The transatlantic cooperation be tween General Motors Corp's North American engineers and the design team at Opel will give the '97 European Sintra significant advantages over other European minivans.

Already the van market is bursting at the seams, stuffed with new model introductions over the past two years, including the Ford Galaxy/Volkswagen Sharan, Mercedes-Benz Viano and the Citroen Evasion to compete with the market-leading Renault Espace.

European minivan consumers already can choose from about 20 different models. But Opel President David J. Herman says that importing the Sintra will insulate Opel from any market catastrophes.

"Some years ago most European automotive producers, in looking at the U.S. market, came to the conclusion that there would be substantial growth in the APV market and it would probably become 5% of the European market, or somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 units," he says.

Those competitors, Mr. Herman says, developed new vehicles and built capacity to meet those projections. But Opel did not follow Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp., Volkswagen AG, Fiat Auto Spa, PSA Group and other European automakers who now have to justify their investments.

"We had a contrary view based on the size of these vehicles and our assessment of European tastes, which was that the market would be significantly smaller than that," Mr. Herman says.

Today the market is approximately 250,000 units. Opel does not expect it to grow above 300,000 units. "So we decided to adopt a totally different strategy. From the beginning of the design of the vehicle we had 20 engineers in the U.S. working on the styling, inside and outside, and getting our European powertrains, into the vehicle," says Mr. Herman.

"If we get our fair share of a market of 300,000, we will sell 40,000," he says. "If we don't and we sell 35,000, so be it. If we sell 45,000, that is much better."

Mr. Herman says that Opel retained three engines instead of including U.S. powertrains in the Sintra because of Europe's higher gasoline prices, and because they represent a definite brand characteristlc. But some day Mr. Herman believes GM will produce common powertrains for both the U.S. and Europe.

"People are talking about converging platforms, but the real matter is do you have to converge powertrains," Mr. Herman says. "It is not just platforms, it is all major components."