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The Vauxhall Insignia is only small details away from rivalling the class best

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Desirability drives the modern car market with ever-increasing reach and power, and it’s pushing cars like the Vauxhall Insignia to the margins. The industry is reshaping itself to cater for those who’d happily downsize out of a traditional family saloon for a premium brand, or the latest fashionable crossover SUV.

But as any enlightened thinker or country singer will tell you, lasting happiness depends – apparently - much less on getting what you want than on wanting what you’ve got. If only more people knew.

With three body styles, the Insignia offers genuine versatility

Vauxhall may have therefore contributed much more greatly to the nation’s happiness with its latest revision to the Insignia – pretty consistently the biggest selling car in its fleet-dominated class since 2008 - than any premium brand does with its latest and greatest aspirational trend-setter.

This five-door family hatchback - already much more likely to feature on your driveway than in your post-promotion grand plans - is cheaper to buy, cheaper to own, smarter to look at and generally more pleasing to use thanks to its 2013 facelift. All of which makes it, albeit not quite desirable with a capital 'D', at least something closer to the mark.

All this only stands the next generation Insignia in good stead. And Vauxhall aren’t finished there. For 2017, the next generation Insignia will be available as a far more alluring coupé-styled saloon and joined by the Sports Tourer and the re-invigorated, rugged Country Tourer previously dropped from the range in 2015. We have already tried the new Grand Sport on the UK roads and it has proven itself as a capable cruiser, with the new car set to reach forecourts in June.

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The Insignia forms part of a Vauxhall family car history that stretches back over a century. The very first Vauxhall model, from 1903, could be had with four seats, so Vauxhall (although initially best known for its sporting models) has a family car history just about as long as anyone else.

It is the front-drive Vauxhall Cavalier of 1988, though, which is of more recent relevance - because that’s the last time Vauxhall’s large family car was perceived as being better than Ford’s equivalent. Only a few individual Cavalier/Vectra variants have managed to better the Ford Mondeo since.

The current Insignia, launched in 2008, was the first product to appear on GM’s Epsilon II platform. As part of the model’s most thorough refresh since then for 2013, Vauxhall simplified the Insignia range, updated its styling, upgraded its interior, and reappraised its chassis settings and the contents of its bonnet. The aims were a wider, lower and more planted overall look; a more comfortable ride; a cleaner fascia with more up-to-date infotainment and connectivity technology; and the kinds of emissions, equipment levels and P11D prices to make the company car lists of the UK’s biggest fleet operators.

The Insignia offers plenty of versatility across hatchback and estate models, though the engine range that at its peak swelled to five diesel engines and four petrols, has now been reined in to three petrol and two diesel as the car heads towards the end of its life. Unfortunately, that paring back of engines doesn’t follow on to the seven trim levels that don’t offer the kind of natural progression in terms of additional equipment that you’d expect, with different bits such as ther OnStar technology system and larger alloys coming and going as you move from the base Design through to the top Elite spec. 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Insignia rear

Whether or not Vauxhall’s design language, with its ‘blade’ theme running throughout, appeals on the Insignia is mostly subjective, but we would comment that the tightly pinched lines, particularly around the bonnet and headlamps, help to disguise the Insignia’s considerable footprint. That's particularly true of the estate - or Sports Tourer in Vauxhall-speak.

The blade design is a reoccurring theme through the Vauxhall Insignia, the most obvious being in the front doors. It helps make the Insignia look thinner and breaks up the large surface area in profile; emphasising power to the back, making the Insignia look like it might be rear drive.

The Insignia virtually matches the Mondeo’s dimensions, yet looks smaller

The gently sloping rear window line, broad C-pillar and prominent chrome window edge form the Insignia’s most successful design element, giving the car elegant proportions and drawing parallels with the Lexus GS and Jaguar XF executive saloons.

