SUVs have always been useful, practical vehicles that make sense if you have a family or lots of kit to cart around. But for the last few years interest has been growing in a new category of smaller SUV, for drivers who liked the commanding driving position and go-anywhere ability but didn't need quite so much space. Vauxhall's offering in this class, the Antara, arrived in 2007 and has just been refreshed with a smarter exterior, new engines and revised suspension.
It's the new diesel engine, the 2.2-litre CDTi, which makes the biggest impact. To improve refinement it has a pair of rotating balance shafts which cancel out vibrations. Though there's a tremor through the pedals at tickover, the engine is smooth on the move, pulling happily from 1200rpm and cruising quietly. It's strong in the mid-range and delivers 163PS, enough to give the Antara – which is no lightweight – spritely performance. You have a choice of six-speed manual gearbox, with a rather ponderous long-throw action, or a six-speed automatic. You can also choose between front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, the latter an electronically-controlled system which adapts automatically to the road conditions. Most of the time drive goes only to the front wheels, but when grip is in doubt the system can send up to half the power to the rear wheels. There's also an electric parking brake and a hill start assist system which stops the Antara rolling back on hills.
The ride from the retuned suspension can be bit busy over some surfaces but most of the time the Antara softens the worst road irregularities with aplomb, and body control in corners is excellent for a tall machine with no sports car pretentions.
The Antara has plenty of good rivals from Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen and others, some of which might prove cheaper to run in the long term thanks to lower CO2 emissions and, therefore, low road tax. But the Antara has a trump card which might make it a more attractive proposition than any competitor – low price. The two-wheel drive base model comfortably undercuts entry level RAV4s, Kugas and Tiguans and even the up-range 4x4 Antaras with leather seats and fancy air-con have prices keen enough to get everyone interested.