The Insignia replaces the Vectra. You can hardly blame GM for changing the name, because the Vectra badge has become a ball and chain that no new car could successfully drag along. But a new name alone won’t do the trick. In 1995, the Vectra replaced the Cavalier. That was one unpleasant car succeeding another, and no amount of renaming could hide it. If the Insignia nameplate is going to get any respect, the car it’s riveted to has to be a real step forward.
So the Insignia is. GM knew it had to look better and feel like a quality item. After all, brilliant dynamics aren’t the be-all and end-all. If they were, Audi certainly wouldn’t have got where it is today. The Insignia’s designers have done all the right things: fast screen angles front and rear, a muscular sweep to the surfaces, big wheels to fill the arches, neat details, careful shutlines and smart jewellery. The widened track helps a lot, of course. Both the saloon and the hatch share a similar sleek tail end. Next January’s estate, slightly longer aft of the back wheels, has all the confidence of an Audi A6 wagon.
And inside, progress is even bigger. The old stack-of-boxes dash has given way to a series of gestural sweeps, with the passenger section pushed right away toward the windscreen to give you a sense of room to stretch. A centre switch panel hovers just proud of the main console surface, giving subtle 3D interest that is emphasised by its night-time rim-lighting. Even the stalks are new, and the indicators work like they should – the stalk stays in position rather than meaninglessly returning to the centre, a habit of current Vauxhalls (and BMWs, let us not forget) that drives everyone who has ever experienced it completely batty. You even turn the key in order to start the engine. Some ideas have been around for years because they work.
As with the Mondeo, the Insignia will eventually share its platform with all sorts of other cars all over the world, including Saabs. This means Vauxhall has been able to give it a variety of options that, if being done for the Insignia alone, would never justify the development cost. For instance, 4WD and big V6s will do OK in the next Saab 9-5, and so they’re being made available as options for the Insignia. You just know the AGM of the Insignia V6 4WD Owners Club could take place in a phone box.
The kick-off engine is a 140bhp, 1.8 petrol, and then a 180bhp, 1.6 turbo, then a 220bhp, 2.0 turbo, which I drove. Top of the petrol heap is the 260bhp, V6 auto. On the diesel side, it’s a pair of 2.0s stretched from the old 1.9s, giving 130 and 160bhp, with a 190 twin-turbo to come. At the moment, everything comes with a six-speed manual or six-speed auto, though a twin-clutch is in the works.
In fact, lots of fancy stuff is in the works. BMW has been making a song and dance about the new 7-Series having a camera that can read speed-limit road signs as well as nudge you into lane. Well, the Insignia will have that too. The parking radar doesn’t just beep – it tells you how to move the steering wheel to wriggle into a spot. The Bluetooth can stream tunes direct from your music phone.
I’m in the 2.0 turbo 2WD,and, sure enough, the drive is something of a revolution – at least, compared with the Vectra. Are we in Mondeo territory? Close. The Insignia feels like a thing of precision and strength. All its motions are well-damped and predictable. Yes, there’s still a bit of softness to the first motion of the steering and brake pedal, but in a car designed to do a zillion miles in the hands of business drivers (OK, reps), any nervousness would be punished. It sits on a motorway at 90 like it’s barely moving.
It feels heavy in a good way, then – solid. Unfortunately, it is heavy in a bad way. Model for model, it’s gained about 140kg over the old one, putting the turbo towards 1,600kg. Gulp. Small wonder the engine, strong and sweet though it is, has to work for its living.
The test car was self-assured around corners, but the steering had an odd self-centring weight. Turns out the chassis settings are being tweaked for us fussy British drivers, so I won’t say more yet. A sports button on the dash gives a giddy-up to the adaptive dampers and the throttle, and loosens the ESP. On 4WD cars, it even changes the torque distribution. But its most immediate change is to change the instrument lighting from white to red. A small touch among many that imply the Insignia has been designed by people who actually like cars.
General Motors is in deep poo in the US because its trucks are too big and its cars too dull. In Europe, on the back of the fine Corsa and Astra, GM has been flourishing. Yup, it’s a simple message, and it seems to be getting through. Don’t underestimate us. If you want to survive as a corporation, make cars we want to buy.