Missing the Marque: Opel / Vauxhall Sintra

We recall Opel / Vauxhall’s first large MPV, once branded the worst car in Britain.

1997 Opel Sintra. Image: drivemag.com

In the automotive world, truly innovative design concepts do not come along that often, but 1984(1) saw the arrival of one such design in the US. The minivan was capacious and versatile, and offered an alternative to the large station wagons that had long been a fixture in the lives of suburban American families.

European manufacturers looked on with interest, but a degree of ambivalence, as the minivan grew rapidly in popularity in the US. Coincidentally, Renault had also introduced a similarly sized monobox vehicle in 1984, the Espace, but this was not initially considered to be a mainstream model. It was produced by Matra in small quantities as the potential market for such a vehicle was untested.

Still unsure of the sales potential for large Multi-Purpose Vehicles (MPVs) as they became known, European automakers hedged their bets by forming joint ventures to design and build such vehicles. Having let the Espace slip through its fingers(2), Peugeot partnered with Fiat to produce the 1994 Peugeot 806, Citroën Evasion(3), Fiat Ulysse and Lancia Zeta quads. Volkswagen partnered with Ford Europe to produce the 1995 VW Sharan, Seat Alhambra and Ford Galaxy triplets.

GM Europe hedged its bets in a different manner. It would instead cooperate with its US parent in the development of a large MPV that would be sold on both sides of the Atlantic. GM had launched its first-generation minivans in 1990 and was working on a successor, so this programme was simply expanded to include a European version.

A team of twenty designers and engineers from Europe, headed by Opel’s Dieter Pfeifer, was assigned to work on the project in the US(4) . This seemed like a practical and expedient solution. There was not a great deal of scope for individuality in monobox vehicles, so a generic design could readily be adapted for each of the different marques under which it would be sold.

The European version of the new large MPV would be named Sintra(5) in line with GM Europe’s contemporary two or three-syllable ending with an ‘a’ nomenclature for its models. The Sintra would be built solely in the US, at the GM plant in Doraville, Georgia. This decision would have serious consequences for the model’s sales performance, as we shall see later.

1997 Opel Sintra. Image: drivemag.com

The Sintra used the shorter 2,845mm (112”) wheelbase version of the GM U-Platform(6). Its dimensions, with an overall length of 4,670mm (183¾”) width of 1,830mm (72”) and height of 1,780mm (70”) were virtually identical to those of the VW Sharan: it was longer and higher by 50mm (2”) and wider by just 20mm (¾”). Like the PSA-Fiat large MPVs, the Sintra featured space-saving sliding rear doors. It was usefully larger inside than its rivals and, uniquely, offered seating for up to eight(7), compared with a maximum of seven with other large MPVs. Magnesium and aluminium were used to make the seats lighter and more easily manoeuvrable.

One area in which the Sintra differed significantly from its US cousins was the range of engines offered. The 3.4 litre V6 engine mated to an automatic transmission that was standard in US models was rightly deemed unsuitable for the European market, so Opel Ecotec engines were fitted instead. Initially, a 2.2 litre 139bhp (104kW) inline four-cylinder petrol unit and 3.0 litre 198bhp (148kW) V6 were offered, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission(8). These engines were exported to the US for installation in the Sintra before the completed vehicle was exported back to Europe. A 2.2 litre diesel engine was belatedly offered for the Sintra’s last few months in production.

The Sintra’s suspension was also retuned for European tastes, with firmer spring and damper rates and quicker steering. It was also well equipped, with disc brakes all round, ABS, airbags and seat belt pre-tensioners. The dashboard used Opel / Vauxhall switchgear, but was otherwise similar to that of its US stablemates.

1997 Vauxhall Sintra seven-seat interior. Image: Vauxhall Motors

On paper, the Sintra seemed to have all the elements it needed to succeed in the European market. As well as its practical attributes, it was also a pleasant looking vehicle that fitted easily into Opel / Vauxhall’s contemporary line-up.

