A car-like van or a van-like car?

Road Test Vauxhall Sintra

Poor old Vauxhall. While every other mainstream car maker (Rover, of course, views itself as rather exclusive and therefore outside the scope of this particular discussion) had one of those useful and trendy multipurpose vehicles in its model range, the British arm of America's General Motors Corporation had nothing. And judging by the number of Ford Galaxys and Volkswagen Sharans to be seen on Britain's roads (nevermind that great European original, the Renault Espace), there were some serious sales opportunities being missed.

If you're the last to join the people-carrier party, you need to do something a little different, otherwise no one will notice you when you make your entrance. This is one reason why the Sintra, Vauxhall's late entry, doesn't look like its European rivals with their "one box" side profiles. Another is that the Sintra is in fact American, a Europeanised version of the latest Pontiac/Chevrolet/ Oldsmobile "minivan" (as the bigger-is-better Americans call these quite large vehicles).

Visually, the Europeanisation is a success. The Sintra looks like a Vauxhall, with the right front grille and the right detailing in the light clusters and the bumpers. But with its separate bonnet and conventional side window shape, it looks considerably less space-age than the capsular Galaxy and Espace (especially the new Espace, which is in the process of being launched in Britain). Vauxhall's view is that many people are put off by one-box styling, regarding it as too van-like. Such people miss the point - which is that the one-box is light, airy, forward-looking and deliberately unconventional - but if, instead, they would rather drive something that looks like a taxi, then that's fine by me.

Inside, we find the usual seven individual seats, the front pair of which are able to swivel round to face the rear in the CD-trim version, the rear five being foldable, slideable and easily removable thanks to their lightweight magnesium frames. When tipped forward to increase load space, springs help them to stay tipped so they don't, like the seats in a Galaxy, crash floorwards when you accelerate. Alternatively, you can have your Sintra with a one-piece bench seat for the rearmost row, bringing the total potential occupant count to eight. All have plenty of leg space, too. The rear doors slide instead of hinging outwards, which is useful in a tight space but threatening for small fingers.

Cup-holders and storage boxes abound, but in exploring these you will uncover one of the Sintra's main flaws. Its interior is plasticky, flimsy, built down to a price with bendy plastic moulded hinges and wobbly construction. Nor does one of the claimed benefits of its topologically distorted estate- car shape, that the feel from the driving seat is essentially car-like, materialise in practice. The high, slabby dashboard blocks your view forward and downward unless you raise the seat high, in which case you won't easily reach the handbrake, which is mounted too low and too far back. The deep- windowed, snub-nosed Galaxy is much better here.

The cheapness also extends to the driving experience. Car-like looks or not, the irony is that the Sintra feels the most unhoned, the most van-like to drive of all the current MPVs. The gearchange is springy and clonky, the brakes snatch, the structure shudders, and the 2.2-litre, four-cylinder engine in the version I drove had a gritty, whining note. Balancer shafts are claimed to make it smooth, so I dread to think what it must have been like before the engineers deemed them to be necessary. For all that, though, the Sintra moves along reasonably swiftly if you keep the revs stoked up, and both the roadholding and the ride comfort are acceptable. There's also a 3.0-litre V6 version, with automatic transmission.

American cars tend to feel cheaper, flimsier, harsher than ours, and the Sintra betrays its roots. The best MPV you can buy today is the Ford Galaxy, and its Volkswagen Sharan and Seat Alhambra clones. The Sintra's arrival does nothing to change that.

Vauxhall Sintra CD 2.2i

Specifications

Prices (on the road): pounds 19,100 (5-seat), pounds 19,600 (7-seat). Engine: 2,198cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 141bhp at 5,400rpm; five-speed gearbox, front- wheel drive. Performance: top speed 117mph, 0-60 in 12.5sec. Fuel consumption: 24-29mpg.

Rivals

Chrysler Voyager 2.0 SE, pounds 18,395: another American, good value on paper but suffering similar American ailments.

Ford Galaxy 2.0 GLX 7-seat, pounds 19,255: smoother, quieter, more solid than the Sintra, easier in a tight spot and much more pleasant to drive.

Peugeot 806 2.0 SR, pounds 18,980: ingenious interior with facia-mounted gear lever, good to drive but feels dated.

Renault Espace 2.0 RT, pounds 19,635: the new Espace is truly avant-garde with central dials, huge storage boxes and infinite seat adjustment. Automatic only.

Toyota Previa 2.4 GS, pounds 19,710: seats eight, looks like an egg, underfloor engine gives surprising pace. Still popular after six years.

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