Compromise doesn’t always work. Your partner might want Mexican for dinner and you may feel like a burger but if you go to Jack In The Box where you can get both, neither one of you is going to be satisfied. GM learned the hard way that trying to offer the same minivan in Europe and North America just doesn’t work.
At some point during the development process for the second-generation U-Body minivans, GM Europe indicated they wanted a minivan (MPV) of their own. Renault had set the template for a modern European MPV with the Espace and rival automakers were slow to offer front-wheel-drive, three-row vans of their own. PSA and Fiat partnered to produce the Eurovans, sold as the Peugeot 806, Citroen Evasion/Synergie, Lancia Zeta and Fiat Ulysse, which launched in 1994. Volkswagen and Ford buddied up to produce the Volkswagen Sharan, Ford Galaxy and Seat Alhambra, which reached showrooms in 1995. That left GM.
The first generation of Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were roughly 69 inches wide, the same as a first generation Renault Espace. But they were 11 inches longer in short-wheelbase spec and they’d continue to grow larger. European vans, however, had to contend with often narrow European streets. The VW-Ford triplets and the Eurovans, therefore, were 4-5 inches narrower than the new ’96 minivans from Chrysler. Although the Chrysler Voyager was a modest hit in Europe, it was still outsold by rivals like the Sharan. GM Europe therefore decided they needed a van that was closer in size to European rivals.
The second-generation U-Body vans would launch with a width of 72.7 inches, around 4 inches narrower than the Mopars and almost 2 inches narrower than the first-generation “Dustbusters” – fortunately, the wheelbase was stretched by 2.2 inches to 112 inches. Only the short-wheelbase model would be offered in Europe, the even longer 120-inch wheelbase model remaining in North America.
The first-generation Pontiac Trans Sport had been sold in limited numbers in Europe and was uniquely offered with GM’s Quad 4 four-banger with a five-speed manual transmission. Although all Sintras would roll out of the Doraville, Georgia plant, Opel insisted on installing their own engines for installation at Doraville. There were two powertrains at launch: a 2.2 four-cylinder with 141 hp, mated to a 5-speed manual, and a 3.0 V6 borrowed from the Omega and Cadillac Catera, producing 201 hp and mated to a 4-speed automatic.
There were other mechanical changes too, including firmer spring and damper rates as well as some other tweaks to the steering and suspension. Inside, Opel installed some of their own switchgear. In the summer of 1998, a 2.2 turbodiesel four-cylinder was introduced, producing 115 hp and mated to a 5-speed manual.
The whole Sintra experiment proved to be a dismal failure. Over three years, just 45,000 Sintras were produced, Opel well and truly missing even their most conservative estimates of 25,000 annual units. To put it into perspective, Volkswagen sold anywhere between 45-55,000 Sharans each year in the late 1990s. That doesn’t even include its badge-engineered cousins, the Ford Galaxy and Seat Alhambra. Even the Chrysler Voyager, almost gargantuan by European standards, was selling between 35-42,000 units each year.
Although the Sintra was still on the large side for an MPV in Europe, it wasn’t oversized and unwieldy for European buyers. Besides, the Voyager had shown sheer size wasn’t necessarily an impediment. What, then, was wrong with the Sintra? A few things: quality, reliability and safety.
Opel’s quality and reliability weren’t exactly great in the late-1990s, the Vectra and Omega in particular experiencing a multitude of issues. The Sintra joined them at the bottom of quality and reliability rankings. Worse, the Sintra came in dead last in JD Power’s 1998 UK survey, ranking 182nd out of 182 vehicles. Some questioned JD Power’s methodology in the UK as they couldn’t pull owners’ information from government databases and instead had to advertise to get survey responses, arguably ensuring only the most satisfied and most angry owners would participate. Nevertheless, the Sintra had legions of angry owners who were justifiably unhappy with the way their cars were put together. The Sharan/Galaxy/Alhambra were no paragons of reliability themselves but the Sintra managed to be worse.
GM had delayed the Sintra’s launch by four months to iron out some quality issues. Evidently, they didn’t iron them all out. Nor did they replace the cheap plastics and trim that were panned by critics. Auto Motor und Sport’s launch review proved to be an omen: although they were relatively pleased with the car, they cautioned GM to keep an eye on the quality as one of the emblems fell off their tester after just a few miles.