The Sintra was unveiled on 23rd August 1996, with first deliveries scheduled for March 1997. There would be two trim levels, CD and CDX. The former included, as well as the safety equipment mentioned earlier, air-conditioning with pollen filter, alloy wheels, power steering, electric windows and remote-control central locking, roof rails and an anti-theft alarm with deadlocks. The CDX version added power front seats(9), electric sunroof, cruise control and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

The 2.2 litre manual achieved a claimed 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 12.8 seconds and a top speed of 190km/h (118mph). Comparative figures for the 3.0 litre automatic were 10.9 seconds and 203km/h (126mph).

The launch press release for the Vauxhall version was somewhat defensive about the new model’s origins, stating that “…Sintra must not be mistaken for a badge-engineered US clone.”  It went on to itemise the differences between the Sintra and its US cousins at some length. The press release also concluded rather oddly, stating that GM Europe’s forecast for the potential market for large MPVs was more modest than some others and “our aim is to [produce] one too few rather than one too many” so making the Sintra a “very sought-after car.”

Was this strangely cautious press release hinting at a feeling of disquiet within GM Europe about the prospects for the new Sintra? Early reviews of the car were lukewarm, especially about the quality of finish within the cabin, which was perceptibly inferior to other Opel / Vauxhall models. The lack of a diesel engine option and relatively high price, albeit with a comprehensive level of standard equipment, were also cited as negatives. The ride and handling compromise seemed to have been optimised, but it was still overwhelmed by the larger engine and refinement was poor, more akin to a commercial vehicle than a proper MPV.

The perception of inferior quality proved to be true and the Sintra soon developed a dismal reputation for unreliability. It was already failing in the market when a disastrous 1998 Euro NCAP frontal crash test sealed its fate. The steering wheel sheared off in the impact as the passenger cell deformed, potentially causing fatal injuries to a driver involved in a similar accident. The Sintra scored a poor 2½ stars overall.

1998 Sintra Crash Test. Image Euro NCAP

The Sintra was discontinued in May 1999, a mere two years and two months after the first cars had been delivered, during which time a little over 40,000 were manufactured. A subsequent Top Gear / JD Power customer satisfaction survey confirmed what the automotive trade and press already knew: it was rated dead last out of 182 cars surveyed. The Sintra was acidly described as “Britain’s worst car” and “…as reliable as an alcoholic, even if it doesn’t drink like one.”

To its credit, Opel / Vauxhall did its best to fix the Sintra’s multitude of faults under warranty and at considerable cost. It did not waste time on trying to right the Sintra’s many deficiencies in production.(10) Instead, it developed the smaller but very much more competent seven-seat Zafira MPV while the Sintra was failing, and was able to launch it as a direct replacement. The competence of the Zafira quickly banished the awful memories of the Sintra, except for those unfortunate enough to have bought one and then found that they could not give it away.

How did General Motors manage to get the Sintra so wrong? It was not unpleasant looking, appeared to be thoughtfully designed, capacious, versatile and well equipped, and appropriately benchmarked against its European competitors. It was, however, a late arrival in the market and perished on inferior build quality, reliability and, most of all, safety.

Intriguingly, its US cousins did not appear to have had an especially poor reputation for reliability. Moreover, a 1997 US NHTSA(11) crash test on the Chevrolet Venture, which was structurally identical to the Sintra, awarded it four stars out of five in a frontal crash test.(12) The mystery of the Sintra’s many failings remains, at least to those outside General Motors.

 

(1) Although minivan concepts had previously been shown by other US manufacturers’ design studios, it was Chrysler that finally brought it to production in 1984 with the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager twins.

(2) The concept that became the Espace was originally conceived by a Chrysler UK designer, Fergus Pollock, in the late 1970’s. Peugeot then acquired Chrysler’s European business and decided against marketing the Espace as a Talbot, so Matra instead approached Renault to take it on.

