WE HAVE Opel to thank for taking the Multi- Purpose Vehicle concept into a new dimension. With the introduction of its Flex7 seating system in the first-generation Zafira, which was launched in 1999, the German automaker proved it was possible to fit seven people into a relatively compact (less than four-and-a-half metres in length) vehicle, yet not have to hire a warehouse (and a Chippendale) to remove and store the rear seats when that antique sideboard required collecting from gran’s flat. The Zafira’s trick was its ability to keep all its chairs “in house”, so to speak. Other manufacturers were caught napping, surprisingly including the pioneer of European MPVs, Renault. But not all were convinced of the merits of creating a seven-seater, questioning how often anyone might need a 5+2, which, in realistic terms, is a more accurate description when applied to compact MPVs. But there is a demand, enough to encourage Opel to forge ahead and introduce its second-generation Zafira. And with a 1,6-litre version now available locally at entry level, the concept reaches out to a wider audience. The 1,6 appears in Essentia trim spec, at pretty much the same price as the base Toyota Corolla Verso 160 – with its rivalling Easy Flat-7 seating – so a showdown was a natural. And what of those pioneers Renault? Well, the company’s best selling Scénic was stretched to Grand proportions in order to accommodate the extra two seats, but the bigger version carries a 2,0-litre motor at base level, and starts around R30 000 more expensive. However, the Scénic 1,6 Expression is only small-change-different from the Zafira’s cost price, so – with a budget of around R180 000 in mind – we have included it to represent the “five seats is enough” school of thought. Is “+2” really a worthwhile feature? DESIGN Zafira 15/20 Verso 16/20 Scénic 13/20 By definition, MPVs do not leave much scope for innovation with design, being essentially a monovolume format. The previous generation Zafira stood out with its innovative seat layout, but came from a period when Opel’s products were, generally, a bit uninspired, style-wise. This new model certainly addresses that complaint: it is much brighter and breezier than before, and features a variation of Opel’s corporate front end including a bold chrome strip across the grille, matched by a similar strip across the tailgate. Tail-lamps are large and dramatically- styled. Thin black bumper inserts are complemented by black side mouldings, which, together with flared wheelarches, help prevent the profile looking slab-sided. Zafira is the only one of these three with exposed roof rails. There is a triangular window in the base of the A-pillar. Sizewise, the Zafira is 4 467 mm long, 1 645 mm high and 1 801 mm wide, rides on a 2 703 mm wheelbase, and has front/rear tracks of 1 488/1 510 mm, respectively. The Verso is smaller all-round but, significantly, rides on a longer wheelbase – 2 750 mm – which is a big advantage when it comes to interior packaging. Again, a corporate nose is evident, but in profile there is a hint of a “kickedup” roofline at the rear that lends a little character. The glasshouse is notably shallower than the Zafira’s, but crease lines, scallops and flares contrive to successfully disguise the vehicle’s heavy sides. The wraparound tail-lamps are distinctively shaped, but the white lenses are perhaps a bit passé these days. Against the tape, the Verso measures 4 360 mm long, 1 620 mm high, 1 770 mm wide, with front/rear tracks of 1 505/1 495 mm. Note that the model used for photography is the more highly-specced SX model, not the base. As for the Scénic, we are now accustomed to the angular looks that (following the limited life Avantime and Vel Satis) were first thrust on the masses with the Mégane. But subsequent iterations, including that “Renault rump”, have been noticeably softer. In fact, the Scénic’s rear can be accused of being quite bland, having a simple “big hatchback” appearance, but at least the tail-lamps are attractive. Once more, the corporate family face is displayed. A big glasshouse, including a triangular sixth-light (remember this is a five-seater), helps make the Scénic look smaller than it is. Front doors feature a huge quarterlight pane. There are big black bumper inserts, and black, slightly tapered bodyside mouldings to contrast with the body colour. Scénic is as high as the Verso, and only 101 mm shorter, but, at 1 810 mm, is – surprisingly, perhaps – the widest of the three. It sits on a 2 685 mm wheelbase, with front/rear tracks of 1 506/1 514 mm. The photography unit is fitted with optional 16-inch alloy wheels. POWERTRAIN Zafira 13/20 Verso 15/20 Scénic 16/20 All three engines here have a swept volume of 1 598 cm3, feature twin cams, 16 valves with variable induction timing, and driveby- wire throttle actuation. Zafira’s Ecotec motor utilises Opel’s Twinport technology, which basically means each cylinder has two intake ports, one of which is closed by a throttle valve under part load conditions to create greater combustion chamber swirl, and is combined with a limited amount of exhaust gas recirculation to reduce induction losses. By electronically varying the timing of the inlet charge, the engine’s efficiency is optimised. Nonetheless, peak power is the lowest of these three rivals, with 77 kW produced at 6 000 r/min. Maximum torque is on par, though, with 150 N.m developed at 3 900 r/min. The Verso’s well-established VVT-i system alters the inlet valves’ cam timing according to load, and helps deliver 81 kW at 6 000 r/min, and 150 N.m of torque at 3 800. Similarly, the Scénic’s valve timing is achieved by phasing the cam operation, and it boasts a trio-topping 83 kW – also at 6 000 r/min – and 152 N.m of torque, albeit at a slightly peakier 4 200 r/min. In each case, the engines rev willingly, and the gearshifts are a tad notchy but precise in action. A five-speed manual gearbox driving through the front wheels is common to all three. Comparing the powertrains, none are the epitomy of refinement, which is perhaps forgivable because they have to work hard for a living propelling fairly weighty bodies around. And there is the rub. At altitude, fully laden, the seven-seaters in particular are going to struggle, so no matter how attractive these baseliners are, a prospective purchaser needs to assess their loadability versus performance capabilities relative to day-to-day requirements before committing. COMFORT AND FEATURES Zafira 15/20 Verso 14/20 Scénic 14/20 The Zafira’s Flex7 seating has been refined slightly, and remains as good a layout as ever, with the two rear chairs being far from superficial, even to having sidewall armrests and drinkholders. The middle row’s centre position is far narrower than the outers, but its folding backrest can be flipped over to create a wide centre armrest for the benefit of occupants of the other two seats. Three-point seatbelts (height-adjustable for front and middle-outer positions) and height adjustable head restraints are provided for all seats. The driver’s chair has adjustable cushion height. Isofix child seat mountings are incorporated into the middle row’s outer positions. The steering wheel is rake- and reach-adjustable, powered mirrors are standard, and all of the door windows are electric with one-touch up and down. Instruments and controls are conventional, save for the irritating BMW-like auto-centring indicator/headlamp stalk and, oh no!, the wiper/washer one, too… The gear lever sprouts from the centre hangdown section of the facia, and the floor-mounted handbrake is a flat handle design that appealed to some testers, and annoyed others. Manual air-con is fitted, together with a radio/CD front-loader with an odd mix of control buttons. “Clap hands” flat-blade wipers effectively clear the big windscreen. Headlamp beam height adjustment is provided, together with front and rear foglamps. Oddments stowage places include door bins front and rear, a big lockable cubby, and a deep “hole” in the floor console. A tray with a drinkholder “hole” and a mesh map pocket are behind the middle outer seats. With seven seats in place, there is 80 dm3 of luggage space, but with the rear two chairs folded down, boot space grows to an excellent 416 dm3. With the middle seats tucked away, utility space is 1 536 dm3. A retractable/removable luggage cover is supplied. Loading height is 580 mm, and the tailgate rises to 1 870 mm with a single pull-down grip. Compared with the Zafira’s Flex7, the Verso’s Easy Flat-7’s operation is, er, perhaps a just a tad easier… All the rear seats are well sized, the middle three being individual and adjustable chairs, but the rears do not offer side armrests like the Zafira. As to be expected, three-point seatbelts and height-adjustable head restraints are standard for all seven seats, and both front seats have height adjustment. Isofix mountings are