This is the first in a series of new features on the just-auto site - car reviews with a difference. In the mass of consumer press you can find a multitude of car reviews, which tell us little about the business decisions, market profile and manufacturing of the vehicle concerned. The just-auto reviews will, hopefully, begin to provide a slightly different perspective. Ian Henry, director of AutoAnalysis, has studied the sports utility vehicle (SUV) market for much of the last decade.

The Frontera - the second generation of which is now on European market - was one of those vehicles that helped to kick-start this market segment almost a decade ago. As such it is a highly suitable vehicle to start off the new just-auto series of automotive vehicle reviews.

The SUV market - an introduction

In the early 1990s the SUV market in Europe was very much a niche segment, amounting around 268,000 units in 1990. In 1999 the European market volume was much higher at 600,000 units. 2000 should see the European SUV market grow further still, as a wider range of car-like models appear - the Renault Scenic RX4, BMW X5 and the new genre of sport-wagons exemplified by Audi's All-road, based on the A6 estate - bring in even more customers from traditional car segments.

Although this volume increase has seen SUVs grow from 2% of the European market in 1990 to c4% in 1999, their significance in terms of the overall passenger vehicle market has been arguably much greater. SUVs are noticed and still stand out from conventional cars. They engender a mixture of envy - they are still very much aspirational vehicles for many people - and dislike. As a genre, SUVs are regarded by some as environmentally unfriendly, consuming excessive fuel and expelling unnecessarily high levels of fuel emissions, even though SUV's have, as a group, seen major improvements made in recent years; weight reduction, improvements in fuel efficiency and a range of other developments have all helped improve the vehicles' collective performance from an environmental standpoint.

In 1990, most SUVs were truly utility vehicles. At that time, venerable vehicles like the Land Rover Defender and the early Toyota Landcruiser - both far cries from the Land Rovers and Toyotas now on the road - dominated the segment and were used mainly off-road, by farmers and users in the construction and utilities sector in particular. Indeed, on the road is a highly pertinent term. Despite the ubiquitous four wheel drive facility - indeed a number of SUVs now have permanent 4WD rather than the optional setting as on the Frontera - it is widely accepted that proportionately far fewer SUVs actually go off road now than they did a decade ago, when volume sales were much lower. In Europe - just as has been the case in the US - SUVs have become car substitutes, taking customers from small, medium and large cars, from hatchbacks, coupes, saloons and estates alike.

SUVs range from the essentially urban-oriented vehicles like the funky little Daihatsu Terios and Honda HR-V to behemoths like the latest incarnation of the Toyota Landcruiser 100 series or the even bigger Ford Excursion in the US. As VMs have progressively moved into the segment, so have SUVs as a whole progressively eaten into the heartland of most car segments. In the USA, the estate car or station wagon market has been reduced to a mere trickle as drivers have switched in huge numbers to SUVs and, it must be said, to MPVs and even Pick-ups; however, in Europe the switch to SUVs has seemingly taken customers from across all traditional vehicle segments. The Daihatsu Terios or Honda HR-V driver will have driven a Ford Fiesta or an Escort a decade ago, or even more recently; the Toyota RAV4 driver may had an early Suzuki Vitara, but is more likely to have switched from a VW Golf GTi or another hot hatch.

SUVs are very much part of Middle England!

The car park at the Cornish hotel where I stayed for a week had more SUVs than estate cars on most days. After its drive down from London, the Frontera rested next to a Grand Cherokee, a Landcruiser, a Mercedes-Benz ML430, and a Range Rover, as well a couple of Volvo V70 and BMW 5-series estates. Much of professional upper middle class Britain on holiday needs a 4WD for getting around country lanes. The occasional eccentric may have arrived in a Mercedes-Benz CL, and one 5 child family had plumped for a Chrysler Grand Voyager MPV, but the evidence from a large portion of this Cornish hotel's clientele is that much of the large family estate market has switched to the SUV as its preferred mode of family transport.

In terms of performance, I had been warned by the man from the delivery company that I would be driving a sluggish diesel; well, I am no Mika Hakkinen, but the diesel gave me enough oomph when I needed it on the M4/M5 and the Frontera's size tended to mean I was given plenty of room on Cornwall's little lanes. Fully-laden with all the requirements of a child-oriented family holiday, the 5 door turbo-diesel Limited version performed more than just creditably.

The controls were easy to use, and shift-on-the-move 4WD system engaged and disengaged without problem. The air conditioning took a little longer than I would have liked to cool the interior down (we experienced that rare English phenomenon, a series of 30 degree Celsius days), but I am carping. And the softer, rounder look of the latest model is an improvement on the rather angular look of version one.

