A Sunday spin in the suburban jungle

The revised Vauxhall Frontera may be little more than a plaything, but Roger Bell is impressed by the 4 x 4's lively ride and keen price; ROAD TEST
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Compared with ordinary cars, 4 x 4 off-roaders such as the Vauxhall Frontera are slow, heavy, thirsty, uncomfortable, cumbersome and expensive - lousy for everyday transport. Yet the Frontera is Europe's best-selling recreational vehicle and the number two 4 x 4 (behind Land Rover's Discovery) in Britain.

Just looking the part of a butch off-roader, even though rarely asked to play the role, counts for a lot. In contrast to the Frontera, Ford's rival Maverick is a slow-selling saloon on stilts that sends out the wrong messages to impressionable buyers.

Despite its many shortcomings, I could tolerate the Isuzu-based, Luton- built Vauxhall Frontera more than most competitors, especially after recent extensive revisions. New engines - a 2.8-litre Isuzu turbo-diesel (replacing the rough old 2.3) and a 2.2-litre petrol 16-valve twin-cam (which displaces the asthmatic eight-valve 2.4) - give better performance; the petrol estate now does l00mph and accelerates with the verve of a 1.3 hatch. The diesel feels quite lively, too, especially in the short-wheelbase Sport which is less roomy than the elongated Estate, but much better proportioned. Neither is particularly economical: brick-like aerodynamics and tank-like mass militate against frugality as well as performance, though Vauxhall talks of class-leading economy.

The Frontera has always had decent on-road steering and handling, making it more pleasant to drive than most rivals, and a lot less harrowing than some. Although incongruous on a race track, the latest Sport felt perfectly safe and secure when diverted on to one during the test drive. Suspension changes described by Vauxhall as a "complete chassis rethink" were designed to make the ride more comfortable and off-roading easier. By and large they succeed.

For a stiffly sprung 4 x 4 - cart springs have given way to coils - the ride is not at all bad, though it still lacks the pliancy of a family saloon. On the rough, the Sport's tendency to pitch and bounce has been curbed if not eliminated, and ground clearance improved with bigger wheels.

Other notable improvements include up-rated brakes (ABS backed for £700 extra) and the option of air conditioning (for £600). Inside, there's a fiddly immobiliser on the petrol models, and new trim materials all round. Although the rather ugly dash and messy switchgear remain - five wash-wipe switches is four too many - the latest Frontera cabins are far more luxurious than before. Comfortable front seats and a lofty stance - ideal for holiday sight-seeing - go some way to compensate for the jittery ride.

Although the styling's unchanged - why mess with a successful formula? - getting at the Estate's ample luggage deck has been simplified by side- hinging the lower half of the spare wheel-carrying tailgate.

Frontera prices, always keen, now start at £14,295 (£95 down) for the 2.0i Sport, which retains the old 2.0-litre engine. The top 2.8TD estate costs £19,325 - an increase of £660 over the superseded 2.3TD. If you really must have a 4 x 4 off-roader, the Frontera is as good as any for value for money. As for the question of poor reliability: Vauxhall insists it has the problem licked.

SPECIFICATIONS

Vauxhall Frontera Sport 2.8TD, £16,245

Engine: 2771 cc, four-cylinder turbo-diesel; 113bhp at 3600rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, normal and low ratios, part-time four-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 14.9 seconds, top speed 93mph, consumption 31mpg.

COMPARISONS

Chrysler Jeep Cherokee 2.5 Sport, £16,695

Technically dated US Cherokee has sold well in Britain. Lesser four-cylinder 2.5 lacks muscle and refinement of more appealing (but very thirsty) 4.0- litre "six". Looks the part but has soft, soggy handling and limited room. Italian VM engine powers new 2.5 turbo-diesel, from £18,195. Wrangler less civilised, more fun.

Ford Maverick 2.7TD, from £15,585

Slow-selling Maverick is Ford's version of the Nissan Terrano 2. Lean, awkward-looking jack-of-all-trades. Lacks butch, fun-car styling of Frontera. Turbo-diesel engine flexible, but performance underwhelming. Five-door roomier, more versatile.

Land Rover Discovery 2.0 three-door, £16,620

Big, butch and not all that expensive. Style and social standing strong, though 2.0 petrol engine of cheapest model lacks low-end muscle. Diesel Frontera quicker, more economical. On-road handling ponderous, off-road ability good. Five-door more versatile.

Toyota RAV4 GX, £14,240

RAV4 is new breed of 4 x 4 with good on-road performance and handling, and limited off-road ability (there are no low-range gears, for instance). Lots of grip, peppy engine, civilised cabin, decent comfort, sensible price. A rising star in the 4 x 4 charts.

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