Test car in its final stage of development gives a prviews of the news Insignia’s abilities
The big mainstream hatchback isn’t dead. In fact, the Vauxhall Insignia has always done rather well in the UK. The model is due for replacement next year, which is why we find ourselves having an early drive of the new Insignia Grand Sport (as the liftback will now be called) in validation prototype form, used by engineers to prove components and for management to sign them off at various steps along the way.
It’s a funny old market segment, this one. Once, it was called the D-segment and in it a Vauxhall Vectra went up against a Ford Mondeo, a Peugeot 407 and a Renault Laguna and you knew where you were. These days, though, the class is dominated by compact executive cars, namely the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Across Europe, the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia is only the third best-selling car among them, behind the 3 Series and C-Class but ahead of the A4.
This time, Vauxhall is pitching the Insignia as “the smartest alternative to premium”. The original Insignia was a biggish car anyway, but it has grown again, to 4897mm long (up by 55mm), with a wheelbase of 2829mm (up by 92mm). That pushes it well into Skoda Superb territory and almost into the Audi A6/Mercedes E-Class’s league. If you choose an Insignia, they say, you’ll get a lot more space for your money.
The Insignia is based on a new global General Motors platform called E2 and, as with the recent Astra, weight removal is at the core of its aims. The body-in-white is 13%, or 59kg, lighter than that of the old car and typically models are 150kg lighter than their predecessors, like for like. There had already been quite a lot of engine downsizing during the old car’s life, so we’re not talking about going from a 2.2 to a 1.5-litre diesel here.
We’ve tried two versions, both disguised and both with covers all over the interior, but both representative of how the cars will drive. One was a 163bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol with a six-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive. The other was a 247bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol, which as standard has an eight-speed automatic gearboxand four-wheel drive. Bit more of a rare groove, then, that one, unless you’re a CID officer.
The 1.5-litre petrol is a development of the 1.4-litre turbo engine that’s currently in the Astra, so Vauxhall calls the upgrade ‘rightsizing’. Going up by l00cc is recognition of the fact that a 1.4-litre engine just isn’t up to the task of shifting an Insignia around without overworking it, even though you can get a (heavier still) 1.4-litre Insignia today.
More to the point, there will soon be a new European legislative test drive cycle from which a car’s official fuel economy is calculated and this is more likely to represent real-world driving. In actual driving – as our True MPG figures often find – just going smaller and smaller isn’t necessarily the answer, however much it works when you’re optimising for a lab test. So there’s no chance of a 1.0-litre petrol triple for the new Insignia, as there currently is for the Ford Mondeo. The 1.5 petrol is the smallest engine.
Vauxhall expects the meat of sales to still be diesels (they’ll have from 110bhp upwards), but petrols are staging a comeback. Partly that’s in light of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, partly because petrol engines have made big efficiency strides and partly because petrol cars are often cheaper than their diesel equivalents.
Certainly, it’s pleasing to drive a petrol car that doesn’t feel under-capacity and overwhelmed. Vauxhall says the Insignia 1.5 is 170kg lighter than the outgoing 1.6, which should mean a quoted kerb weight of around 1400kg, which would be remarkable. But right now, I can tell you the car fires to a quiet idle and remains relatively muted through the mid-range, only taking on a hint of gruffness at high revs. The gearshift is slick and positive, too.
You can sit 30mm lower in the new Insignia than in the current car, so there’s a widely adjustable driving position, and the steering is, as with the other controls, positive, responsive and accurate, with a good amount of self-centring.
Similarly, the ride is composed, on passive dampers and with MacPherson struts at the front and a five-linkset-up at the rear. Tyres on the test car were 245/45 Rl8s, so towards the smaller end of what‘ll be offered, and they helped to give a calm, honest ride quality. An honest dynamism, too. Vauxhall hasn’t set out to make the most agile car, but it’s measured, sensible, not uninvolving and, above all, competitive.
Less so is the chassis that comes with the 2.0-litre car. The engine is less smooth all through the rev range, and although the eight-speed automatic is also new, it pays to make a lot of the shifting decisions yourself rather than let the gearbox force the engine to lug it out from low revs.
The 2.0 test car had adaptive dampers, which were best left in their middle mode of three. Sport introduces too much jiggle, Tour too much float. Normal does the best passing impression of the standard passive dampers, although it’s less successful than they are, certainly less straightforward and agile, and the ride is choppier, if far from bad.
“Despite the power and the torque vectoring, the 2.0 isn’t some kind of manic Q-car”
The four-wheel drive system is unusual, albeit effective. A propshaft going from the engine to the rear axle is always turning, but there’s no differential back there. Instead, one clutch each side of the centre line, electronically controlled, can hookup power to the rear, within set parameters and by sending more torque to one side than the other, as it sees fit. But despite the power and the torque vectoring, this isn’t some kind of manic Q-car. It’s just a brisk Insignia with more traction.
It’s too soon to say if you should buy a new-generation Insignia. We haven’t even seen the interior fully yet, although there’s as much space in the back as there is in, say, an A6 or Volvo V90.
A few mainstream manufacturers, like Vauxhall, are in an odd place, wondering what to do with their big saloons, hatchbacks and estates, given people’s predilection for something with a posh badge, or a crossover like the Nissan Qashqai, instead. An eminently sensible solution is to give buyers more than they expected, such as the Insignia’s Superb-plus level of interior room. And on this showing, the car is up to it dynamically, too.
New Insignia offers mammoth interior space and a competitive driving experience, depending on the variant
Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport 1.5 165PS
Price: From £23,000 (est)
Engine: 4cyls, 1500cc, turbo, petrol
Torque: 184lb ft
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1400kg (est)
Top speed: 130mph (est)
Economy: 55mpg (combined, est)
CO2/tax band: na
Rivals: Ford Mondeo 1.5T Zetec, Skoda Superb 1.4 TSI SEACT