For the most recent facelift, Vauxhall's designers concentrated their efforts on freshening up the car's front and rear bumper styling; there were no sheet metal changes. The Insignia got new, more powerful headlamps, a new radiator grille with a broader chrome bar, and a redesigned lower valance that draws the eye outwards and downwards. At the rear the changes were mirrored for the same effect.

Several changes to the exterior design combine with better underbody panelling to lower the car's drag co-efficient to just 0.25 for the hatchback, and 0.28 for the Sports Tourer.

That, in turn, contributes to some very impressive CO2 and economy figures. There are several new powertrain options, among them a detuned 247bhp version of the Astra VXR's 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, but by far the most significant is the ‘Ecoflex’ version of Vauxhall’s 1.6-litre turbodiesel which returns better than 75mpg on the NEDC combined cycle and emits from just 99g/km of CO2. That's very good economy and emissions performance for a car this size and with 134bhp.

Private buyers may be more interested in the richer end of the Insignia's engine spectrum, which is populated by a 168bhp four-cylinder diesel, and 138bhp normally aspirated and 138bhp or 247bhp turbocharged petrols. 

For the new Insignia, buyers will have the choice of six engines to choose from for the Grand Sport. Fleet users will be interested by the 1.6-litre turbocharged diesels which is available with 108bhp and 134bhp, while those looking for a bit more oomph from their turbodiesel can opt for the 168bhp 2.0-litre unit. As for the petrol options, a new turbocharged 1.5-litre engine makes up the bulk of the range and is available in two power outputs - 138bhp and 162bhp, while a four-wheel-drive 257bhp 2.0-litre version tops the range.  

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Insignia interior

The Vauxhall Insignia always had a spacious, functional sort of interior, and while the most recent round of revisions hasn’t radically changed that character, the fascia redesign and infotainment refit was much needed.

The centre stack is now much more intelligible than it used to be, the individual-little-button-count having taken a considerable dive. Central to the improvement is an 8in high-resolution colour touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard, which makes whatever you’re doing – be that programming the standard DAB radio or the optional sat nav – quite a lot quicker and easier.

The central touchscreen makes the Insignia's sub-systems much more accessible

Higher-end trim levels also come with a touchpad selector mounted on the centre console, immediately behind the gearlever, as well as an LCD-style multi-function speedometer that can be set to display a variety of information in several styles, all programmable by new steering wheel controls. Gone is the dated drive computer screen, fiddly old indicator wand interface and the poorly-placed rotary controller of the original Insignia - and they won't be missed. 

What results is a cabin that may still be quite sombre, but now at least feels up-to-date and reasonably intuitive. Material qualty levels that quietly impressed us in 2008 have improved little since, and some of the fascia plastics and trims now look a little meagre and dowdy. They're acceptable at the lower-end of the Insignia range, but if Vauxhall wants this car to be taken seriously as a credible alternative to a premium-branded executive saloon, they'll need a big lift for the next Insignia model generation. 

But accommodation levels are good. In the front, leg and headroom are plentiful and there are comprehensively adjustable seats and a wide range of reach/rake adjustment for the steering wheel. Room is good but not outstanding in the rear, but the boot is long, wide and respectably deep, although the floor never goes flat, even with the rear seats folded.

Choosing the right trimmed Insignia is far harder than picking the power unit with eight main trims and a sport-influenced VXR trim. The entry-level Design models come with DAB radio, Bluetooth, cruise control, electrically adjustable driver's seat and automatic lights, while Limited Edition models add Vauxhall's OnStar system, 18in alloys, heated front seats and steering wheel and parking sensors.

The mid-range SRi and SRi VX-Line trims get lowered suspension, front fog lights, sports seats, all-round electric windows and tinted rear windows, while the latter gets a sporty bodykit. SE trimmed Insignia's chiefly get automatic wipers and adaptive headlights, while the fleet-favourite Tech Line models get sat nav, chrome trim and an anti-dazzle rear view mirror.