UK production

The Frontera comes in either short wheelbase 3 door or long wheelbase 5 door estate versions and is built in the UK, currently in Luton, next door to the Vectra plant. The 3-door version comes in cabrio format, with a removable resin hardtop. Production, however, will switch at the end of 2000 to Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant in the north-west of England, as the Luton plant switches to manufacture of a new van be marketed by both GM and Renault.

The switch of assembly from Luton to Ellesmere Port was announced in May 2000 and will involve a £27mn investment. Capacity for making the Frontera at Ellesmere Port has been created by the long-planned end of the third Astra shift from the end of 2000.

Installed capacity for the Frontera is currently in the region of 40,000 units per year, although production in 1998 was just under 29,000 as the plant was prepared for the recent model change to the all new model. This is clearly evident in the increased output in 1999, to just under 38,500.

The Frontera's body pressings are currently stamped at Luton, but this activity will most likely switch to Ellesmere Port when assembly switches there in early 2001. Three engines are offered, a 3.2 litre V6 petrol unit made by Isuzu in Japan and 2 2.2 litre units, a petrol unit (which comes from Holden in Australia) and an ECOTEC turbo-diesel, made by Opel at Kaiserslautern in Germany. The transmission comes from Isuzu in Japan.

Chassis or monocoque?

The Frontera is one of the SUVs which has retained the chassis construction method, ie with the body welded to a separate steel ladder frame chassis which is made by UPF in Wolverhampton. There has been much debate in the industry over the benefits of chassis frame or monocoque construction; the new Mitsubishi Pajero/Shogun has switched to a monocoque structure for example. With the Frontera, the GM engineers have clearly concluded that the chassis gives the vehicle particular advantages in terms of greater off-road durability and the ability to absorb torsional forces. Rubber mounts between the body and frame give added isolation from torsional forces and vibration; similarly NVH is reduced because the engine, transmission and axles are also mounted with rubber mounts onto the chassis, not onto the vehicle body.

Many major changes on the new model

The revised Frontera has seen improvements elsewhere in the vehicle, including:

  • Improvements to the chassis that give better deformation characteristics in front or rear collisions

  • 5-link rear suspension which offers a number of advantages over independent rear suspension according to GM, namely improved load carrying, constant ground clearance under the axle and improved road holding

  • A car-like power-assisted rack and pinion steering

  • 3 channel ABS as standard on automatic diesels and 5 door V6 petrol versions

  • Remote keyless entry - this is common across the Opel/Vauxhall range. The system operates with ultra-short-wave signals; the anti-theft system is disarmed/armed event the lock and unlock buttons on the RKE are pressed. The anti-theft codes are changed on a rolling basis to prevent thieves "grabber" systems disarming the anti-theft system

  • An instrumentation panel which combines the traditional analogue dials and an electronic mileage readers

  • Push button, electronic shift-on-the-move four-wheel drive, activated by a switch mounted on the face; the shift-on-the-move mechanism can be activated at speeds of up to 62mph

  • A brake transmission shift interlock for the automatic versions which means that the driver has to apply some pressure on the brake pedal before the transmission will shift from the park position

  • A unique rear lamp assembly which features ventilation outlets which draw stale air out from the cabin

  • 16-inch, 6-spoke alloy wheels on the RS and Limited trim options. Styled steel wheels are standard on others

  • Standard passenger and driver airbags; safety is further enhanced with front seats having pyrotechnic front seatbelt pre-tensioners
  • One of the first - the Frontera at the frontier of segment shifts

    The Frontera was one of the first major players in the rapidly growing SUV market in the 1990s; when launched it was almost unchallenged in its price/size segment. Coming in short and long wheel base versions, and with an open top version the Frontera as been able to appeal to a wide cross-section of potential customers, from those who might buy a Vitara to people switching from saloons or estates. It managed to maintain a position in the top 5 in the segment's sales league across Europe since its launch, at least until 1997 when the Land Rover Freelander and the Honda CR-V pushed down the table. With the new model selling well, it should climb back into the top 5 this year and next. As well as being sold across Western Europe, the Frontera is exported to Eastern Europe and to Australia and New Zealand.

    Facts and figures on the Vauxhall/Opel Frontera:

    Launched: 1992
    Highest annual production: 1993, 41,500
    Lowest annual production: 1997, 28,600 (c3000 pre-series production models were also built in 1992)

    Selected suppliers:

    Breed: Seatbelts and pyrotechnic pre-tensioners:
    Delphi: CD player and stereo system
    Magna: Seats
    Robert Bosch: front headlamps
    Soliver: Glass
    UPF: Chassis frame

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