Vauxhall Antara GTC

It didn't take Vauxhall long to hit the rough stuff with its brand new off-roader! The star of last month's Frankfurt Motor Show and spiritual successor to the Frontera has already taken to the tarmac... and Auto Express was first to be invited behind the wheel.

Despite its determination to return to the competitive 4x4 market, Vauxhall has refused to rush the design and engineering of its new Antara. The resulting car promises to set new standards in design and driveability. We tested early examples of the engine and gearbox, but both proved very promising and we can't wait to get behind the wheel of the finished article.

It didn't take Vauxhall long to hit the rough stuff with its brand new off-roader! The star of last month's Frankfurt Motor Show and spiritual successor to the Frontera has already taken to the tarmac... and Auto Express was first to be invited behind the wheel.

On sale in October next year, the stylish Antara is an all-new 4x4 that's going to launch Vauxhall back into the battle for honours in the huge SUV market. It's to be built in Korea alongside Chevrolet's forthcoming S3X, and prices will be low, with entry-level editions likely to cost from only £16,000.

But it's the look of the Antara that has got us excited. With its bold lights, angular grille and shapely bodywork, the exterior takes its inspiration from the new Astra and Zafira, and even mixes in hints of the acclaimed 2003 Insignia show car. Inside, the off-roader takes the fixtures and fittings of the Signum and Zafira a step further to create an upmarket yet functional cabin.

Fine stitched leather seats, bags of passenger space and a versatile load area promise practicality and luxury. Vauxhall is even suggesting that the centre console's sliding storage bins will make production. What's more, it's all very airy and there's a great view of the road ahead. The feeling of space is further enhanced by the see-through roof panels, as used in the new Zafira.

It's the huge 20-inch alloys and Dunlop tyres that make the biggest impact, though. While they won't feature on early production cars, Vauxhall promises the Antara will deliver a big-wheel option. Our test model was a hand-built, one-off prototype bearing parent company Opel's badging. So our driving speeds were limited, but we worked up enough steam to put the six-speed auto gearbox through its paces, and found it smooth and well adjusted.

This 212bhp version of the 1.9-litre CDTI engine, developed together with Fiat, has two turbos - as seen in the Vectra VXR show car. Pulling power is enthusiastic, even if the unit is not up to full tune here. When it's finished, performance should be impressive - as indicated by rumours that the motor will also be used in a version of the new VXR, set to debut next month.

Other engines to be included in the Antara from launch are 120bhp and 150bhp versions of a fresh 2.0-litre tur-bodiesel, plus a 2.4 petrol V6. A flagship 3.0 V6 diesel is also in development.

But there are still some changes to be made to our test car before production. Showroom-ready Antaras will have five doors, so expect a conventional B-pillar. All the same, this three-door GTC features a clever automated entry system that slides the front seats far forward to allow easy rear access.

The 'pantographic' tailgate, which moves up and forward for opening in tight spaces, is ingenious, but for now it's little more than a hint at the distant future. So are the side exhaust outlets in front of the rear wheels, designed to prevent burning of the legs while sitting on the tailgate after long hikes.

It seems the Toyota RAV4 has something to worry about, then. If the Antara GTC's stunning styling can be matched by performance and driver appeal on showroom models, Vauxhall is on to a certain hit. Using the number of inquisitive on-lookers during our drive around southern France as a gauge, the car has already been given a big thumbs-up.

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