Chairman of the Board: Opel Insignia Arrives Downunder
November 3 2012
Opel’s flagship Insignia Select is many things: it’s the first Epsilon II-based vehicle ashore in the Antipodes, pipping at the post it’s global/US cousin the Malibu by several months. It is a former European Car of The Year, and a big seller: and is also the basis, initially from Germany and then locally-produced in the US, of the Buick Regal. That could only be called a qualified success: a critical hit, but a slow showroom-mover. But one thing it also is (and this is perhaps why it is misunderstood in America), is a limousine.
Gliding beneath Ghost gums on a Mornington Peninsula backroad: it's hard to imagine Opel designers ever envisaged this view through the Insig's windshield.
‘What the hey…..?’ I can just hear the squeals of protestation now. It’s the short version of the newer Epsilon variant, with a mere 107” wheelbase vs the Impala, Lacrosse and Cadillac XTS with their 111.7” longer version.
I call it a limousine, because it is (deliberately) set up to be limousine-like at least in a European sense. I think that’s where there is confusion in the US marketplace: as a smaller car than the similarly-priced Lacrosse, it is assumed it must be sporty: and it has a capable chassis, more than able to hold it’s own against other FWD-based devices at least - stable, composed and tenaciously grippy. But I'm sure Opel thinks it's the closest thing they make to a limo.
At Red Hill Cheese Factory - worth a coupla km down dusty graded whitemetal for handmade, room-aged vintage cheddar, unpasteurised goat fetta, blue, soft, hard, crumbly. Fromage heaven! You can't get some local produce or wine anywhere else - it's verra nice!
GM themselves seem confused about how to best market it: in my view, they should have retained German-origin, as it would have likely sold in similar numbers to the present locally-made Regal; and pitched it as a 'Euro-import'. That way, they could have brought a wider range and tested some niches: like a diesel, wagon and one or two others. Plus, earned Opel a handy chunk of change and allowed GM to concentrate on higher-volume Epsilons.
Anyone who believes GM can do without Opel - well, I think you are plain wrong. If your Lacrosse, XTS, 2014 Impala is even halfway-competent for ride, handling, packaging - this car's development is the reason why. For midsizers, it is pretty much the duck's guts.
Premiere event? The Insignia doesn't look out of place. It has the unassuming style carry it off - without being gauche or chintzy.
If this very German executive saloon format is the way the Regal has been presented in the US, average US consumers would be nonplussed: GM is pushing this as a sporty midsize Buick, when you can buy a dynamically-superior, more flickable Buick-ized Astra (Verano) with the same powertrains but also fairly competent luxury-wise itself when it comes to ride and noise suppression. I imagine it's a fairly confusing product set.
Melbourne Spring weather. Don't like it? Just wait ten minutes... Insignia is very at home in Melbourne CBD and drew quizzical glances in traffic and from parking attendants
Then there’s a slightly larger Lacrosse, that comes with more options (E-assist, V6) at not much more coin. So the Regal appears a bit unappreciated and ignored in the US. Back to back, No wonder most go for the bigger car that has more options. And the Lacrosse appears to mount it's own compelling argument.
So in the US, the Insignia is in No Man's Land. Not as sporty or cheap (or quick) as the Delta-based Verano, not as stately and large, nor as optionable as the sister-Epsilon Lacrosse.
Just drop us here at the kerb, Heinrich - there's a good chap
That's a pity as, unless GM has dumbed the Regal down considerably, it is extremely competent: in my view the best modern iteration of the three new model Opels I've driven. It's recognisable as from the same stable as the very able Astra, but has a totally different character.
It is garnering 4-star writeups here - that's Merc and Audi territory - from some hard-nosed reviewers of GM products. Partly because, although it doesn't appear to break any new ground technology- or equipment-wise, it's refreshing in it's clear and sensible presentation. From a drill-down perspective: not cheap, but very good value for money. As well as damn good-looking.
It has a degree of Teutonic gravitas, coupled with an air of almost contemtptuous, insufferable competence and unflappability: what it doesn’t feel, is flightly, dynamically-unstable, hair-trigger or barely-constrained.
The Mornington Peninsula is a popular holiday, retirement and seachange destination. Easy to see why
Those are the things that often characterise ‘entertaining’ aka sporty cars that require constant input to stay on the island. It doesn't flit about on bumps, the handsome 19" alloy wheels streamroller them. In fact, it handles big bumps better than little ones. The Select rides on a 'lowered Sports' suspension including GM's Hi-Per struts developed on this vehicle, and it does sit firmly flat and controlled. It's almost unbudgeable from your chosen line despite large wheels and tyres. When it does start to push the front (at a very high limit) it does so most predictably. It might ride a little better on the 18s I think.