provided for the middle outer seats. The Verso’s instruments and controls are the most conventional of these three MPVs, with the facia hangdown location of the gear lever, and the separate ignition fob and start/stop button the only real “fashion” items. Rakeand reach-adjustable steering, air-con, radio/CD front-loader, powered front windows with onetouch up/down, electric mirrors, headlamp beam height adjustment and “ordinary” wipers (set for right-hand drive) are all standard. Toyota’s distinctive Optitron instrument lighting is used, but, to some, the “matching” centre facia control layout looks a little like that of a cut-price grey import entertainment centre. Storage of odds and ends is catered for by a locking facia cubby, a lidded cubby on top of the facia, front and rear door bins, map pockets behind the front seats, and a floor console with a deep tray. With all seats in place, there is just 64 dm3 of luggage space, but tuck away the rear two and 320 dm3 of space is liberated. Fold away the middle row, and 1 488 dm3 of utility space is created. Loading height is 670 mm, and the tailgate lifts to 1 850 mm with two pull-down handles. The Scénic makes the most of its width advantage by offering five well proportioned chairs, the middle row’s three being individual, removable units – with the centre one removed, the outer two can be moved inwards to optimise shoulder room. Front seatbacks have foldaway tray tables with a drinkholder “hole”. The driver’s seat has cushion height and lumbar adjustment. Three-point harnesses and height-adjustable head restraints are fitted all round. Isofix mountings are offered in both rearouter and front passenger seats, the latter with an airbag switch-out facility, and there is a foldout rearview mirror for keeping an eye on children seated at the back. Retractable screens for the rear door windows are standard. Steering is fully adjustable, the gear lever is fashionably located in the facia centre hangdown, but the rest is all rather quirky. The instrument binnacle has a graphic layout that spreads across twothirds of the facia top, and it takes getting used to, particularly as the more impor- tant info is positioned in favour of lefthand drive steering – as is the flat-blade wipers’ sweep. The park brake is an electronic device with a “push/pull” release that requires some different driver coordination when pulling away. A Renault card replaces the conventional key, and engine start/stop is via a button. All the windows are powered with one touch up/down, and the mirrors are electric, too. Headlamps have an auto-on feature, and their beam height is adjustable. Front and rear foglamps are standard. Other features include rain-sensing wipers, air-con, trip computer, and a radio/ CD front-loader with satellite controls on the steering column. Scénic offers lots of storage nooks and crannies. Door bins front and rear, and a big, nonlocking facia cubby are obvious, but there are also two under-floor compartments front and rear, plus trays under the front and rearouter seats. There is no floor console, but a large rubberised tray instead. Boot volume with the back seats up is 360 dm3, and utility space 1 248 dm3 with them down. The two-piece stiff cargo cover can be set either level with the top of the rear seats, or halfway down. Loading height is 585 mm, and the tailgate – with two pull-downs – rises to 1 810 mm (to the latch). All three have remote central locking and an immobiliser. Zafira and Scénic have six airbags, the Verso five. PERFORMANCE AND BRAKING Zafira 13/20 Verso 16/20 Scénic 16/20 It is unrealistic to expect any of these people carriers to be balls of fire. Essentially, what they need to be is strong enough to carry a full complement of people/baggage without being embarrassed either in city traffic or on the open road. Let us look, then, at the respective power-to-mass ratios, the 80 to 120 km/h fourth gear acceleration times, and the km/h per 1 000 r/min in top gear figures – more so than the usual 0-100 km/h times and top speed figures – in order to get an idea of these vehicles’ capabilities. The Zafira is relatively large and heavy – 1 515 kg – with the least powerful motor, so its power/ mass ratio is a lowly 51 W/kg, but its gearing provides a 80-120 km/h in fourth time of 13,96 seconds, and 31,05 km/h per thousand revs in top gear. We improved on the factory figures with a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 13,2 