There aren’t too many reasons to be cheerful at the moment. Over the past six months, there is a good chance that one of the following list of bloody awful things has come your way. Firstly your house is no longer worth as much as it was this time last year. Like a weirdly misguided game of chance, we all held onto the notion that the bricks and mortar that we were sitting in every evening after work were going to provide us with a never-ending pension fund. We could borrow money on the basis that our house was increasing in value faster than Cristiano Ronaldo.
What’s more, people bought their dream car, their dream television and underwent cosmetic surgery, all on loans handed out from banks like buns at a coffee morning. And then the unthinkable happened, of course, and the boom turned into an “oh balls”, and underpants, as well as belts, suddenly began tightening for a generation who didn’t know anything but prosperity. I know this all sounds like a statement from ‘The Department of the Bleedin’ Obvious’ but like everything else, the motor industry has slumped into a depression. Suddenly Irish car buyers are looking into 2009 through gritted teeth and the BMW that was on the shopping list might suddenly have to be passed up for something cheaper. But, and I am almost shocked to say it, there is some good news ahead.
If you have to choose a family car instead of your German executive barge then there is good reason to be pleased. Because the family car is suddenly very cool. And, no, we are not talking about the Toyota Avensis, which, despite its new look, is likely to be bland and uninspiring, although my hat is currently being deep-fried and garnished with rocket leaves on the off chance that I might have to eat it at some point. Rather, I mean the Ford Mondeo, the new staple diet of the family car market, which for once means you can have a desirable car that looks great, drives superbly and is affordable. But it doesn’t stop there. For a few euro more you can have the Passat CC, which looks like an €80,000 car, but costs half that. What you might not expect is that we would be mentioning Opel in the middle of all this.
We just haven’t come to expect much from Opel once you get past the Astra. The Corsa is great, the Astra is good too and the Zafira was the best in class until Ford came back swinging with the S-Max. But we have become so accustomed to the mediocre Vectra – perhaps one of the most forgettable cars of all time – that our expectations for its replacement were on the floor. But this, of course, works in Opel’s favour.
However, it really isn’t a straight comparison between a really bland car and an exciting replacement – the Opel Insignia is in a totally different league. Opel, my friends, has cracked it.
Like so many car launches these days, the Opel Insignia’s birth has been long and drawn out – we have seen pictures of it in the design phase, been to events to look at the interior, driven it under the cover of darkness and been to motor shows to see it but we’ve finally escaped all that hoopla and got a chance to try it in the real world. We’re in northern Denmark and it’s just me and a black Insignia sitting on 18-inch wheels, and there isn’t a press conference in sight.
Opel thankfully threw away the Vectra blueprints when penning the Insignia. It looks like a coupé – well, as much as any four-door car can – but with little of the compromise. Sure, there is a little less access headroom at the rear because of that steeply raked beltline, but once inside, your rear seat passengers will have little to grumble about, unless they are particularly tall. It really is an eye-catching design. When we parked it on a street in a sleepy Danish village, young and old stopped and stared, German tourists tripped over themselves and Mondeo drivers suddenly looked a little concerned. Granted, our 160hp, 2.0-litre diesel was dressed in its Sunday best. Heaven knows how much it will cost you to adorn your Insignia with wheels the size of windmills, although the SRi model should get you quite close. Whether a standard diesel S model will have the same visual impact remains to be seen. But it isn’t just the Insignia’s good looks that are likely to set it apart on the company car list. With the fact that most drivers of these cars spend a lot of time at the wheel firmly in mind, the inside has been given special attention. And it shows.
This is without doubt the best Opel interior we have ever seen. The quality of the materials is really first class – the choice of material available for the cabin is excellent, especially the sporty piano black that decorated our test car. Although we probably won’t come across too many real-world Insignias so lavishly equipped, the iDrive-like multi-function control device used to take care of things like the satellite navigation and audio controls was incredibly intuitive. What’s more, although our Irish cars will probably be more basic, the controls will, for the most part, remain the same. There is a purposeful, sporty driving position with all the major controls aimed at the driver. The seats are good, too – they’re comfortable yet supportive, something you’ll be glad of if you spend a lot of time in them.
Five engines will be initially offered when the car arrives here in November. While there are three petrol engines in the range – a 1.6-litre, 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre turbo – none of them match the new 2.0-litre diesel for either fuel economy or carbon emissions. The diesel is offered in two power options – a 130hp and 160hp – but both record emission levels of just 154g/km when matched to a new six-speed manual gearbox. We spent the majority of time in the latter engine and it’s brilliant, although its CO2 emissions are not going to worry the guys over at BMW. At its current rating, the 2.0-litre diesel will warrant a Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) figure of 20 percent, while BMW and Audi can manage Band B emissions from their 2.0-litre diesel powerplants.
Where the Insignia scores really highly is in the way it drives. We drove two versions, one with front-wheel drive and the second with four-wheel drive, and the dynamic improvement in this car over the Vectra is vast. The FlexRide chassis system allows you to choose between Normal, Comfort or Sports settings using three buttons on the dashboard and these make adjustments to the suspension and throttle response. There is a palpable difference between these modes, especially the Sports one, where the car really tightens up and the instruments on the dashboard light up red. Very cool.
The most obvious comparison is going to be with the Mondeo, which is the class benchmark. Without a proper back-to-back comparison, it is difficult to judge for certain but there won’t be much in it. The Insignia feels taut and purposeful and body roll is very well contained. And although it’s good to have your family saloon handle like a sports car, the Insignia also feels very competent when tackling the more mundane things like motorway driving and stop/start traffic. It feels like a well-made executive car, not an ‘average’ family hatchback.
Has Opel cracked it with Insignia? It would appear that it has. A proper Irish test in an Irish-spec car, as well as a twin test with the mighty Mondeo, will reveal more, but this is the best Opel we have driven in a very long time and one that is going to make choosing a car in the ever-competitive large family car segment all the more difficult.
Opel Insignia 2.0-litre CDTi ECOTEC
Engine 1,956cc, 4-cylinder turbo diesel
Output: 160hp, 350Nm
Transmission: 6-sp manual
Acceleration: 0-100km/h 9.5 seconds
Top speed: 218km/h
Economy: 5.8 litres/100km
CO2 emissions: 154g/km
CO2 Tax Band C (€290p.a.)
Boot capacity 520 litres
Base Price: €29,795
For: Good looks, great to drive, nice interior
Against: Restricted rear headroom, Ford Mondeo
VERDICT: The best Opel we’ve driven in ages, and one that’s certainly going to give the mighty Mondeo a run for its money when they meet in a twin test