Then there was the matter of safety. EuroNCAP flagged the Sintra in 1998 for having a very serious problem. In the frontal impact crash test, the driver’s head was forced back and up by the impact, threatening a serious neck injury to the driver and potentially even death. There was also significant deformation of the passenger compartment. Although the Chrysler Voyager also received an identical two-star overall rating in EuroNCAP tests – including an abysmal 0 score for the frontal impact test – its sales were only minimally impacted.
Effectively, Opel had hijacked the second-generation U-Body development program and changed the parameters, sabotaging the car’s potential in North America. Then the Americans gave it a cheap, plasticky interior typical of 1990s GM products and proceeded to assemble it with less care than rivals. British magazine CAR had this savage verdict:
“Our choice: A Galaxy. A Sharan. An Espace. An Alhambra. A Previa. A Space Wagon. An 806. A Synergie. A Ulysse. Anything but a Sintra.”
The Sintra wasn’t complete garbage. It was one of the most spacious MPVs in its class and was keenly priced with plenty of equipment; in Germany, the base Sintra narrowly undercut a comparably Espace in price while offering 27 more horsepower. The interior was fairly flexible with seats that could be easily removed. Provided they were running, the Opel engines were quite competitive, while the European suspension and steering tweaks endowed the Sintra with precise handling, good maneuverability and gentle understeer although there was still some American softness. But the Sintra’s quality, reliability and safety deficiencies negated these virtues.
Chastened by the bad PR and losing money exporting engines to the US, Opel quietly retired the Sintra in 1999. The 2.2 turbodiesel had only been on the market for a year. Opel had been developing a vehicle for the hot new compact MPV segment, at the time being dominated by the Renault Scenic. The competitive Zafira reached showrooms as the Sintra left them.
There would be no replacement for the Vauxhall Sintra in the UK but the Opel Sintra had a very familiar replacement. The Chevrolet-badged Trans Sport, sold in select left-hand-drive markets, was available only with the North American 3.4 V6 and four-speed automatic. It differed only from the USDM model in lighting and seat belts, making it a much more profitable proposition for GM than the Sintra had been. Why GM Europe insisted on using the Pontiac as a base is a mystery, especially considering they had switched to the Oldsmobile Silhouette body in 1994, adding Pontiac emblems and wheels. Looking at this example photographed in Prague, you can see the spot where the arrowhead logo was supposed to go; Chevrolet badges were stuck on the side and back.
In some European markets, Cadillac and Chevrolet-badged products were sold in specialized American brand dealerships for a time but, for the most part, they shared showroom space with Opels. Like the “Chevrolet” Alero, the UK market missed out on the Trans Sport, their Chevrolet options limited to the Camaro, Corvette and Blazer until GM began putting the golden bowtie on Daewoo and GM Korea products in the 2000s.
The Trans Sport was Chevrolet’s best-selling model in Sweden, in some years accounting for almost half of their sales and even briefly becoming the best-selling MPV in its class. One feature that may have boosted sales was the introduction of all-wheel-drive in 2001, something rare for the segment.
Despite its popularity, the Trans Sport was destined to be a niche player in Europe with its gas-guzzling (albeit fairly smooth) V6 powertrain and lack of a diesel option. Those seeking a larger American MPV could purchase the Austrian-built Voyager which continued to sell well in Europe and offered a diesel option.
GM didn’t seem to give any thought to exporting one of their lazily redesigned Crossover Sport Vans to Europe in 2005. Although they offered a nicer interior and more powerful engines, the Uplander and its clones would’ve been laughed out of Europe.
It wasn’t the Sintra or Trans Sport’s size that handicapped its sales in Europe, even if it was larger than an Espace or Sharan. It was the subpar quality, reliability and safety that did it in. In contrast, the downsized dimensions marginalized the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport/Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette in North America.
Compromise isn’t always a good thing.
Sintras photographed in Old Town Prague, Czech Republic and by Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany.
Trans Sport photographed in Praha 2 in Prague, Czech Republic.
Curbside Classic: 1992 Chevrolet Lumina APV – GM Deadly Sin #25 – We Just Can’t Make a Successful Minivan!
Curbside Classic: 1997 Plymouth Voyager Rallye – Split Personality Disorder
Curbside Classic: 1998 Chrysler Town & Country SX – Voyaging Downward
The GM vans did terribly in the American IIHS crash tests too, which likely put a crimp on their sales here as well.
