Review and road test of the Vauxhall Frontera (1991 - 2004)
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Vauxhall launched these three and five-door off-roaders in late 1991 into a market deep in recession, yet they were immediately a smash hit. Sales of GTi-style cars had crashed after insurance companies pushed premiums through the roof. Suddenly, all those twenty-something buyers needed a new type of vehicle to turn their attentions to and they found it in the Frontera.
Vauxhall didn't exactly create the off-road/leisure vehicle market but they certainly made it more accessible. The Frontera comes in two forms that appeal to two different buyer groups. The Tonka-toy looks of the three-door are as irresistible to as many people as the five-door junior Range Rover styling.
First Generation (1991-1998)3 & 5-door, 2.0, 2.2, 2.4, 2.3, 2.5 & 2.8 turbo diesels [Sport, Sport Soft-top, Sport S, 16v, I, TD, TD Sport, TD Sport S]
Second Generation (1998-to date)3 & 5-door, 2.0, 2.2, 2.2 turbo diesel, 3.2V6 [Sport, Sport RS, Estate, Estate Limited]
The Frontera, though assembled in Luton, is actually a rebadged Isuzu design, but more so than the Isuzu Trooper/Vauxhall Monterey (RIP) twins. The engines are a successful mix of European and Japanese, like the styling.
There were three models at the October 1991 launch - a 2.0-litre three-door Sport, a 2.4-litre five-door and a 2.3-litre turbo diesel five-door. The first change came in September 1993 when the 2.0-litre engine gained fuel injection. The model retained the Sport name but gained electric mirrors and windows. Apart from a couple of very limited-run special editions and a short-lived but desirable open-topped Sport version, there were no further changes until April 1995 when new engines arrived, including a 2.2 and a 2.8-litre turbo diesel.
For the 1997 model year, driver and passenger airbags became available and the 2.8-litre turbo diesel engine was swapped for a 2.5 with more power and torque. A new dashboard lifted the appearance of the interior and addressed all the ergonomic criticisms that had been thrown at it since the 1991 launch.
The line-up was replaced by an all-new range (including a V6 derivative) in October 1998. This featured more modern styling and a new 2.2-litre (Opel rather than Isuzu) direct injection diesel engine. The 2.2-litre petrol engine from the old model was retained and the 3.2-litre V6 from the (now defunct) Monterey was borrowed for the replacement flagship Estate model. This 3.2-litre engine was also added to the three-door range in October 2000 in the Sport RS model.
Late 2001 saw further changes to the Frontera line up, with a V-shaped grille, clear light lenses and new designs of alloy wheels adopted. The Olympus models, previously special editions, were subsumed into the mainstream range whilst the 3.2-litre engine was now offered in both three and five door body styles. By early 2004 it was all up for the Frontera.
What You Get
You don't get full-time four-wheel drive. No, these are Suzuki Vitara-style off-roaders. Most of the time, the Frontera is a rear-wheel drive machine but you can change to four-wheel drive quickly enough. The main advantage with cars of this type is the ability to see over the cars queued ahead of you and to anticipate hold-ups.
The interiors are a bit boring to look at but are usually full of equipment to make the journey less tiring. Many cars have electric windows, central locking and a sunroof as well as a good sound system.
What to Look For
For a time the Frontera had a bad name for quality with owners descending en masse on Vauxhall HQ to complain. Mechanicals are generally tough, though like the interiors, so there's no major concern with the durability of either. But look out for leaky rear doors, oil leaks, rattly crankshafts, clattery camshafts and noisy wheel bearings.
Be careful, as always, with the turbo diesels. If the engine has had a hard life it'll blow lots of smoke, even when warm. Turbo rotor seals are vulnerable to abuse so get the car checked by someone who knows what to look for. Better to be safe...
With any off-roader, the most important thing is to check that the vehicle hasn't been badly abused if it's gone off the beaten track. Scuff marks on the paint, small dents and touched-up black paint on the bull-bar (if fitted) are all tell-tale signs that your chosen machine has spent some time off the bitumen. All are OK, just something to help get the price down a little.
(Based on a Frontera 2.2 16v '95') A full exhaust system is about £320. A clutch assembly will be around £105, while a new starter motor will be just under £75. An alternator should be close to £120, a radiator is around £115, a front headlamp is about £50 whilst front brake pads are in the region of £16 and rear shoes £19.
On the Road
Or perhaps off the road? The Frontera isn't really at its best either way. It does a fair job both in the mud and in Sainsbury's car park but suffers from being a bit of a compromised vehicle. The weight is considerable, with that heavy transmission to carry around, but most of it is down low in the vehicle so stability is not as bad as some top-heavy rivals.
You'll notice it's slightly truck-like to drive, if you've come from, say, a GTi, but then you can't drive your hot hatch through a muddy field, can you?
Like all vehicles of the type, be prepared to accept that the Frontera wasn't really designed to sit quietly and be totally stable at 80mph on the M1 and you'll be more forgiving of its limitations.
Neither fish nor fowl. It wants to be a real off-roader but hasn't got the ground clearance or full-time transmission. Equally, it's a little too unrefined to cut it as a motorway cruiser or easy-to-drive shopping car. Best to think of it as a handsome and full-size toy-car and one that has the ability to cope with most things you can throw at it, whatever the weather.
Vauxhall Frontera (1991 - 2004) review by JONATHAN CROUCH