(3) Named Synergie in the UK and Ireland.

(4) This notwithstanding, it is a moot point as to how much input GM Europe had in the design.

(5) Coincidentally, Sintra is also the name of a Portuguese town, which gave the US import a European flavour, albeit unintentionally, as the vehicle’s name was computer-generated.

(6) US versions would also be offered with a longer 3,048mm (120”) wheelbase.

(7) The eight-seat option, using a bench rearmost seat, was mentioned in the Sintra’s launch press release, but most if not all production cars seemed to have been fitted with two individual rearmost seats, giving them seven seats in a 2-3-2 configuration

(8) The Sintra had a floor-mounted gear lever, unlike the US models’ column shift.

(9) Unfortunately, this meant that the front seats could no longer be rotated 180° to face rearward, as was possible with the manual seats fitted to the CD model.

(10) Probably because it had little or no influence or control over the US production process.

(11) National Highway Transport Safety Administration

(12) However, the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety subjected the Pontiac Trans Sport, another cousin of the Sintra, to a 40mph offset frontal collision test in late 1996 and rated it the ‘worst performing vehicle’ on test.

 

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

31 thoughts on “Missing the Marque: Opel / Vauxhall Sintra”

  1. Good grief, I’d almost forgotten about the ill-fated Sintra. I cannot recall the last time I saw one. I knew that the U-van had an inglorious career in the Old World, but had forgotten it lasted just over two years. I travelled numerous times in one of its North American stablemates, the Pontiac TransSport, and found it exceptionally roomy (this was the long wheelbase variant), with good levels of comfort. The interior plastics, however, were of atrocious quality, but the immediate pre-Lutz era at General Motors was truly the nadir of GM interior design.

  2. This is one of Opel´s few clear examples of a poor product. Outside interference probably had much to do with the mess. I can imagine one might even be able to link it with one (unknown) manager, airlifted into Franconia with a mission to make Opel do his bidding. What I mean is there is likely a personal story behind this. Fictionalised: L. Robb Burnetto gets a promotion having handled the mid-life revision of the Pontiac Blitz and is assigned an away-job in Germany. He lands and hits the ground shouting, mystified by the Opel way. He introduces a scaled-up version of his management method and forgets that Euros do things differently. He runs into resistance from the locals; compromises get forced on him in addition to the implementation of bad ideas. The project arrives on schedule and on budget but bombs. At this point Robb is tired of the hot summers on the Main and wants to move back to the US. He accepts a job with Finkelbaum & Reilly plastics on the back of his GM career and spends the rest of the decade doing deals on under-bonnet plastic trim and arm-rests for Boeing.

    1. Haha! Do Boeing airliners have under-bonnet plastic trim???

    2. The Sintra wasn’t Opel’s only bad product at that time.
      Frontera/Monterey were not too good, either, and even Opel’s own products left a lot to be desired like the contemporary Vectra II.

  3. This is one of those forgotten cars. I don’t recall when I last saw one. The only thing I remember about them is the terrible safety rating . To be honest: I probably wouldn’t have managed to do it without reading the article.

    The Zafira mentioned in the article is still a regular sight. I had a brief look at cars for sale in the Netherlands: 4 Sintras and 1,083 Zafiras.

    1. If memory serves, the Zafira’s modular seating arrangement (which was the main reason for its success), was in fact engineered by Porsche.

      Personally, I consider the Sintra Opel’s nadir, but even so, a German owners club does exits; Sintra enthusiasts (sic) referring to their beloved steed as ‘der Dicke’ (the fat one).*

      (Why do I know this, you may ask – years ago, I created a Sintra coffee mug for a car enthusiast friend, who most certainly wasn’t into Opels. He claimed it was eventually stolen at his workplace.)

    2. The Zafira’s seats were developed and patented by Johnson Controls.
      They offered them to VW first and after VW was not interested they showed them to Opel.