> the Uplander and its clones would’ve been laughed out of Europe.
They were pretty much laughed out of America too, despite offering four different badge-engineered versions for Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, and Saturn. The new, longer nose made them a bit harder to park but at least fixed the crashworthiness problem. But at the same time these were new, Honda managed to improve front-impact safety in the revamped Odyssey despite shortening the front by three inches (which was added to the passenger compartment instead).
Why GM Europe insisted on using the Pontiac as a base is a mystery, especially considering they had switched to the Oldsmobile Silhouette body in 1994, adding Pontiac emblems and wheels.
One theory is that Pontiac Trans Sport (and Chevrolet Lumina APV) received the nose job in 1994, and General Motors didn’t want to spend more money on certification process for the facelifted Trans Sport for European market, namely the different headlamps from ninth-generation Bonneville (1992-1999). Oldsmobile Silhouette soldiered on unaltered until 1996. Thus, it was ‘logical’ to stick with same nose for Europe for two more years before the second generation U-Body was introduced.
To make things ever weirder, GM did offer the lovely T84 export version of Bonneville headlamps.
Considering the era, they would be made of glass and wouldn’t yellow like everything does today.
And ironically the refreshed Lumina APV was offered in some European markets as well, although usually as a grey import.
These headlamps aren’t really “lovely”. Their performance on low beam is significantly inferior to that of the US-market headlamp by just about every measure that matters: much less light within the low beam, much shorter low-beam seeing distance. It is (still) an error to think that European headlamps are necessarily better than US headlamps—it just isn’t the case. There is a lot of room in both standards for headlamp performance ranging from excellent to grossly inadequate.
As a long time reader of CAR I remember the panning these vans received in many reviews, I always figured it had to do (at least in part) to it just being a GM product. Almost in contrast, the Galaxy got decent reviews because of it’s association with the Sharan….with the Espace being THE yardstick all others were measured against.
Was quite surprised to read that the Opel/Vauxhall vans were built in the US. Not that it matters, but it was too bad the driving dynamics of the European vans didn’t filter over to the US vans. Instead, the European vans got the lackluster assembly quality of the US vans.
Wow, I had never looked closely at those width figures. How fascinating that GM could botch the vehicle in *both* Europe and the US.
+1 – The worst of both worlds. I do remember thinking that these did look narrower than the Dustbusters.
I know the IIHS made a big deal out of the frontal overlap crash test and that the 97-04 U Vans were unsafe death traps but i wonder just how much of a big deal that overlap test on this van was. GM sold loads of U Vans in 1997-2004. It is true they did not set the world ablaze and take down the Dodge caravan but they were a success and they were everywhere.
That said despite the fact that the IIHS called it a death trap and that GM sold tons of them, the IIHS’s own literature listing vehicle fatality rates, shows that it had no more driver and passenger fatalities then other cars. In fact this information showed that the Corolla of that era was more of a death trap then a U Van was.
I am not surprised that the U van did not sell as well in Europe as they have different tastes then Americans regarding cars. Other then VW, BMW and Mercedes, European car companies are not very successful in the USA. Yes a few are coming back but who knows how long Fiat will last in the USA
In my own case, I have never been worried about the crash tests on my 1997 Pontiac trans Sport and it is one of the smoothest riding vehicles I have owned. I paid a whooping $500 for the thing and it has done well for me.
Commenting system doesn’t like me today…
” In fact this information showed that the Corolla of that era was more of a death trap then a U Van was.”
I thought I had remembered reading that somewhere, too. To paraphrase an old G.I. motto: “If it’s GM it must be terrible…” (The original was a spoof on the old Mattel motto, referencing the new “plastic” M-16 rifles during the Vietnam Era; “If it’s Mattel, it must be swell”).
I have a 2004 U van and have access to it’s direct US manufacturer competition. The U van beats the Ford Windstar/Mercury Monterey in terms of smoothness, but the Grand Caravan is a better handler. The Fords and the Dodges are slightly larger and can handle cargo better than the U van. The U van gets better fuel mileage, at least with the examples I have access to.
