a pleasurable experience.

An experiment on our test, however, showed that the experience is not best enjoyed from the third row of seats. My driving colleague could only stand a few miles of enthusiastic driving from the back of the car before forcing me to pull over, allowing him to return to the front passenger seat where he sat for the remainder of the route requesting a less thorough test of the car's abilities.

The Zafira is also an accomplished low-speed performer, with smooth power delivery and refined engine note. It will punish severe bumps in the road surface but the minor judders over most uneven surfaces is acceptable.

Despite its oddball origins the Zafira and Vauxhall's 2.0- litre turbo engine are more a match made in heaven than Frankenstein's monster.

The car is genuinely practical, and allows the driver to enjoy his or her time behind the wheel when it is not fully laden with passengers.

As a company car there will be a high tax penalty from April 2002, when the Zafira GSi Turbo will be taxed at 30 per cent of its P11D price, but it is such a competent and well-rounded effort that many will see the appeal of having both genuine space and serious pace.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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