What is it?
The big mainstream hatchback isn’t dead. In fact, the Vauxhall Insignia has always done rather well in the UK. The British buy twice as many of ’em as any other country, and the model is due for replacement next year.
This is an early drive of a late development example of the next-generation Insignia; a ‘validation prototype’, they call it, used by engineers to prove components and for management to sign them off at various steps along the way.
2017 Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport officially revealed
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 and a Peugeot 407 and a Renault Laguna and you knew where you were. These days, though, the Insignia’s traditional class doesn’t just encompass what you’d once call compact executive cars, namely the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class; no, it’s absolutely dominated by them. 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.
So this time the Insignia’s tack has changed a bit. Vauxhall is pitching it as ‘the smartest alternative to premium’. The original Insignia was a biggish car in the segment anyway but has grown again, to 4897mm long, up 55mm, with a wheelbase, of 2829mm, that’s up by 92mm. That has pushed its size well into Skoda Superb territory, and almost into Audi A6/Mercedes E-Class territory. As with the Superb, if you choose an Insignia, they say, you’ll get a lot more space for your money. Which, if you can’t compete on badge alone, is not a bad way to pitch it.
The Insignia – which we’ll see undisguised in December – is based on a new global General Motors platform, scalable like all good new platforms are. The architecture is called E2 and, as with the recent Astra, weight removal is at the core of its aims. The body-in-white, then, 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.
So far we’ve tried two versions, both disguised and both with covers all over the interior and its very much unfinished plastics, but both representative of how the cars will drive. One was a 1.5-litre, 163bhp turbocharged petrol with a six-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive. The other was a 2.0-litre, 247bhp turbocharged petrol, which as standard will come with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive. Bit more of a rare groove, then, that one, unless you’re CID officer.
What’s it like?
To the 1.5-litre petrol first, then. It’s a development of the 1.4-litre turbo engine that’s currently in the Astra, so Vauxhall calls the upgrade ‘rightsizing’ rather than just continuing the trend for downsizing. Going up by 100cc 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’ll soon be a new European legislative test drive cycle from which a car’s official economy is calculated, which is more likely to represent real-world driving. In actual driving – as our True MPG figures often find – actually 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.
The 1.4-litre engine that spawns it receives some serious modifications, including major new internals, rather than just being stroked out to 1.5-litres. It’s 16kg lighter than Vauxhall’s recently departed 1.6 and drives through a new manual gearbox.
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 petrols 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 soon to be departed 1.6, which I should think will mean a quoted kerb weight of around 1400kg, which, if it tips the scales that way, 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, while all of the major control weights are pleasing.
You can sit some 30mm lower in the new Insignia than the current car, too, so there’s a widely adjustable driving position, while the steering is, as with other controls, positive, responsive and accurate, with a good amount of self-centring. They’re the kind of controls that you kind of forget are there, rather than any of them offering particularly noteworthy responses or feedback, but there’s merit to that.
Similarly the ride is composed, on passive dampers and with MacPherson struts at the front and a five-link set-up at the rear. Tyres on the test car were 245/45 R18s, so towards the smaller end of what’ll be offered, and they helped give a calm, honest ride quality. An honest dynamism, too. Vauxhall hasn’t set out to make the most agile car in the class, 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 brand 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 had adaptive dampers, which were best left in their middling 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.
The four-wheel drive system is unusual, albeit effective. A propshaft going from engine to rear axle is always turning, but there’s no differential back there. Instead, one clutch each side of the centre line, electronically controlled, can hook up power to the rear, within set parameters and torque vectoring more to one side than the other, as it sees fit. But despite the power and torque vectoring this isn’t some kind of manic Q-car. It’s just a brisk Insignia with more traction.
Should I buy one?
It’s too soon to say if you should buy a new-generation Insignia. We haven’t even seen the interior fully yet, although I can tell you that there’s as much space in the back as there is in, say, an Audi 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 Skoda Superb-plus levels of interior room. And on this showing, the car is up to it dynamically, too.
Vauxhall Insignia 1.5 165PS
Location Bedfordshire; On sale April; Price from £23,000 (est); Engine 4 cyls, 1500cc, turbo, petrol; Power 163bhp; Torque 184lb ft; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1400kg (approx); 0-62mph 8.5sec (est); Top speed 130mph (est); Economy 55mpg (combined, est); CO2/tax band na

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