Like others, I kind of wished they hadn’t made something to span both markets. I use my van like a… van. It functions well as a people hauler, although I’d like more grunt. But I also use it like a pickup truck, so that includes runs to Home Depot or loading up my mountain bike. The cargo room is a bit short and the third row seat doesn’t come out or fold into the floor, so loading can be difficult. Even though it’s the “long” van, I was disappointed to find out that a 4′ x 8′ sheet of (anything) will stick out about a foot. What the hell, GM?
FWIW, once this one dies, I’ll be looking at a Stow N Go Chrysler product of some kind. Too bad, I’d like to see what the rejuvenated GM would do with the minivan concept.
“…threatening a serious neck injury to the driver and potentially even death.”
Speaking of death and minivans (OK, not entirely relevant, but given yesterday’s Terrifying Cars post, scary stuff is on our minds) — while test-driving new minivans last week, I happened to glance through the Toyota Sienna’s owners manual. Doing so, I was surprised at how many warnings there were about the possibly of death caused by doing various things. Everything from speed to improperly placed floormats to adjusting the steering wheel while driving to obstructing the camera sensors, etc. These things can all lead to directly death, according to Toyota.
So at home I downloaded a copy of the Sienna’s manual and in fact the word “Death” appears 122 times. By contrast, in the Honda Odyssey owners manual, “Death” appears only 21 times.
Now, I know that Toyota’s trying to cover their own liability, but 122 times? Goodness.
It seems that crashing one of these U-body vans might well lead directly to death. But that minor point aside, I actually liked driving the one Chevy Venture I rented in the early 2000s. Still, it’s easy to see why these failed, and I never knew the story of their European sales fiasco.
” the word “Death” appears 122 times. By contrast, in the Honda Odyssey owners manual, “Death” appears only 21 times.”
There it is. The Sienna is 6 times deadlier than the Odyssey.
Kidding aside, who remembers when an owners manual wasn’t long enough to mention anything 122 times?
Yes, all that death talk scared us away from the Sienna. We bought a Kia Sedona instead — only 32 deadly sins listed in its owners manual, so therefore much safer than a Toyota.
Uh-oh, I hope the Sedona is a good van for you. If it’s not, I will feel somehow responsible . . .
Perhaps you can write up an owner report after you have spent some time with it.
As a second aside, I should be giving my new black one back soon as KIA has identified the repair procedure for the recall. I should have my gray 2012 back pretty soon.
I told me wife that you vouched for the Sedona’s perfection. No pressure or anything…
I had actually assumed that we’d buy a Sienna, however after driving it I was disappointed by a very poorly shifting transmission. Turns out Toyota introduced a new 8-sp. transmission on the Sienna last year, and it’s caused a lot of trouble. We then drove the Sedona, and while not perfect, it didn’t have the driveability problems we experienced on the Toyota test drive, and it’s thousands cheaper too. We’re picking it up this weekend.
Comprehensive write-up William! Given how unmistakably Murican the vans would inevitably be, I wonder why GM bother putting in so much Opel input. It certainly didn’t make it shine, and the American focus of the Chrysler Voyager didn’t hurt it either until the market segment faded altogether. At least the Mopar van was much better built (in Austria). Today, these cars are simply no longer in demand at all.
The Sintra hurt Opel altogether, too: it cemented the image of low quality already brought on by the Lopez-cutthroat-cost-saving-era that took a long time to recover from.
It always amazes me just the amount of MPVs that Europe has had compared to the US. Of course, the differences in road layout and fuel prices probably had something to do with MPVs being more seen than SUVs, but compared to the US, there are tons of Minivans in Europe. Or maybe my memory is betraying me and there’s more MPV models in America than I’m letting on.
I’m guessing the Opel Vectra was basically just a copy and paste version of the Vauxhall Vectra that was derided by the motoring press at the time for being the car equivalent of lumpy oatmeal. If it is, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see it have such a dismal reputation. Didn’t Opel have it’s own version of the Vauxhall Frontera (Itself a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo) as well? If they did, that would certainly lead to more of Opel’s reputation for unreliability during that time.
Obviously, Minivans/MPVs have never been my cup of tea, but I at least have a weird soft spot for the first generation GM U-Vans. They were underwhelming and could not hold any candle to the Chrysler minivans, but for as controversial and polarizing as the dustbuster styling was, I will admit that’s exactly what makes it a guilty pleasure of mine. The weird and funky styling of the Chevy Lumina APV has its own charm, and the Oldsmobile Silhouette is something I find incredibly likeable in a cheesy, early 90s, “look how futuristic it is” sort of way. The second generation however, leaves me feeling cold. It’s just so bland and non-descript, that it’s almost the equivalent of automotive apathy. The fact that it was a non-competitive death trap did it no favors.
