Comparing a Ferrari and a Lamborghini is like choosing between imaginary trips to Mauritius or The Seychelles. The copy makes wonderful reading but is utterly irrelevant to most of society. Looking at my hit-counter, though, unless you’re a die-hard and read everything I post (and if so I richly appreciate your efforts, however misguided) people tend to wander over here for GT-Rs and AMGs but collectively shrug over A-Classes and Mondeos.
More fool them, I say, because jumping behind the wheel of “ordinary” cars is far more interesting, in a different way. You find nuances between models among the ranks of everday cars which are far more divisive than between Porsches and Maseratis. And some ordinary cars are more ordinary than others. The Vauxhall Zafira isn’t one of them.
I drove a Renault Espace the other day, and thoroughly enjoyed it, which I wasn’t wholly expecting. To be honest, I wholly expected the whole sub-category of vehicle to be a minefield of compromise, reluctance and tardiness. But there’s clearly a hardcore of frustrated family men in Europe's offices of ordinary car design who would not allow a lifetime of Marks and Spencer and trips to the Zoo get in the way of their hard-bitten passions.
The Zafira was based on the Astra chassis, we all know that. We all also know that the Astra was always frustratingly dismissed as runner-up to the Ford Focus in driver reward stakes. It was still good, though, excusing a slight lack of fizz I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the back-road prowess of many an Astra in my time. And here we have the same fundamentals propping up the hulk of an erstwhile beast of burden.
It works well; there is no sensation to nag that you were driving anything other than a normal car, and quite a well-sorted one at that. As a result you could press on enthusiastically while your human cargo whirls around the interior in a hurricane of sweet wrappers and wet-wipes. With the faster models (a turbocharged GSI was available) the crazed laughter in your head might even be enough to drown out the 360° vomiting and rein-pulling intentions of whoever's in the seat next to you.
A lack of mutual enthusiasm for your exploits as wheel-man could be shared with up to six other human beings. The Zafira is a proper seven seater, giving it the same family-hauling capability as a Grand Espace, while being several feet shorter. Of course, as with other MPV type cars you have the quandary of being able to carry either seven people or their luggage, but not both simultaneously. There was no cure to this ailment, Vauxhall / Opel confessed, but there was genuine advancement in the field of negating this inconvenience as far as possible.
It was called Flex Seven, a trademark that echoed around the motoring press for years to come, and which Griff Rhys-Jones did his capable best to humanize on TV adverts. You had five seats, as per any normal ordinary car. Plus you had two more seats when you needed them, not heavy and bulky and left in the garage gathering dust and spiders, but compact, effective and concealed stealthily in the boot floor. And, for good measure, the middle row slid forward and backwards for access or extra legroom as required. It represented a minor revolution in interior packaging, sending rivals back to the drawing board and further increasing Opels share of European driveway space.
The car you see before you is as representative of the Zafira as it’s possible to get. This is the Sainsbury’s Basics “Club” spec, in “nothing too fancy” 1.6 petrol flavour, an engine that turns out to be unexpectedly willing and playful. Spurious features are few; air-conditional being thoughtfully included to prevent grisly toddlers, and the seats are finished in an orange-juice and urine compatible fabric.
Halfway through my drive it the skies had blackened like a neglected roast, and three weeks worth of rain were deposited on Colchester in one consolidated payment. At their highest wick the wipers lost screen-clearing battle, and then came the hail. I was instantly transported to a world of traffic jams on the A38, of damp holidays in Cornwall and muddy school football kits. This car bore the stains of ten years family service, yet at ten-years old it still has thousands of miles of toilet-stops and sisterly hair-pulling ahead of it.
Anybody who was five when the Zafira was launched in 1999 would now be 17 and themselves probably be on the nursery slopes of driving today. The Zafira has long since ceased being cutting edge with dozens of equally clever interior permutations now out there in family-land, and I doubt that any teenager raised in a Zafira would realise its significance, it having become just another familiar shape on the road. Just another ordinary car of the past, moving closer to obsolescence and obscurity.
It’s still ordinary in as much as it’s accepted that chips are the natural accompaniment to battered haddock. Fish and chips are ordinary, but so, so good. And the Zafira became the fish ‘n chips supper on wheels to a whole generation.