    3. The range of Johnson Controls’ activity in the noughties was astounding – I recall being totally unable to get my head around how the same company could supply seats for the Astra AND be the building services provider to the multi-national I worked for at the time.
      (This led to some odd situations. Instead of having a word with Ollie downstairs, I was supposed to contact a call-centre in another country with the information that the flourescent tube above my head had blown, whereupon the same Ollie would receive an action to replace it. It would never do for me to hop up on the desk myself. How many people does it take to change a lightbulb again?)

    4. For me Opel´s nadir was the Vectra Mk1, for looking cheaper and less impressive than the last Ascona. You really have to look hard to find much to consider on the Vectra A. It´s not a bad car from the driving and engineering point of view but it has none of the contemporary/zeitgeisty style most Opels have. The Sintra obviously is a nadir: a short production life but its time on earth was so brief it has not affected my perception of Opel. Unlike many others I happen to like the Vectra B (I won´t discuss JC here, sorry). I felt it matured the Vectra A shape with a bit more detail and definition. The interior is nice as well. I also like the rear lamps. And the front lamps too. It had more character than the Mondeo 1 too.

    5. Wasn’t Porsches Involvement more related to fitting everything on the Vectra platform instead of the seating arrangement?

    6. Thanks for the correction, Dave. Maybe Porsche’s involvement was overstated back then, or I just misread that article – it was over two decades ago, after all.

    1. Hopefully, there isn’t enough members to pose a serious threat…

      Joking aside, the Sintra was a perfectly good concept, executed very badly. The commercial vehicle grade interior plastics would have been perfectly fine if they weren’t so frangible. Vehicles like the Sintra should major on durability, not luxury. The killer (quite literally) was its terrible crash test rating, an unforgivable blunder for a company with all the resources of GM to do better.

  4. That crash test picture is horrifying.

    Top tip for selling to families, car companies: do everything possible to make sure the occupants of the vehicle can survive a crash. It makes them feel so much better about their purchase decision.

    1. -Jack, tell me, how much are the costs of implement this crash safety sh** and how much do we expect to pay out in compensation?
      +Well, Jim, I think it´s 255 million for the crash engineering and 13 million in compensation.
      – Okay, let´s leave the engineering as it is. On a cost-benefit basis, we´ll be fine and we get to the market on time.

    2. The Pontiac TransSport is as bad. As I see it, GM´s managers and senior board (typical of many Anglo-American corporations) have been reactive on safety and the environment. In contrast, the Japanese pre-empt standards and tend to avoid betting on saving money by cutting corners. Who´s the winner? On one level, the US managers do fine as they collect large salaries but the corporations take a hammering; the Japanese executives take a smaller reward but the corporation does well in the long run. Behind this is the individualist mentality versus a broader, Kantian approach to moral obligations.

  5. I´ve just seen this video on Youtube, an offset crash test of a Chevrolet Venture and an Accord. It´s impressive how the Honda holds up the impact; it´s very impressive how the Venture crumples like a can. Why GM decided to launch a new car so defective in a time when passive safety was already a popular matter is astonishing.

  6. Goodness, this is a modern car I’ve never heard of. The Sintra slipped completely under my radar. Thanks Daniel for revealing such a thing.
    What on Earth got this car a star rating of 2.5? Speed of airbag deployment? Sadly Richard’s astute observation is probably correct. It always comes down to money.
    But Christopher’s anecdotes lifted matters impeccably; it really does takes all sorts to make a world

  7. Before the Zafira did GM Europe have their own earlier alternatives to the Sintra, either with the FWD T-Body (like the later Zafira), J-Body or GM2900 platform based proposals?

    1. Opel (or GM Europe) were rather late to the MPV show. After PSA/Fiat in 1994 and VW/Ford in 1995, their 1996 Sintra was their first entry in this market segment. Of course, Renault predated all this by a decade.