In Australia, which is a 'wagon' or 'estate' country we also get the Insignia Sports Tourer - obviously not sold as the Sportwagon because Holden already has that name sequestered for the Commodore amongst the GM stable. The Insignia Select comes in Australia with the Hi-Per struts, but FWD only, with the major choice being the 2.0 litre direct-injected turbo petrol as tested, or the same 2.0 single-cam common rail diesel with variable geometry turbo as the diesel Cruze and Astra. That would probably be very similar in overall performance with the added benefit of lower fuel consumption.
The interior is more cohesive than the Astra - classier, less fussy, more restrained yet also pleasingly organic. Do German designers have any other tone than 'Dark'? It passes the 'Mother' test - she said, "This is a very comfortable car" - high praise from an arthritic 83 year-old. Attention to detail and quality of finish equals any car I've been in.
In Europe, Insignia is Opel’s biggest and best – and it is a fine car. In the Australian market, they are advertising ‘six-figure German engineering for just five figures’. And I have to say, in my humble opinion, that’s only a mild over-hyping of the truth. The coke-head young go-getters will still go for the Porsche or 3-series, C-Class BimMerc chick-magnets; the more mature exec with a young family, triple-mortgaged inner-urban Nirvana, will be looking for something with an imposing image that says to the boss I can make informed choices which present well to clients, but within my means.
With not-much-more-than-Holden running costs, and fixed price servicing at $350, the Insignia may have enough, and be enough car at $45,000 for this Select trim, to just be a salaryman's bargain. Especially when compared to the other German options. Even for a VW Passat, you'd be shelling out more - let alone the Audi equivalent, Lexus, Alfa in comparable trim specification.
Overall presentation is excellent - all it is missing is a good touchscreen, no doubt coming. As you would expect, cabin ergonomics are hard to fault - comfort is brilliant and whole vehicle feels refined.
Even though this is 'little' Epsilon, I could sit behind myself easily enough - and the flat-floored boot is very usable with the wide-set gooseneck hinges that disappear in the upper inner rear guards and don't crush your stuff. Very clever. The massive 500 litre space is very accessible through the wide opening. The only area it lacks, and this is because it is primarily midsize, it is it really a 4.5 seater. 3 people across the back would have to be slight, or good friends to be comfortable.
As a self-avowed RWD fan, the big Opel is not going to replace a Calais for me in terms of driver feel or suspension response, handling or ride. The Calais-V V6 would be close to if not more than as comfortable with superior driving dynamics. The V8 would just bury it, from every dynamic perspective, even ride comfort of the front suspension: RWD>FWD in a big car.
But if you spend your life in environments where creature comforts are important, winter-morning's creeping gridlock, sweaty summer weekend tailbacks to your coastal hideaway with Tristan and Isolde squabbling in the back seat, rather than Wagner emanating from the stereo, the Opel is a laydown misere for overall quiet refinement, accoutrements and gadgets.
That's not a slam on Holden - just a fact. Epsilon's the child of a much larger development budget; with more resources accruing to a global GM arsenal, purely due to being a shared, large-volume, major US/European platform. Although, the Holden iQ touchscreen system is far superior and more easily-usable than the Opel’s current infotainment setup, which is still driven by an i-Drive like dial. No doubt the Opel version of MyLink will arrive soon to address that.
The Insignia outside an upmarket, architectural-award-winning Peninsula winery restaurant. It writes cheques I couldn't cash - had to pass up eating here.
Things the Opel has that Holden doesn’t include the heated/cooled seats, articulated self-adjusting Xenon lights, LED DRLs, fancier digital climate control and sound system. The turbo DI 2 litre motor is remarkably effortless-feeling, and the transmission tuning to it is uncannily good. It holds lower gears at lower speeds, avoiding the trap of changing too soon and then having to fumble for a lower gear in snap roll-ons. Because the engine is kept in percolation, throttle response is gratifyingly instant and strong. Interestingly, tested a week apart from a HFV6 3.6 LFX-engined Commodore, the two turned nearly identical economy in the same running. Both cars exhibitied unflappable transmissions. GM is really getting this trans-mapping caper stitched up. The Astra I had in between was near-perfect, too.
As mentioned, the ride quality of the Opel was a little below even the sports suspension of the SV6. The interior, however was more tomb-like in almost any running. Or possibly (bank) vault-like. Only when really planted did you discern there was a four-pot in front from the throaty warble - which was not unpleasant. It could have been an inline six, bent-eight, Voltec, USS Enterprise’s warp drive or a Mr Fusion powering it.
