My first car was a 1970s–era Opel Rekord. It was one of the most beautiful cars GM ever made. It was also roomy, reliable, as well as cheap to own and service. Those typical brand values made Opel a star player in Europe, and demoted Ford and many others to the status of also-rans. Later, Opel lost the reliability and beauty part of the plot. Is today’s Rekord, the Opel Insignia, good enough to lead an almost-dead company to the future?
The latest effort from GM-Euro sure looks good enough. The Insignia sports a spectacular design that gets almost everything right. From the side, it has that leaping-panther silhouette. From the front, you see a successful implementation of the puppy-resting-on-paws motif, combined with a dash of HR Giger’s evil alien in the grille. So it’s cute but aggressive. It looks like a contemporary version of the Xedos 6, which itself was an excellent interpretation of what a small Jaguar should look like.
The boldness goes on inside, where swoops and swathes and weird angles reign supreme. Some of it works well, such as the blade-like door handles. The interior treatment is certainly distinctive, without being over-the-top like the Euro-Civic’s is. But to my mind, the net effect is overwrought and over-buttoned. I prefer the Renault Laguna’s simple elegance, or the C-Class’s utilitarian look. Also, some of it just doesn’t work so well. From my POV, the thick steering-wheel rim obscured the temp and gas instruments, and the speedometer typography is unnecessarily small.
Which leads to a major point of complaint: the coupe-like Insignia seems designed in general more for looks than for functionality. Visibility is poor, what with small windows and thick beams. Space is at a premium: this is a 4+1 and not a proper five-seater, and it has insufficient headroom and foot room in the back. (The trunk, however, is big.) I understand the positioning logic: family space is what minivans are for, and sedans are nowadays tailored to professionals. But I don’t buy it. Why should I, when buying a new car, accept a downgrade? Do I look like a schmuck? Nobody makes me pay business for economy.
Most journalists have reported Audi-like interior quality, which sure indicates the value of providing prepared press vehicles. I can say that although the interior feels, smells and looks good, it ain’t no Audi: I heard a faint pip-scratch from the center console when driving over expander joints, and the gearshift surround is made of cheap and ugly plastichrome that crackles at a touch.
My tester had a fantastically tractable 160 HP oil burner coupled to a well-tuned 6-speed automatic. This Opel was quiet, fast (0-60 in under 9 sec), torquey (350 Nm (258 lb·ft)) and economical (providing 28 mpg despite often driven in town or around 120 mph). Once again, a good Diesel in combination with a modern auto is a near-dream team. (If it only had a chain cam . . . )
Handling is pretty fine: stable and secure at high speeds, composed and allowing high turning speeds on country roads. I seldom managed to make the ESP intervene, but when it did, it was discreet. The Insignia lacks the Mondeo’s magic however, with less precise steering and not quite as linear reactions near the limit. This is for a reason: the Opel’s development benchmark for handling was to achieve 80% of the Ford’s prowess. Also, in contrast to most other reviewers, I felt that the Insignia’s ride quality was definitely inferior to the Mondeo’s, with an autobahn experience that is closer to that of the bumpy 1-Series.
I could now stress how the Insignia has all kinds of standard gadgets such as an optical sign-recognition system that reminds you of speed limits, or a lane-departure warning. But I come from the school that says gadgets are only important if the basics are great, unless you belong to the Plymouth Horizon fan club.
I also come from the school that says having some strong merits don’t matter when they don’t fit the brand. Nobody needs a fuel-sipping Lamborghini. A successful Opel needs to be beautiful (check), affordable (Insignia prices are well below comparable Passats, so, OK), reliable (given recent Opel history, check), economical to own (maybe not, given the electronic gadgets), and family-friendly (no way!)
Up to a point, sexiness sells, and the Insignia has had a great sales start. But in time, Opel will have to answer the obvious question: why buy an Insignia from a zombie company, when you can get a (better) Mondeo from a viable one? For a GM car, this Opel is great. For a car that’s supposed to save a bankrupt company, it’s just not good enough.