The range-topping Elite models get the addition of climate control, folding mirrors, electrically adjustable front seats and a leather upholstery. Those in need of a bit more power are well catered for through the 321bhp VXR Supersport which comes with Recaro seats, a flat bottom steering wheel, bi-xenon headlights and a beefy body kit including a noise optimised exhaust system.

The 2017 Insignia Grand Sport and Sports Tourer may of had a light facelift given to its interior, but don't think for one moment Vauxhall has neglected it, as each of the five trims endows the new exec Vauxhall with more technology and equipment than previously. Entry-level Design models will come with Vauxhall OnStar, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry and start, a front camera, and Vauxhall's IntelliLink infotainment system complete with a 7.0in touchscreen display and smartphone integration, as standard

SRi models gain sports seats, dual-zone climate control, rear USB ports, automatic lights and wipers, 17in alloy wheels and a rear spoiler, while upgrading to SRi VX-Line Nav adds sat nav, an 8.0in touchscreen display and a VXR-styled bodykit. Tech Line adds parking sensors and electrically adjustable driver's seat, while Elite Nav models bestow luxuries such as leather upholstery, heated front seats, IntelliLux LED headlights and a Bose sound system to a comprehensive package.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Insignia side profile

The Vauxhall Insignia's big-selling 2.0-litre diesel engine has come a long way since 2008. In the current version it would bear comparison with plenty of premium-brand diesels on overall quietness.

Its manners aren’t perfect: you can still feel little shimmies on occasion through the pedals, and you’ll know when the crank’s spinning beyond 3000rpm because it’s fairly vocal – albeit low on coarseness. All in all though, the car has entirely decent mechanical refinement – certainly quiet enough for fairly relaxed, high-mileage motorway use, which is what most owners will care most about.

The turbo petrol engines offer performance with efficiency and are worth considering

Performance level in the 138bhp Ecoflex model is as modest as the cabin styling, particularly in 5th and 6th gears which are the ones lengthened for the sake of economy. But that’s not to say it’s bad. The Insignia’s a big car, but the engine’s fairly generous swell of mid-range torque makes it flexible and risk enough when accelerating through 3rd and 4th. Shift quality is good.

The starter-generator faltered under stop-start conditions once or twice during our test, failing to restart the engine at the first time of asking – but, while irritating, that’s a far-from-uncommon problem with economy diesels these days. And you can always turn it off; something that won’t prevent you from returning a real-world 55mpg on a mixed run.

While the diesel is particularly competitive with rival manufacturers' offerings, the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine is worth considering for the way it adopts a forward-looking approach of downsizing. It has replaced the wheezy old 1.8-litre unit throughout most of the Insignia range, and pulls cleanly and with purpose from low revs, thanks to 147lb ft of torque from 1850-4900rpm.

Overtaking no longer demands a long straight and plenty of patience. It’s a refined unit, too, and there’s nothing strained about the engine note even at high revs.

Higher in the petrol range you'll find a detuned version of the Astra VXR's 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, which is likely to play a very small part indeed in the overall sales mix. Above it sits the 321bhp VXR Supersport model.

The hottest of all the Insignias was developed to give premium German marques a bloody nose, and against the odds it does. Sort of. Think of the Insignia VXR as a cheaper and rarer Audi S4, but one that'll romp on to an ungoverned 168mph top speed if you allow it to. It has a curious kind of power delivery, and like the rest of the Insignia range, isn't the most involving machine to drive. But it offers lots of bang-for-your-buck.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Insignia cornering

The Vauxhall Insignia's greatest step forward over its Vectra predecessor was in its platform and suspension. While the combination of MacPherson struts up front and a four-link arrangement at the rear follows the same basic layout as the Vectra, each suspension component was new.

VXR models have a HiPerStrut front suspension arrangement which seeks to reduce torque steer and maintain negative camber during cornering for improved grip. 