Unprepossessing to look at, but a high-water mark in terms of function, smoothness and overall refinement. Not wheelspinning, but effortless. It needs some platinum highlights or something - more special than it looks.
It’s reactions and attitude-control for something nearly ten inches shorter than a Commodore and more shopping-trolley like in the wheelbase are uncannily good.
When you do push it, the large alloys and meaty rubber are more than capable of putting the steering input and prodigious midrange power down, and the suspension setup is more than able of controlling the pitch and movement of not-inconsiderable mass. It can turn sharply and has no shortage of lateral grip in the real world, only complaining on ripply, bumpy bitumen – sprung to unsprung weight of the FWD setup, and the weight over the nose. It just doesn’t feel like it is capable of being fanged – until you push past the deliberate nature of the suspension and steering tuning.
Down on the St Kilda promenade, where 'renovators delights' start at a cool $mil. The Insignia stands to be a minor hit: an affordable German luxury car costing not a lot to run
It is a Rock of Gibraltar. The feel is controlled and well-damped. Turn-in isn’t reluctant, but deliberate. You can hustle it, but you have to be prepared to use some force in steering input and carry mid-corner speed, rather than rely on squaring off the turn and firing it out. It wants to pull higher gears and behave like a train. You can uncompose it, but only by driving like you’re starring in a Jackass movie.
The Hi-Per struts do a good job of dampening torque-steer. They can't put back the feel, but for a large FWDer it is not bereft of feedback.
What it is set up to do, is flatter a driver with a sense of command, and make him believe it will never run out of brakes, steering or pulling-power: it largely won’t. It’s limits are quite high, higher than sensible and legal speeds for the most. Taking smooth multilane roundabouts, it's a bullet, if you can get a clear run. There's a danger in doing that, because intersecting drivers are inclined to wander across in front, not crediting that you are taking the roundabout as fast as you are. Then panicking at a flash of the xenon lights and blaring of multitone horns.
The motor is a direct-injected 2.0 litre turbo that I believe was running on PULP. It can be described as, well, interesting. It has the same peak torque as the 2.0 diesel of 350nm from 2,000-4,000rpm. Usable, hill-climbing grunt arrives just above idle.
I would not describe it as too eager. It did not want to spin the bags leaving the line in the dry, or dragrace. But what it felt like, was a very smooth diesel, or a very large Volt.
Running up a steep hill, I had this impression it would never run out of puff, in fact, it seemed to pull up the hill with no abatement in speed, without sinking the slipper any further to the floor, and without bothering to drop out of lock, or top gear. It never seemed to budge off the 11.2 l/100km I picked it up with: commuting, country driving, checking out the neddies. It wavered by no more than 0.1 or 0.2 the entire time I had it.
The week I had it, I did a lot of inner-urban miles in heavy traffic, and the car was very new and nowhere near run-in at 1300km. So economy would normally be better, I feel. Instant economy on cruise control on the freeway was down in the 5's and 6's - that's nearly 1.4 Asta/Cruze territory.
The Sunday highway run down to the coast.
And illuminating incident occurred when I was commuting. I ended up next to a last-gen 330 BMW. He wanted my turning lane, I wanted his straight-through before traffic backed up in the next intersection. We left the line together – he thought ‘I’ll accelerate a bit harder to pull in front of this conservative snoozer-mobile’. I did the same. He went a little more. Me too. I don’t know if we were both pegged: what I do know, is when we got to the point of no return, I had pulled a doorlength on him. He buttoned off, and dropped in behind – or would have, except I was crossing into his lane. The Opel didn’t feel flustered, just developed a rortier four-cylinder note. It was still pulling like a train, clicking off changes when I stopped accelerating. That’s impressive, seeing as the Opel had probably 150kg on the BMW. I probably had 30kg on him as well!
A typical ratrace/morning commute experience is likely to be this: about as nice an environment as you could hope for.
It’s primary character is to be unruffled. It’s a German bullet-headed cop with unblinking eyes, a square blue jaw, neat tie, a crisp white shirt, a ruler-straight pleat in his pants and black shiny shoes. Nothing seemed to get it’s goat. It just felt solid. Confident. Able.
This refined solidity extends to the cabin: the controls are firm and well-damped. No loose, wobbly or insubstantial feeling knobs. When you unlatch the swinging glovebox, it doesn’t crash onto your passenger’s shins – but swings down slowly, like a counter-weighted cuckoo plumb. The piano-black sunglass/knicknack holder in front of the shifter similarly springs open in slow-motion and pushes shut with smooth resistance.
