Curbside Classic: 1996-99 Opel/Vauxhall Sintra and 1999-2004 Chevrolet Trans Sport – Neither Fish Nor Fowl (But Maybe Foul)

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.

(clockwise from top left) Volkswagen Sharan, Citroen Evasion, Peugeot 806, Fiat Ulysse, Seat Alhambra, Ford Galaxy, Lancia Zeta

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.

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