Unexceptional Classics

The Vauxhall Frontera was bulky, crude and heavy – and those were its good points

by Giles Chapman
20 July 2020 2 min read
The Vauxhall Frontera was bulky, crude and heavy – and those were its good points
Photos: Vauxhall

In a tribute to the cars celebrated at Hagerty’s Festival of the Unexceptional, Giles Chapman peers into the past of Britain’s everyday cars.

The memories I have of the Vauxhall Frontera are not wholly bad ones. In 2002 I used one to tow a trailer-load of rubble and old window frames to the dump (with more rubbish stashed inside this five-door model’s considerable hold) and, bearing in mind the cautious nature of the manoeuvres involved, it did the job manfully enough.

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Once unshackled from the Ifor Williams four-wheeler, though, driving the Frontera in normal-car mode was awful. Being bulky, crude and heavy, it was scarily slow – 18 seconds to haul its sorry carcass to 60mph – and flooring it on to a teeming roundabout put heart straight into mouth.

The ride was horribly bouncy in pothole-rich suburbia, while tackling farm tracks above walking pace meant regularly bumping the cranium into the meagre headlining; it would have been better over rough terrain if the ground clearance had been greater, so no experienced farmer would want one unless to pull a horsebox, slowly, over wet grass, was the task in hand.

‘Handling’, were you to attempt driving in a sporting manner, was awful, although the gutless acceleration was not exactly much of an encouragement to spirited driving anyway.

Unexceptional Classic Cars_Vauxhall Frontera_Giles Chapman_Hagerty

The Frontera was one of a slew of second-rate mid-size 4x4s of the early 1990s all trying desperately to undercut the Land Rover Discovery. You could also pick the Nissan Terrano II or SsangYong Musso for cash-strapped off-roading, although most of them were outshone by the smaller, nimbler, faster and all-round tons better Toyota RAV4 in 1995.

The Frontera, at least, did something to help the British economy. The design originated in Japan in 1989 as the Isuzu MU (for – get this – ‘Mysterious Utility’), and was a three- or five-door SUV built straight on to the ladder frame chassis of Isuzu’s rough-and-ready four-wheel drive pick-up. The dire ride quality was down to the live axle and rear leaf springs that entailed, although things did improve in 1995 with coil springs at the back.

Unexceptional Classic Cars_Vauxhall Frontera_Giles Chapman_Hagerty

Vauxhall, after a shortcut way to compete with Land Rover, found space to build the MU in its Luton van factory, had the chassis frame hammered out in Wolverhampton by GKN, and fitted its own engines – 2- or 2.4-litre petrol and a 2.3-litre turbodiesel.

Indeed the MU/Frontera made an incongruous ‘world car’, for it was built as an Isuzu Amigo or Rodeo in Indiana, USA, while Japanese-made ones were also marketed by Honda, as the Honda Passport. Luton supplied the car to Europe as an Opel and even Australia as a Holden. The chunky proportions and blistered wheelarches surely excited potential punters, along with the spare wheel hung off the back all macho-like, although really put there to boost the cramped interior space.

In 1991, you could get one of these at £13,500, almost two grand less than a Discovery and no waiting list to endure. But there’s no such thing as a free (ploughman’s) lunch: depreciation was assured and brutal because the cars were unreliable and very heavy on fuel.

The aforesaid RAV4 and then the Land Rover Freelander savaged even the 1998 second-gen Frontera, yet it lingered on until 2004. Today, with less than 3000 still running, they’re mercifully rare, but as period pieces from the earliest SUV craze, the unsophisticated charm factor has something going for it.

Unexceptional Classics: Nissan Micra

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  • Doc Holliday says:

    Can’t agree wiith you about ‘towing a horsebox’. My brothers friend bought a Frontera for just that purpose – and it was pants at that as well. He traded it for a Disco in less than a month.

  • Richard Dale says:

    Have to disagree with a great deal of your write up.
    My 2.5 TDS is brilliant fun to drive at speed down the back lanes, it’s quite a quick vehicle too, with loads of torque and it’s fantastic in deep snow!
    I tried to get it stuck but it refused!

    Members of the Frontera Owners Group (FOG) swear by them and many have owned Discoveries and prefer the more reliable and simple mechanicals of the trusty Fronty!

    Sure, the early leaf-sprung ones don’t drive as well, it the later ones, like my 1998 A-Series, drives better than any other similar 4×4 I’ve driven, including the Disco, X-Trail, Freelander, the RAV4 you rave about etc etc. I’ve had 14 years and counting in the car trade, so there’s hardly a mainstream vehicle I’ve not driven!
    My trusty TDS has been fantastic and great fun to own and drive. Sure, it’s no Lotus in the handling stakes, but it’s better than many modern SUVs around the twisties and it shows quite a few up off the lights too, believe it or not! It’ll also cruise all day quite happily at the legal speed limit. I was more than happy to do 600 plus miles in mine one weekend to Scotland!
    Anyway, that’s my little rant. I often think you journalist types really should speak to actual current owners, before writing such a piece, to get the actual facts!

  • Cris says:

    I hjave to be honest, I have a 2000 3.2 V6 Frontera and I love it. Fuel consumption sucks but it’s a big truck. I use it to get up to my fields all year round and to transport my sheep with a trailer with no issues whatsoever. The engine is Isuzu, so it is reliable. It cost a whopping £200 to go through the last MOT, including the cost of the MOT itself. It’s fast enough and handles well. It’s comfortable and has plenty of space.
    People always knock them as being rubbish. It’s a shame really to be honest. They’re a good work horse and easy to maintain.

  • Marina says:

    Yes I too agree great work horse, massive rear space , fun to drive, towed no problem.
    2.0 petrol frontera sport s apache 26 years old before it finally had to go. Started 1st time always.
    You have to own one to appreciate how good they could be. Oh and always felt like a safe car, metal bumpers it was tough.

  • Marina says:

    I nearly forgot absolutely brilliant in deep snow, thick ice up the steepest longest hill was no problem 😊

  • Marina says:

    Carried a lot of weight in it as well 1 ton of bagged up gravel for 1 example uphill again at times never faltered, didn’t weigh the back down much either.

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