Here we are no more than 3-4 km from the sea on three sides. White varietal wines - Pinots, Colombards, Sauvignons, Semillons - excel in this cool-climate, volcanically-dark soil. Wines are soft but spicy, warm but flinty - reminds me of the missus!
The controls come up with a subtle glow at night, which glows stronger if you select that function. The auto lights do a syncopated dance when you fire up the motor. They go up, down, sideways, and then level in perfect unison.
The auto wipers on many cars have to be set using two controls. On the Opel, you just set to the lowest intermittent wiper speed. Then they work flawlessly. Good thinking in this car abounds, like Adaptive Forward Lighting: the light patterns change throw, spread and height according to what the car, driver and environment is doing - there are sensors for light, sonar and conditions (rain). They 'read' oncoming traffic and roadside obstructions, plus consider what driver controls are set. Indicating a turn, swings the light on that side outwards.
The very clever AFL headlights - standard on the Select Insignia which adapt themselves using sensors, reading things like speed and driver inputs
When I first got in, I was thinking ‘What’s with these seats?’ There was no squab, no lumbar adjustment and seemingly a weird pinched sensation between the seat rear bolsters. Because they are heated and cooled, you forego electric controls apart from squab angle. Initially I was thinking it was a mistake. The squab front is adjustable for length and you can make it long or short enough for any thigh: and it takes a short time, but you can get a near-perfect position. It initially felt too firm a setup.
After a couple of days, I was more sanguine, and on a long drive the seat became almost glove-like. I am not a fan of seat heating or cooling, but both worked effectively: Melbourne's Spring weather provided a t-shirt Sunday and umbrella Monday to test them out with.
Insignia down in the swish part of Red Hill: looking like it belongs.
Red Hill is a very upmarket part of the Peninsula: the Baillieu/Myer family's country home (Myer's are Victoria's Macey's) is down there. Describing their 100+ year old estate/mansion as a weekender is a bit like describing Heidi Klum as an alright-looking girl, mind.....
The country lanes have the ambience of old money and the local estate agents seemingly all drive new Audis A5s. The Insignia coasts through this environs like it belongs. It doesn't attract attention because expensive Euro cars are common, but also doesn't attract disdainful glances. At least, until it becomes apparent that plebs have invaded in this Trojan horse.......
Serenity incarnate. It is the sort of car you want to find nice places to pose it.
The day after I dropped it off, I was waiting to be picked up, and I saw a silver car that stood out from similar cars turn in a line of traffic. Even at a distance, I was thinking 'that is a nice silhouette - new Mercedes?' As it drew nearer, the thunderbolt badge became visible and I realised it was the first private Insignia I'd seen, complete with personalised plates.
The design is noticably good looking - especially the roof profile. It's like a contemporary Euro car, but manages at the same time to appear very attractive, not ostentatious, a little stylish and special - but not just frippery. There is just the right amount of bling without looking try-hard. It really does look very nice in person - my poor photographic skills do not do justice to it.
I think Opel is going to steadily create a name for the Insignia as the non-pretentious alternative to other Euro brands: it will take a while, but this car has potential with just a couple of minor things fixed to make a real dent in the other Euro's prestige auto sales. 34 people took delivery of it in the first part-month; of a car with no advertising at the time. And the name is unknown. I'm betting they are the smart ones getting in before Opel Oz works out they could charge more.
Engine Emissions rating Euro V
Number of cylinders 4 - Direct Injected
DOHC, variable timing, 4 valves per cylinder
Power kW: 162 (220hp) @ 5,300 rpm
Torque Nm: 350 (260 lb/ft) @ 2000 - 4000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Turning circle diameter 11.40m
Capacity in luggage compartment (rear seats upright) 500L
Fuel capacity (L) 70
- Imposing, handsome, looks like more money than it is
- Equipment levels, and intelligent controls and fittings like AFL
- Spacious for midsize even if really a 4.5 seater
- Driveline refinement
- Overall ride and handling most impressive
- Presentation, fit and finish
- Abounds with sensible design, and clever thinking
- Largely unknown brand and model
- Needs touchscreen - 'iDrive' knob is fiddly
- I'd rather memory electric seats than heated/cooled, YMMV
- FWD - pity it's not RWD
- Makes me look like I have more money than I do!
- Interior could use some lighter touches.
Price as tested: $44,990 + ORC
EPA Rated Fuel Economy 8.8 l/100km (26.72 USmpg)
Achieved Fuel Economy: 11.2 l/100km (21 USmpg)