Vauxhall is back in the off-roader market! Not since the Frontera left the line-up in 1998 has the company had a 4x4 – but with demand for SUVs doubling in the last eight years, Vauxhall couldn’t stay out of the sector any longer.
Enter the new Antara! Developed with fellow General Motors brand Chevrolet, whose Captiva goes on sale later this year, the model hits UK showrooms in May 2007 with prices starting at around £20,000.
Pitched against tough competition from Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V and the all-new Land Rover Freelander, the Vauxhall faces a tough challenge. So can the newcomer cut it – or is it a case of too little, too late? We grabbed the keys to take an early drive in an Opel-badged version to find out. While the Antara shares the same platform as the Captiva, the stylists at Vauxhall have been keen to give the new SUV its own unique shape. And with chunky bumpers and a lower metal protective plate enhancing its Zafira-inspired face, it looks suitably beefy.
Standard 17-inch alloys, roof bars and plenty of plastic trim continue the off-roader theme. But while the overall effect is quite butch, it’s a shame the drama of the original Antara GTC concept – displayed at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show – has been lost in the translation to production.
Inside, the dashboard will be familiar to Astra and Zafira owners, but fit and finish could be better. However, standard kit is generous. Basic models have climate control and heated front seats, while S versions add leather and parking sensors. Range-topping SE variants get Bluetooth phone connectivity and sat-nav. Thanks to the Antara’s height, there’s ample headroom and the driver’s seat offers a commanding view of the road. Thick rear pillars do mean parking sensors are an essential addition to all cars, though.
Rear passenger room is impressive, with decent leg space, while the boot is large, too – there’s 1,420 litres with the seats folded flat. Stowage is plentiful throughout the cabin, with a drawer under the passenger seat and bins by the rear wheelarches.
As with the Zafira, Vauxhall’s FlexSpace system of partitions and luggage nets is available as an option to make the most of the boot space on offer. And just like the forthcoming Corsa, customers will be able to specify their Antara with FlexFix, a handy fold-out bike rack which emerges from under the rear bumper. When sales start next spring, the Antara will come with a choice of two engines – an entry-level 138bhp 2.4 petrol and a new 148bhp 2.0-litre CDTI diesel. A 126bhp version of this unit will appear later in 2007. Five-speed manual gearboxes are fitted as standard, while an auto is available for the top-spec oil-burner.
With the vast majority of sales expected to be diesels, it was this top-of-the-range model we tried. It offers perky performance – 0-60mph takes around 10 seconds – but could do with a wider powerband, as it only really pulls strongly between 3,000rpm and 4,000rpm. However, Vauxhall says it will be fine-tuning the engine before the Antara is launched next year. In line with its positioning as a road-biased SUV, in most conditions the Antara is front-wheel drive. But when things get slippery, 50 per cent of power can be fed to the rear wheels, thanks to an electro-magnetically operated, electro-hydraulic clutch. Brake assist and stability control are standard, too.
On our twisty test route, the Antara was fun – its suspension set-up is quite taut, yet the SUV rides comfortably. Off-road, it’s also impressive. All models come with a Descent Control System as standard, which keeps the car at a constant crawl when going down an incline, and the part-time four-wheel drive copes easily with loose surfaces.
While the Antara doesn’t excel in any particular area, it’s certainly a very competent all-rounder that deserves to do well against the RAV4 and CR-V. But the newcomer’s greatest competition will come from within GM, in the shape of the new Captiva.