seconds, and a top speed of 180 km/h. By comparison, the Verso – at 1 427 kg the lightest here – has a healthy power/mass ratio of 57 W/kg (same as the Scénic), yet its gearing does not allow for bettering the Zafira’s time for accelerating from 80 to 120 km/h in fourth. Top is geared for a higher 32,9 km/h per thousand revs. Verso is the sprinter of the group, reaching 100 km/h from standstill in 11,93 seconds, with top speed a ballpark 178 km/h. By the way, the speedo and odo were wildly optimistic. When it comes to the Scénic, remember it is a five-seater and therefore should be at an advantage, but that is not entirely the case. With a test weight of 1 445 kg, the Renault has a power/mass ratio of 57 W/kg, does the mid-range sprint in 13,5 seconds, and is geared at 31,69 km/h per thousand revs in top. Zero to 100 km/h is despatched in 12,9 seconds, and it will reach 185 km/h. All three have ABS brakes with EBD (electronic brake-force distribution), but the Zafira has BAS (brake assist) as well. Our brake test routine produced average stopping time ratings of excellent for the Zafira, and good for the Verso and Scénic. FUEL ECONOMY Zafira 16/20 Verso 14/20 Scénic 16/20 Fuel consumption is a key buying factor these days, particularly with vehicles such as these. Based on CAR’s fuel index figures, the Zafira tops this trio’s economy standings by being marginally the most thrifty – 8,73 litres/100 km – and offering an excellent range – 664 km – from its 58-litre tank. The Scénic is practically as good, with an 8,87 litres/100 km index and a range of 676 km from its 60-litre tank. The Verso’s 9,22 litres/100 km index is a bit off the mark, but its 60-litre tank offers a still useful range of 651 km. RIDE AND HANDLING Zafira 14/20 Verso 14/20 Scénic 15/20 All have rack and pinion steering, but with differing power assistance systems: the Zafira‘s is electro-hydraulic, the Verso’s hydraulic, and the Scénic’s allelectric, but all do a good job without being particularly involving. The Zafira requires 2,8 turns lock to lock and has a turning circle of 10,9 metres, the Verso’s figures are three turns and 11,6 metres, and for the Scénic they are 3,1 turns and 10,7 metres. Suspension layouts are similar, with the Zafira exhibiting the softest ride, albeit without being wobbly through corners, and the one with the more easily detectable fail-safe understeer. The Verso (running with notably high recommended tyre pressures) and Scénic are firmer, the less-bulky Renault being (not surprisingly) the more sporty. With all three, there is not enough power to challenge the twisties with verve, and despite their size and mass, none will make passengers seasick, either. Comfortable, relaxed transportation is the keynote of each. VALUE FOR MONEY Zafira 15/20 Verso 13/20 Scénic 14/20 When it comes to purchase price, there is only R3 300 separating these three, with the R182 470 Zafira falling between the R179 700 Verso and the and the R183 000 Scénic. The 1,6 Zafira Essentia stands alone, whereas there is a considerably more upspec SX version of the Verso available for an additional R20 000. There is an automatic version of the Scénic Expression for an extra R12 000, as well as a R10 000 cheaper Authentique. All have a 3 years/100 000 km warranty, but the Zafira has a 5 years/100 000 km maintenance plan, whereas the Verso’s service plan lasts for only 90 000 km over the same period. The Scénic’s 3 years/60 000 km maintenance plan looks fairly meagre in this company. VERDICT Zafira 14/20 Verso 15/20 Scénic 14/20 This test primarily concerns the seven-seaters, but unless you really need the extra two chairs, the Renault Scénic is the pick of this bunch in terms of features for the money – providing you can live with its quirky interior appointments. It is more compact and wieldy than the other two, and exhibits more of a car-like persona. But that is not to say that the Opel Zafira and Toyota Corolla Verso are completely van-like. Sure, they are sizeable vehicles, but nothing to be intimidated by. The driving experience in all three is pleasant – even if for different reasons – but we must again emphasise the point that if load capability is to be put to full and regular use, then the 1,6-litre engines are going to struggle, especially on the Reef. Given that caveat, our testers ever so slightly favoured the Verso, but the Zafira remains highly recommended – and maybe even preferable in other engine classifications.