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Vauxhall Antara review (2007-2011)
The Frontera was famous not for being particularly good, because it wasn’t. It proved how deceptive looks can be; coarse, loud and clumsy. What the Frontera did do well was bring the lifestyle SUV to the masses, years before the Freelander. It may have been based on ox-cart technology but legions of buyers didn’t mind – because they could afford one.
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They could eyeball Range Rover drivers for Cavalier money. However, while the sector (and customers) has never looked back, Vauxhall has. Bereft of an entrant for years, it’s had to sit and watch Toyota, Honda, even Hyundai and Kia prosper from tidy small off-roaders, when all along it was the maker that inspired them. No more though. Next year, thanks to an alliance with Korean partner Chevrolet (who’ll build the model for Vauxhall), the Frontera is back.
Sorry, that’s Antara. Easy mistake on paper. But not, importantly, on the road. Because Vauxhall’s new £20,000 Freelander rival is a smartie. It’s based on the GTC concept created by young designer Darren Luke – and with the derivative looks of the new Freelander, potentially becomes the sector’s tidiest design. Clean, crisp lines and neat proportions are set off by exquisite detailing, such as the ‘vents’ in the front winds, structured door mirrors and premium-look chrome edging around the windows. Genuinely, it looks more expensive than it is.
And wait until you get inside, for the dash is top drawer. Vauxhall has gone all out to, in the words of the man in charge, create its best ever, most expensive interior here, words that you can’t argue with. With cues from the Astra and new Corsa, it’s a cracker, constructed from high-quality materials and displaying deft touches. The steering wheel is a design to be seen in future Vauxhalls but it’s features such as the light switch console, circular air vents and tactile console buttons that really send the quality message home. The best Korean interior ever – truly; only the stereo is sourced from Europe. Everything else is homegrown.
Look more closely and some of the details, such as the messy door hinges, spindly wipers and old-tech column stalks, shine out. The chief engineer admits this is because Korea doesn’t quite have the knowledge or technical ability to solve such issues yet – but it’s learning quickly. What’s more important is that the Antara meets every Vauxhall quality standard, and even carries the company’s regular anti-corrosion warranty. Which is a good deal tougher than Korean standards. Furthermore, he promised that they’ve taught Chevrolet so much, future models will be far closer to European standards. “They learn quickly…”
And as Korean employment costs are so low, the cost of assembly is vastly reduced too. That’s how such an expensive interior has been made possible – and how Vauxhall is able to offer such a hill of equipment for the money. There are no options (to simplify sourcing from Korea), just three well-stocked trim lines: all have climate control, six airbags, four electric windows, alloys, heated seats and ESP, while the best-selling S will add part-leather, 18-inch wheels and cruise control. The top-spec SE will have the lot – sat nav, full leather, Bluetooth phone, Xenons, electric sunroof. Spec that lot on a Freelander 2 and see how much it costs…
On the road
It would be for nothing if the Antara was a dog to drive though. Drawing from an American Saturn Vue platform hardly sets the pulse racing, but Vauxhall has done a lot of fine-tuning. Such as fitting unique springs and dampers, the latter derived from the expensive items on the Zafira. Cars with 18-inch wheels run specially tuned Goodyear rubber too, said to better utilise the traction from the electronic 4WD system. Cleverly, this normally runs in fuel-saving front-drive mode most of the time, only shifting up to 50% of drive rearwards when necessary.
Initial roll is obvious, not least because you sit so high, but settle into a corner and it feels planted, confident. There’s none of the wallow that can afflict SUVs (particularly ones on steel suspension) – and most un-SUV-like front-end turn-in and bite via the crisp, slack-free steering, too. Really press on and the 18-inch tyres are super-friendly on the limit, while driving like an idiot and flooring it out of junctions also does little to upset things. Not a sports car, no – but likeable and more than able. The ride feels well damped and sophisticated on smoother roads, too.
Engines & gears
Granted, rougher roads do present some stiffness, while upping the speeds can introduce wheel shudder. But part of this may be down to the large wheels of the test car – so a proviso here, until we get production-ready cars on UK roads. Mind you, production won’t even start until the end of August; the cars on the pre-launch event were entirely hand-built, yet displayed a level of quality which bodes well for factory models. Of which, for the UK, over 90% will come with the 2.0-litre CDTi engine. Producing 150PS, this is an all-new engine. But a Chevrolet unit, not a Vauxhall one. It won’t be replacing the 1.9-litre CDTi.
Chevrolet has a bit of a gem here. Below 1,800rpm, floor it out of junctions at your peril, as go is lacking. But otherwise, the spread of power is wonderfully linear, while it’s smooth and vibration-free too. Even at lower revs: part of the test route was conducted solely in third gear, and the engine trickled down to below 1,000rpm without grumble or shudder, then picked up cleanly to over 4,500rpm with real smoothness. Torque is an ample 236lb/ft and provides muscle on the move, so it’s only fractionally excessive noise (of a not-unpleasant cammy quality) that clock up negatives.
A five-speed ‘box doesn’t help here, as the engine is spinning too high at cruising speeds. First is too tall as well, which doesn’t help the car’s willingness to stall if you’re clumsy. A six-speed ‘box is on the way, as is an auto option, a 127PS version and a 140PS 2.4-litre petrol that only the unhinged will buy. Vauxhall expects to sell 5,000 a year when it arrives in spring; if it feels as good over here as it did on the launch, that’s likely to prove conservative. Particularly given how many RAV4s Toyota sells, from a similar price point.
Just note, it’s a five-seater. Chevrolet will be selling the Captiva with seven seats, courtesy of its larger, squarer rear. The Antara is the sporty one, so the rear is profiled to suit? “Besides,” said a spokesman, “we’ve got the Zafira as our seven-seater.”
From nowhere, Vauxhall potentially has a competitive compact SUV on its hands. All the fundamentals are in place for a decent drive, while prices are predicted to be keen as well. But it’s the looks and interior that matter in this sector, and here, Vauxhall has something pretty appealing. Toyota, Hyundai and Kia also prove that the lack of a premium badge is no deterrent in this sector; Vauxhall’s next halo car looks, on first evidence, to be compelling.
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