20 October 1995


Changes here, there and everywhere aim to transform Vauxhalls £19,700 Frontera Estate. Andrew Pearce sees what they all add up to

VAUXHALL reckons the Frontera is Europes best-selling recreational vehicle, whatever one of those may be. Which presumably says more about we Europeans than the car, because the first diesel versions were saddled with a tired engine, leaf-spring rear suspension and a cumbersome tailgate.

Earlier this year the makers bit the bullet and gave the mid-sized Frontera a refit, with the stated aim of making it more car-like to drive and better in tricky conditions. To find whether they succeeded, we spent a week with a turbodiesel estate.

Nothing much has changed from the outside. The five-door body keeps its squashed-beetle looks, revised tailgate aside. Underneath, the ladder chassis is now suspended on front torsion bars and rear coils; brakes have changed to discs all round, and the whole show rolls along on taller 400mm (16in) wheels.

Isuzus 2.8-litre turbocharged and intercooled direct-injection diesel ousts the gutless original 2.3. Power climbs by 13% to 113ps and torque by the same to 179lb ft at 2100rpm; both add up to a tangible improvement. The Fronteras new-found mid-range pull and only slightly gluey gearbox shovel it along with confidence, if not alacrity.

Positive torque back-up keeps things rolling much better on hills, but only while the turbo is boosting. Below 2000rpm the motor loses interest in a big way, flat-footing the car after early upshifts or when revs are allowed to dip too far on climbs. So to get along, its still necessary to stir the gears and proceed with an eye on the rev counter.

Inside it is easy to get along with, though Vauxhall still persists with truly horrible switchgear. The front seats offer French-style cushioning but no adjustment for height or squab angle; so the driver misses out on a 4x4s usual over-the-hedge viewpoint, and finds traffic queues more tedious than normal thanks to the seats thigh-resisting front edge and a "heavy-ish" clutch pedal.

Otherwise the interior is good. Its a space suited as much to a farmer as a family, despite being trimmed in sober, muck-gathering black cloth and carpet. Rear leg room is good, head room so-so, and space with the rear seat up is generous.

How about driveability? No worries going round corners, as the new rear suspension, different dampers and front-end tweaks to the vehicle let the tyres get on with gripping.

A tendency for the car to follow road camber under braking and demand for minor steering correction in a straight line suggests that the rubberwear (fat 235/70s) could be narrower without sacrificing grip, of which there is plenty on dry tarmac.

Neither is the ride a problem. Gas dampers and rear coil springs make for very comfortable passage over most surfaces, with only the occasional steering twitch and shudder on big bumps to detract from the calm. Naturally the occupants notice the vehicles height, and if anything the ride could be better damped, but generally Vauxhall has eased a newcomers transition from saloon to 4×4 very ably.

Braking too has been shaken up, with bigger discs at the front and the old rear drums consigned to the dustbin. No longer does the back lock early; instead, theres good stopping power (albeit from a squidgy pedal) and the possibility of feathering the car to a gentle stop at low speeds.

Bigger wheels and more travel for them add up to more competence off road. Once youve tuned in to the bodys rock and sway and twigged that the car is more stable than it feels, the new ability can be exploited. All-wheel-drive is available on the move, though the lack of a centre diff means that wind-up is a problem on unyielding ground.

On tracks the Frontera is very comfortable, with only major holes thumping shock waves into the interior. Good rear axle articulation and soft springing/damping let the car scale broken-surfaced climbs, its wheels finding grip rather than bouncing.

Underbody clearance is better than it was, too. All that lets the side down is the engine, which simply lacks the necessary snap from low speeds. Once the turbo gets in on the act its fine, but a crisis shift to second can bog the motor and produce a red face.

So what does all this add up to? The Frontera is one of those vehicles that you can simply jump into and drive, no previous experience or hairy chest required. The high-wailing turbo gives it more urge than the first version could ever hope for, though the power issue – particularly off-boost – is still not settled. The seat/clutch relationship ought to be sorted out (just add adjustability) and the switchgear should be cast into the nether regions, but overall Vauxhalls latest offering should be a hit with recreation-loving peoples everywhere. Farmers might like it, too.

Power: 113ps.

Torque: 179lb ft at 2100rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Drive: Part-time 4WD, auto front hubs.

Brakes: All disc, ABS optional (£700).

Weight: 1920kg.

Towing capacity: 2.5t.

Price: £19,700.

Above: Vauxhall Frontera Estate – five doors, now with 2.8-litre Isuzu power.

Top: Seen through the optional sun-roof, new materials cheer up the interior. Chubby steering wheel sits on optional adjustable column, but switchgear is, shall we say, less than good. Above: New rear tailgate holds the spare wheel, but needs space to open fully (watch out if youre in town). Load bay is deep, even with split-fold rear seat in place.