Vauxhall's Insignia is now the complete car it should always have been. Jonathan Crouch drives one.
Ten Second Review
With smarter looks, a classier cabin, hi-tech features and a more efficient engine range, the improved first generation version of Vauxhall's Insignia has now enhanced its already impressive CV for success in the medium range Mondeo sector. More than ever, it's a model you really can't afford to overlook.
Welcome to Britain's best selling traditional family car. Yes, you heard that right. That title belongs not to the kind of family models that make the headlines - fashionable Crossovers, practical People Carriers or slinky SUVs - but to this one, Vauxhall's Insignia. Launched in 2008 as a more stylish replacement for the uninspiring Vectra, this model was instantly well received, carrying off the coveted 2009 Car of the Year title and racking up impressive sales at the same time as other mainstream brands were struggling. An interior over-cluttered with complicated little buttons. A suspension set-up too focused on the firm side. An absence of the kind of hi-tech features becoming commonplace on many rivals. And then there was a pricing policy that pitched the list figures up quite high but left lots of room for dealer discounting. That meant your Insignia was often cheap to buy but, if like most, you owned one as a company car, it was often pricey to tax given that P11D tax is based on the list price of the car, not what you actually pay for it. All of that needed sorting - and sure enough has been corrected in the smarter-looking and much improved model we're going to look at here.
This improved model has had a thorough chassis update tested on proper bumpy British roads, with a redesigned rear suspension system to improve ride comfort and a steering calibration refreshment that's brought a more direct feel through the corners. And both of those issues can be further improved if you tick the extra-cost box for the FlexRide adaptive damping system. You can't fault the effort that's gone into all of this - over 60% of the chassis componentry is new - but it's not enough to make this into a car you'd really describe as 'rewarding'. What it does do is perfect what was there in the first place. For most of the people, most of the time, this, dynamically, is all the car they will ever need, quietly and effectively getting on with the job of getting you from A to B. The 'quietly' bit's important. Almost all Insignia buyers want a diesel and though the original version of Vauxhall's 2.0 CDTi unit had many merits, refinement wasn't one of them. In fact, it was one of the noisiest, rattliest diesels in its class. But isn't now. You feel that primarily with this unit in its latest 170PS 'Whisper diesel' guise, but the older-tech 120 and 140PS ecoFLEX units are also an improvement on older Vauxhall oil burners. Better though, to ask your dealer about the more modern 136PS 1.6-litre CDTi unit borrowed from the Astra, which provides much better efficiency. If you don't care about that, then you'll want to know that the 195PS 2.0 BiTurbo diesel continues on at the top of the range. In the petrol line-up, there's also a cheap old-tech engine choice - the 140PS 1.8i unit - but again, more emphasis is being put on the modern turbo powerplant offerings, the 140PS 1.4T, the 170PS 1.6 SIDI and the 250PS 2.0 SIDI. At the top of the range, a 325PS 2.0 V6 continues in the VXR SuperSports model. This VXR has 4WD but the only other model in the range that gets it is the Country Tourer estate version which, with its raised ride height, aims to offer an SUV alternative.
Design and Build
Outside, there are detail improvements front and rear that aim to bring a wider and lower look to the hatch, saloon and Sports Tourer estate bodystyles that, as before, make up the range. That's certainly the feel you get from the front end with its redesigned high-gloss chrome grille and thinner logo bar cradling a prominent Griffin badge and including winglets that link with the sleeker gloss black-trimmed headlights. And inside? Well it feels a great deal more up to date, with many of the previously scattered and confusing little buttons tidied up onto a (sadly optional) central 8-inch colour touchscreen that deals with everything from navigation to audio selections, Bluetooth 'phone functions to a series of Vauxhall-sourced apps. There's even a slightly cheap-feeling touchpad behind the gearlever that accepts one, two or three finger gestures for the various operating functions - or you can press a button on the steering wheel and activate the whole thing by voice control. More hi-tech can be viewed through the redesigned three-spoke leather-trimmed steering wheel where you'll find an instrument cluster with another 8-inch high resolution display. This one, also optional and framed by conventional analogue gauges either side, is primarily there to show a virtual speedometer but can also be configured to display all sorts of information such as smartphone or audio use - or even navigation. Out back, the hatch most choose offers a 530-litre boot - with 540-litres on offer in the Sports Tourer estate.
