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