Even in Europe the MPV segment is fading rapidly now, replaced by gussied up MPVs e.g. crossovers. The Opel Zafira was a major success, but the current (smart-looking) generation will be the last one. The MPV didn’t really stay around long enough to really settle, so it will be gone soon. The class the Sintra operated in is essentially moribund; the Ford Galaxy won’t be replaced, the current Espace is a crossover, leaving only the VW Sharan/Seat Alhambra.
Opel used to have a reputation of quality in the ’70s, gradually eroding in the ’80s and really suffering in the ’90s, only to slowly recover since the turn of the millennium. Rampant cost-cutting resulting in poor insulation, leading to stuff like Astras catching fire while filling up. Add to that the bland second gen Vectra and Opel lost a lot of customers. The cars have gotten a lot better since then but buyers are still a bit wary. VW, Skoda and Kia were of course happy to help out disappointed Opel customers.
At least Vauxhall didn’t have much of a reputation to lose, that was always poor. Nevertheless the UK still is Opel/Vauxhall’s largest market, since although all Vauxhalls have been German-engineered since 1975, the British pride sticks.
This GM did score one engineering triumph over Ford, Toyota and Nissan of the same vintage, it has two rear sidedoors . GM did by dump luck because it always considered to sell them in left and right drive format, so that its structure was designed for this in mind.
GM also has some last laugh for the design of this van, it is in name of Bruick GL8 sold very well in China for decades, it just released a new version with the same chassis. This Bruick is widely used as a prestigious vehicle for Chinese companies. I was in a 2015 version, the interior quality is superb than my Honda Odyssey EXL.
There is a story (maybe true, maybe legend), that prior to the Sintra/Venture minivan, that GM Europe had an executive retreat at a Swiss chalet, and they used Dustbuster Lumina APVs (or Pontiac versions) to shuttle execs up the mountain to the chalet, however the turning radius on the APVs was not tight enough to maneuver the last hairpin turns, and said execs had to hike up the mountain to their destination. Hence some demands from GM Europe as to more input on next minivan.
Handling, I have heard was actually pretty good on the Sintra/Venture models, due to euro engineers winning the battle over camber/caster settings on wheels/suspension.
Another excellent article and photography William. I am always amused at some of the names car manufacturers choose for their products. In North America, ‘Sintra’ is a registered brand name for a rather unglamorous PVC board generally used for signage.
The name Sintra likely refers to the municipality and city in Portugal, noted for its many large historic villas. It was a major destination retreat for the wealthy of Lisbon in the past, and remains a huge tourist draw today. In that context the name makes some sence as a spacious “getaway” vehicle.
The second-gen U-bodies were always the bane of my existence when it came to minivans. Even when brand new they seemed tired looking and poorly assembled, and I feel in many ways they were one of the driving forces that gave minivans such a negative rap because they truly lacked any redeeming or interesting qualities. At least the Chrysler NS minivans were actually stylish.
The refreshed, 2005-era U-body minivans were only really supposed to last until the Lambda crossovers (GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse) were ready, but they were still piss-poor and it would have probably served GM to just exit the minivan segment altogether at the time.
According to Lutz, there was a Lambda minivan developed, but was wisely left at the curb at the last minute. About the Sintra name, was Nissan not using the name Sentra in Europe? At the time, I read a launch article and thought the name might’ve been typed wrong.
Sintra is also one letter short of Sinatra, of 1981 Imperial fame. (And some other things).
Well somebody liked them so it wasnt all bad for GM, Ive seen a Vauxhall version here in New Zealand so an immigrant likely brought it with them, (friends did the same with a 66 VW van its not unusual) its one of the few Opel products we dont see here with Holden badges, now theres a market they overlooked it could have proved lucrative but unlikely.
Great, informative piece, Will. That the Sintra (what’s funny is that I had initially misread the model name as “Sinatra”) could fail in its mission on so many, key areas (reliability, safety) is fascinating.
(… And now I’m hungry for both a burger and Mexican food, but it looks like Ethiopian cuisine tonight. 🙂 )