Market and Model
In theory, Insignia pricing covers a very wide span - anywhere between £17,000 and £33,000. In practice, almost all Insignia sales are concentrated in the £17,000 to £22,000 bracket, with most of those going to business buyers who usually want one of the 2.0-litre CDTi diesel variants. Paying much more than that for this car takes it into the BMW 3 Series-dominated compact executive saloon bracket where mainstream makers usually struggle. Talking of saloons, there's is a four-door Insignia saloon bodystyle as a no-cost option to the more familiar five-door hatch, but it comes with a much smaller range of trim and engine choices. For my test, I chose the Sports Tourer estate bodystyle, which is offered at a premium of around £1,500 over an equivalent hatch. Unlike the mainstream models of the other bodyshapes, this one can be had with 4WD but to get it, you have to stretch up to a top of the range Country Tourer version priced in the £25,000 to £30,000 bracket and aiming to snare RAV4 and Freelander folk who'd normally be looking at a compact SUV. The other key variant worthy of mention is the flagship VXR SuperSports model which has a potentially thirsty petrol V6 but offers more performance for a £30,000 budget than you'll get almost anywhere else.
Cost of Ownership
Around 85% of Insignia buyers go for a diesel - and you can see why. Both 120 and 140PS versions of the 2.0 CDTi ecoFLEX model return 76.3mpg on the combined cycle and put out just 98g/km of CO2, returns that at launch were comfortably class-leading. Better still is the 136PS 1.6-litre CDTi variant, which manages 99g/km of CO2 and 74.3mpg on the combined cycle. Go for the extra performance of the 2.0 CDTi 170PS variant and there's not a huge price to pay at the pumps. This variant will deliver 65.7mpg on the combined cycle. Along with efficient electronic power steering, all of these variants get the full suite of ecoFLEX features to help achieve these figures, things like lowered chassis, low rolling resistance tyres, adapted final drive ratios, automatic front grille shutters and a Start/Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Thinking of buying a petrol-powered Insignia? No, I didn't think you were. But if you're a lower mileage driver, perhaps the prospect might be worthy of a thought or two. The brand's current generation of turbo petrol units all do better than you'd expect on the balance sheet: the 140PS 1.4T manages 54.3mpg and 123g/km, the 170PS 1.6 SIDI delivers 47.9mpg and 139g/km and the 250PS 2.0 SIDI returns 39.2mpg and 169g/km. That only leaves the flagship 325PS VXR SuperSports model. You wouldn't expect a big V6 petrol turbo model to deliver an especially frugal set of running cost returns and this one doesn't, managing 26.6mpg and 249g/km.
By almost any measure you care to name, this Insignia has been a successful car for Vauxhall. Sales have been crushingly superior to those of its Ford Mondeo arch-rival, continuing to increase at a time when those of most other medium range sector models are struggling. The reasons why have to do with sharp pricing, smart styling and low running costs, the attributes that business buyers value most and the things that remain most attractive about this much improved first generation model. This car isn't completely new - but it feels that way behind the wheel thanks to all the fresh cabin infotainment and the higher quality feel. Those that are tempted by the shinier prospects of newer rivals will, Vauxhall hopes, be brought back into the Insignia fold by class-leading running costs. But this car doesn't have to be economy-focused of course. You could tackle a mountain trail in the Country Tourer version or take on the Nurburgring in the tarmac-burning VXR variant. But it's really built to satisfy typical families and temperate middle management folk. People who'll appreciate the comfortable ride and the thoughtful functionality. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from a brand that's been making four-seater family cars since 1903. Experience that really shows.