Two different rear suspension layouts are available

Further suspension innovation comes in the form of Flexride, a continuously variable damper system that adjusts in relation to road conditions and driving style. 

The Insignia’s suspension has been re-specified as part of the latest facelift, and its handling re-tuned, for greater rolling comfort. Some 60 percent of the chassis componentry is new; springs, dampers, bushings and more. And it’s made a perceptible difference, without turning the Vauxhall into a particularly outstanding bargain limousine.

That you can feel the dynamic benefit most on the motorway is probably exactly as Vauxhall would want it. At high cruising speeds, the car’s evidently lower spring rates give it a gentle low-frequency primary ride – and that’s without the optional ‘Flexride’ dampers, which could be expected to deliver even more waft in ‘Tour’ mode.

More disappointing are the cabin’s isolation levels; there’s a fair bit of wind and road noise permitted in compared with some cars in the class, while the ‘bump-thump’ low-speed secondary ride is a little bit noisy and fidgety, too.

Otherwise, the car definitely steers much better than it ever did, with new-found heft, feel and consistency-of-pace in the steering rack, and little-or-no deterioration in grip or body control as a result of the chassis retune. It is a very fine motorway tool too, with excellent high-speed stability, although it lacks the ability to cosset like a Volkswagen Passat or a Peugeot 508.

Away from fast-moving traffic and onto more twisty asphalt, the comparisons have a similar theme: the Insignia feels less on its toes than some, slower in its direction changes. It cannot match a Ford Mondeo, nor indeed a Peugeot 508 or a Mazda 6, but levels with other rivals in this respect.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Insignia

Reset the trip computer in a Vauxhall Insignia Ecoflex and even without making an effort to conserve fuel, you’re likely to better 50mpg. You can better 60-to-the-gallon with a bit of commitment, and while the 75mpg average that Vauxhall claims is fanciful in the real world, that's still very strong economy for a car this size.

On carbon emissions, meanwhile, the Ecoflex models are outstanding in the class, and the more powerful diesel is also very commendable, allowing you to combine 168bhp with 114g/km.

The Insignia sits in a market segment so dominated by fleet sales that running costs are king

The 1.4-litre petrol unit is also strong. CO2 emissions from 124g/km are good for a petrol-engined car of this size, and official fuel consumption figures of 53.3mpg on the combined cycle is competitive too. Vauxhall quotes almost 40mpg figures for the 247bhp 2.0-litre model, but in reality you're more likely to return very low 30s-to-the gallon.

The Insignia sits in a market segment so dominated by fleet sales that running costs are king and every new model must further improve matters. So on price, maintenance schedules and costs, insurance and ease of repair, it offers nothing less than all-round competitiveness.

More in some ways; as part of the last refresh, Vauxhall brought every model in the range down by two insurance groups, and it has been tackling its long-standing depreciation problem quite successfully since the end of the last decade. 

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VERDICT

Vauxhall Insignia rear quarter

It has been a long time since Vauxhall had a large family car as competitive as the Insignia, not just on objective levels such as price, spaciousness and refinement but on many subjective levels, too.

It may inspire very little, but the Vauxhall Insignia is as practical, serviceable, comfortable, efficient and sensible as traditional family saloons come. With Luton knocking about £2000 off the price of the car old-to-new and residual values much improved, it’s also now very good value indeed.

It has been a long time since Vauxhall had a large family car as competitive as this

While it falls a little short of the standards of the best cars in the class on dynamism and engagement - the likes of the and Mazda 6 - the Insignia steers more precisely and handles with more roundedness than any non-sporting big Vauxhall ever did.

It merits a berth at the top of the UK fleet sales charts for all those reasons and more. While a lack of piquancy and verve will continue to make it a low-ranking choice for interested drivers of any kind, it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore it with good reason.

The next generation Insignia at the very least has a solid foundation with which Vauxhall can make its next step forward.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Vauxhall Insignia 2009-2017 First drives