Enigma: Vauxhall Insignia

New cars Vauxhall Reviews
PetrolBlog heads to a wet and miserable Frankfurt to test drive the new Vauxhall Insignia and comes away smiling. It's a significantly improved car.

The Vauxhall Insignia is a bit of an enigma. There are nearly 170,000 of the things on Britain's roads and yet it's possible to travel the length and breadth of the country without noticing one. Clearly, you will see a Vauxhall Insignia or fifty, but its ubiquity means you probably wouldn't notice. Forget Insignia, Vauxhall could have called its family saloon the Magnolia. Or Vanilla.

It's a car that seems forever destined to live in the shadows of its great rival, the Ford Mondeo. Thanks to Tony Blair, it's 'Mondeo Man' who has come to symbolise middle Britain, not 'Insignia Man' - or 'Vectra Man', as it would have been back in 1997.

And yet - for the past couple of months at least - the Vauxhall Insignia has outsold the Ford Mondeo in England, even sneaking into the top ten sales chart. Not bad going, for a tin of magnolia paint.

You have to wonder, has anyone ever got excited about the Vauxhall Insignia? You know - jump up and down levels of excitement. Even taking into account the mildly bonkers Insignia VXR SuperSport - with its famed 170mph top speed - does the Insignia have what it takes to set pulses racing? Arguably not, but that doesn't stop it being an interesting car. Does it?

Rear of new Vauxhall Insignia

Vauxhall claims that 80% of all Insignias sold have gone gone to fleet customers, which doesn't exactly get things off to a great start. Fleet cars are normally chosen for their performance on the balance sheet, rather than out on the road. BIK and CO2 are the order of the day, not MPH and 0-60.

CO2 emissions of just 99g/km

And fleet managers and company car owners will be dancing a merry dance with the news that the Vauxhall Insignia's 2.0-litre CDTi engine has been revamped to offer CO2 emissions of just 99g/km and 76.3mpg combined on both the 120PS and 140PS variants. That's quite remarkable on a car the size of the Insignia. They're the kind of figures normally associated with the likes of the Skoda Citigo or Renault Clio.

And don't go away thinking that such efficiency comes at the expense of performance. With 320Nm and 370Nm of torque respectively, the Insignia 2.0-litre CDTi is no slouch. Admittedly, there's a very narrow band of torque in which to squeeze the best out of the engine, but given the target market and what the Insignia is designed for, it's perfectly adequate.

It's the new 1.6-litre SIDI petrol engine that impresses most though. What you give up in efficiency (47.9mpg and 139g/km CO2), you more than make up in a smoother delivery of power and more polished overall feel. It's not that the CDTi ever feels laboured or wanting for power, it's just that the petrol engine feels more refined and the car feels nimbler to drive.

Rear of Vauxhall Insignia on the road

Vauxhall claims to have worked hard on the new Insignia's ride and handling too and it must be said, the car's road manners are impeccable. The ride is smooth, wind noise is minimal and - assuming you're not looking for razor-sharp handling, it's perfectly at home crossing countries via A-roads and motorways. B-roads are not, as you'd expect, the Insignia's natural habitat.

The FlexRide adaptive chassis system features electronic damper adjustment and speed-dependent power steering. Three modes are available - Standard, Sport and the clumsily-named Tour. PetrolBlog readers should immediately switch to Sport mode which - although 'sport' is over-egging it slightly - gives extra weight to the steering and noticeably sharpens the handling. During the afternoon in Frankfurt, it was hard to tell if Tour made any difference at all.

Heavily-revised interior

The same can't be said about the interior which, aside from the headline grabbing 99g/km CO2, is perhaps the most significant point of note in the new Insignia. Even in Germany - arguably the natural home of the premium car - the Vauxhall Insignia felt at home. It's genuinely hard to believe that the Insignia stems from the same branch that gave us the lacklustre Vectra and, before that, the Cavalier.

