Vauxhall Insignia Sport Tourer

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Inside & Out: star star star star star

General Motors was so giddy about the Insignia’s interior that, long before any outsider had even set foot in the car, it flew a bunch of hacks – myself included – over to its German design centre in Russelsheim just so we could all have a sit down in the cabin and bask in its Mondeo-thrashing glory. There was even a seminar about the shape of the gearstick, during which a crazy man browbeat the poor host with incessant questions about hand size variations across the globe.

Anyway, through the stench of design speak guff – which was strong, including the aroma of such phrases as “sculptural artistry” – it became apparent that, actually, the interior was rather impressive. The sweeping dash (possibly the ‘wing theme’, or perhaps the ‘blade motif’ – it’s all a bit foggy now) was sporty, interestingly arranged and crafted from materials that almost merited the word ‘premium’.
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That’s still the case – it almost merits the word premium. While it’s a well-documented giant leap beyond the Vectra, it’s also a sizeable step behind the German executives. It’s the shoddy lower level plastics that let the Insignia down most in this respect; they’re all hard and hollow. The cabin looks great, but the overall quality is a notch below even that of its Blue Oval arch nemesis. Things like wind-down rear windows – the equivalent of having a rotary channel tuner on a plasma screen TV – and a button cluster made of a matte material that displays finger grease like paint, also let the side down. Yet, the overriding ambience is still that of a comfortable, well-designed, decent quality product. Apart from the stereo, which handles bass with all the clarity and punch of a cheap laptop.
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In Sports Tourer form the Insignia looks great. Its 540-litre boot capacity is slightly smaller than the Mondeo Estate’s – and it tapers at the roof so it’s not the last word in practicality – but I doesn’t lack loading space and a very slight usability disadvantage is, in our opinion, a price worth paying for such curvy load-lugging style. The tailgate is big and annoyingly unwieldy, but it closes itself if you don’t shut it properly and there’s even a set of lights underneath it so you’re visible at night when it’s lifted. Useful.

Engine & Transmission: star star star star star

We had to give this 1.6-litre turbocharged version a low score just to illustrate how uncouth and frustrating a powerplant it is. That said, its quirks are bizarrely enjoyable and it does have notable performance and economy advantages over a non-turbo lump with similar performance. It feels like a classic old school turbo though, with no power below 2,000rpm then boom – there it is. It’s full of flat spots too, which means it’s prone to random, cabin-jolting bouts of power drop, no matter which of its six cogs you’re cruising in. The throttle is oversensitive as well, so most of your brain power is consumed trying not to lurch forward once the rev needle hits the 2k mark in first gear, then not kangarooing as you change to second gear. It’s bellow-y – in the pejorative sense – at the high end of the rev range too.

So not perfect then. Yet at times there’s something of the loveable hooligan about this car, which is an obvious thing to say, probably, but it’s true. It’s highly frustrating, but it feels quite quick when it’s in its 2,500rpm-plus power band. That’s partially because the front wheels wriggle about as they scramble for grip at full throttle, but much rather that sort of mini drama than some boring, quiet 2.0-litre petrol – especially when in a mid-market estate. Or you could do the right thing and get a diesel like everyone else…

Ride & Handling: star star star star star

The Insignia is never anything less than comfortable, with light steering, a grit-smothering ride and an admirable ability to keep wind and tyre noise out of the cabin, whatever the speed. Thankfully that doesn’t come at the expense of cornering prowess, which falls just shy of being exemplary but is highly impressive all the same. We’d enjoy more weight to the steering, but its precision and the level of grip afforded at the front wheels puts it very close to the benchmark Mondeo. Apart from the aforementioned torque steer, it’s difficult to get the Insignia to do anything unpredictable; the stodgy understeer characteristics that blighted the Vectra are well and truly buried.

But it doesn’t quite beat the Ford on any one level, whose chassis soaks up bumps that little bit more effectively and which corners with a slightly more feel and tenacity. What we would say is that the Insignia ST pulls off that trick of not feeling like a long, heavy estate behind the wheel very well indeed.

Equipment, Economy & Value for Money: star star star star star

The Exclusiv [sic] Nav spec of our test car endowed it with climate control, an electric driver’s seat, a front centre armrest, some chrome trim, 17-inch rims and, of course, satnav. Sadly, it also means that much of the interior is dark plastic – including the ‘metallic’ trim – which does little to emphasise its design neatness. And, as mentioned – but worth mentioning again – it gets wind-down windows. It’s a £20k car remember.

Like a few other makers, notably VW, Vauxhall is beginning to switch to smaller capacity forced-induction engines to keep performance strong while capping emissions and fuel economy. So, the 1.6 T unit – a new, de-tuned version of the lump found in the Corsa VXR, emits 186g/km of CO2 and returns 35.8mpg. That’s not bad, but it’s not great either and commands a £215 VED charge. We only managed 29mpg during our week too, so we find it difficult to justify this engine over a diesel unit with better economy, lower emissions and more low down pulling power, especially if you’ll be using your Insignia load lugger to lug loads.

Overall: star star star star star

There’s much to like about the Vauxhall Insignia ST, not least its visual prowess. If you don’t need the extra slice of practicality offered by some rivals, this is a good looking, keen driving way of getting your estate on. We’d avoid this engine though: as entertaining as it occasionally is, it’s also peaky, trough-y, coarse, frustrating and ultimately poor on fuel compared to a much more suitable turbodiesel lump. There are times when having a turbo petrol unit makes sense, but how often will you be tearing around at full chat with an empty boot? Exactly. Otherwise, the Insignia ST is a compelling choice; more stylish than the Mondeo in every way, almost as good to drive, and no longer called ‘Vectra’. Result.

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