    2. I suppose the Vauxhall Midi, sold up to 1994 was probably the closest predecessor. There were a whole bunch of ‘not quite mpv/not quite minibus’ type models on sale in the 90s in response to the Espace, before other manufactures managed to get their own purpose designed mvps to market, as mentioned in the article. Wasn’t the Nissan Serena based on a small van too? And I vaguely recall the Volkswagen Sharan replaced a Transporter based mpv?

    3. Hi Laughingsoil. Going back a bit further in Vauxhall’s history, the minibus version of the Bedford CF van was closer in size to the Sintra. There were actually lots of minibus versions of panel vans, but most were pretty crude devices, and purgatory to travel in over long distances.

      Back in 2009 I travelled as a passenger in a Peugeot-based minibus from The U.K. to Koblenz, a distance of over 500 miles, in a day. It was a horrible experience, especially the return leg three days later when traffic was murderous!

    4. Laughingsoil – On the first Nissan Serena it seems to have had an interesting background with claims it was a rebody derived from the Vanette C22 that together with its predecessors (up to the 1969 Datsun Sunny Cab/Nissan Cherry Cab C20), were based to some extent on the front-engined RWD Nissan Sunny models up to the 1977-1981 Sunny B310 though cannot be sure how true that actually is.

  8. In addition to its other shortcomings, the U van developed a bad reputation in North America due to inevitable early failure of the lower intake manifold gasket on the 3.4 L V6. GM Canada was inconsistent in how the matter was handled with customers – some dealers covered the repair fully even if out of warranty, other customers received partial compensation and others no consideration.

  9. I can’t remember why (perhaps the JD Power survey result?) but Top Gear poured manure all over a Sintra, which is unlikely to have helped sales.

    Seven-seat MPVs of this sort have been almost completely replaced in the UK by SUVs/crossovers, or panel vans with windows. On the used market, Japanese MPVs have a certain following. The remaining new-build survivors come from Ford, which competes with itself by offering the S-max and the Galaxy with £400 between them on entry price; or BMW with its GranTourer, which is smaller than the Fords.

    Not a criticism, but another footnote for Daniel: (2a) – Citroen Evasion was named the Synergie in the UK and Ireland

    1. The Galaxy and S-Max are rather different beasts. Both are rather lovely vehicles but if the Galaxy tends towards limousininess, the S-Max is more about a bit of higher-speed enjoyment. The Galaxy is more formal than the S-Max.
      One reason the poor old Mondeo is not hitting the mark is because the S-Max does the same stuff with a touch more versatility. I don´t think the raised roof height has any meaningful effect on the dynamics. If they did another Mondeo they might want to push it lower so as make the distinction clearer. What I am getting at is that whether customers opt for a Galaxy or an S-Max, Ford makes a sale and the marginal cost of the two body-styles is nugatory. An S-Max three door would be a fascinating prospect. I bet it would be more successful than the AvantTime.

    2. Hi Tom. Thanks for the reminder about ‘Synergie’. Footnote added above.

    3. Hi Richard. Here are the comparative European sales figures for the S-Max, Galaxy and Mondeo for the past decade:

      Year S-Max / Galaxy / Mondeo
      2020 13,375 /8,018 / 21,222
      2019 22,724 / 12,554 / 39,555
      2018 23,708 / 11,838 / 49,596
      2017 35,275 / 15,309 / 56,173
      2016 40,826 / 20,472 / 70,900
      2015 17,879 / 10,474 / 79,673
      2014 32,665 / 19,433 / 45,405
      2013 30,380 / 18,378 / 50,180
      2012 38,296 / 21,802 / 69,871
      2011 47,571 / 27,364 / 86,471

      Mondeo sales have been roughly equal to the total of the S-Max and Galaxy combined, but all three models are really struggling now. The mooted crossover-style replacement for the Mondeo might conceivably also replace the S-Max, with the Galaxy surviving as an ‘airport run special’ (or perhaps the Transit-based Tourneo might take over that role).

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