Interior of new Vauxhall Insignia

The key touch-points and most notable areas are finished with a quality which belies the Insignia's place in the sector. Not quite managing to reach the levels you'd associate with the Germans, or even the Swedes, but the revisions push the Insignia further away from the budget-driven upstarts chomping at its ankle. There are significantly fewer switches and a simpler centre console. And, if you tick the right options box, a wonderful 8-inch, high resolution colour instrument cluster, which combines neatly with the 8-inch infotainment screen.

Almost everything can be controlled via a revised steering wheel which, whilst at first appears a little daunting, soon becomes familiar. This should prove less distracting whilst out on the move, allowing the Insignia driver to pay more attention to that terribly important business call he's taking using the Insignia's standard-fit Bluetooth connectivity.

So it's a little bewildering that Vauxhall has chosen to fit a touchpad on the centre console. There are already three ways to control the infotainment system, so will drivers really need a fourth? On the basis of our time in Germany, it wasn't exactly intuitive and once covered in a thin layer of grease from yet another McSpicy Burger eaten on the go, it's bound to be rendered useless within a few weeks. That said, given some extra time with the touchpad, it may turn out to be a huge success and PetrolBlog will look back on its initial distain with the same fondness that BlackBerry looks back on its verdict that the iPhone would never catch on...

Dashboard in new Vauxhall Insignia

Whilst being negative, it's worth mentioning the Insignia's new touch-sensitive surface which, Vauxhall claims, 'reacts immediately to finger movements'. Well sorry Vauxhall, but it doesn't quite work. Controlling the dual-zone climate control on the top spec Insignia is such a faff, you'll probably end up leaving the temperature permanently set to 20-degrees. At one point we got to 12 attempts to adjust the temperature - such is the surface's requirement to be touched in an exact sweet spot. Style definitely ruling substance in this instance.

Huge level of standard spec

But that's where the negativity ends, because Vauxhall has nailed the level of standard of equipment offered in the Insignia. Even the basic Design trim level gets DAB digital radio, Bluetooth, USB/aux-in, LED daytime running lights, leather steering wheel, cruise control, electric four-way lumber adjustment on driver's seat, six airbags, electronic climate control, automatic lights and electronic stability control. All that, from a £16,279 car...

Reasons to get excited? Perhaps not, but the price:quality:spec equation has to be admired. A bells and whistles Insignia Elite for £29,329 seems laughably expensive in comparison to the budget-line Design trim, but you can bet your bottom Deutschmark that a similarly specced A4 or 3 Series would cost a whole chunk more. And the gap in quality isn't quite the gulf it once was.

2013 Vauxhall Insignia

Naturally, the overall feeling of owning a premium car increases the more you spend and, as is normal for these launches, we were treated to the top trim level as we cruised around a drenched Germany. The lesser models won't feel quite as cosseting, but fleet owners won't necessarily feel shortchanged.

And finally, you may not have noticed, but the new Insignia has been treated to a mild facelift. A nip here and a tuck there, with Vauxhall claiming that it gives the car a wider and lower stance. That's debatable and we got the distinction impression that Malcolm Ward, Vauxhall's director of exterior design, was having to work really hard to be enthused by the changes. If anything, the revised Vauxhall Insignia is more American-looking than before, bringing it more inline with the Buick Regal.

All new 2014 Vauxhall Insignia

But here's the thing. When was the last time you really paid attention to the Vauxhall Insignia? It's actually an extremely handsome car. Compare and contrast with the Vectra C which went before it, which looks bland and deeply uninspiring alongside the new car. The slippery shape also helps give the Insignia a remarkable Tesla Model S-rivalling drag coefficient of just 0.25. Blimey.

A Bangernomics hero in waiting

PetrolBlog is convinced. Against all the odds, it turns out the Vauxhall Insignia is an utterly credible car that's worthy of your attention. And yet, despite the massive positives, it remains a car that's impossible to get excited about.

By its very nature, the Vauxhall Insignia doesn't perform well using the patented PetrolBlog Score, but it's definitely a car to add to the list of potential Bangernomics chariots to hunt down in five years time. A midlife facelift well executed.