Opel Insignia -- Ugly American, Pretty Car
By Myles Kornblatt
Europe is great for a road trip -- specifically Germany’s Autobahns and the mountain areas of Switzerland, Italy and France. Never mind that out of all the languages spoken in those places, my best is German, and I still can’t even order a complete schnitzel meal. So I already know I’m going to be the Ugly American. To offset this, I called up some friends at Opel to make sure I was at least going to have a pretty car: the new Insignia.
My trip started at Opel’s headquarters in Rüsselsheim, Germany. Before I could get behind the wheel, Opel wanted me to have an appreciation for its cars. I got a tour of the Insignia’s home, everything from the sheet metal getting stamped to the finished product. Opel’s guys even showed off a WWII bunker that serves no real purpose but was built so well it’s too expensive to knock down.
Finally, it was time to pick up the Insignia. Since I’m American, I wanted to experience something we don’t have much in the States. So I requested a diesel engine. Because I’m American, Opel unfortunately assumed I’d need an automatic transmission. This materialized as a pomegranate red Insignia 2.0 CDTI Ecotech.
There was no time to waste. I’m in a bright, new German sedan, and I had things to see in Turin the next day. On the way I had plans to stay overnight in Switzerland at a hotel that catered to skiers, but was nowhere near a mountain. I figure any woman naive enough to stay there would find the life of an automotive journalist interesting. Because the diesel engine can get around 35 mpg without driving frugally and the Insignia holds about 18.5 gallons of the sludgy fuel, my computer readout said my semi-full tank had a bladder-busting 940 km (585 miles) to empty…plenty to get me across the boarder.
Night fell and everything turned cold and a little rainy. The digital readout in the instrument cluster warned me of the potential for snow on the road. I was very impressed that this car can not only read the temperature, but also the moisture in the air and on the road. This awe quickly turned into fear as I realized I’m moving up in elevation on summer tires. Why, oh why, didn’t I ask for the 4x4 version of the Insignia?
As the snow started to come down heavy, the Insignia begins to lose some traction. My dreams of entertaining hoards of international chalet girls with my stories from the Geneva Motors Show was quickly replaced with the reality of a roadside motel.
The next day the weather cleared, and I began to climb the Swiss Alps. This is where the Insignia started to come to life. The 2.0-liter diesel engine only makes 158 hp (and tipping the scales at 3306 lbs gives it the power/weight ratio of the snail-like Scion xD), but with diesels torque is king. This four-cylinder makes 258 lb-ft., which is as much as the Insignia’s non-OPC range topper 256 hp 2.8-liter V6 gas engine. This kind of power made the Insignia feel like it was pulling itself up the mountains, rather than pushing itself. This is a small distinction, but it’s the kind of feeling that made the car never feel short of breath, even in the higher altitudes. At times the Insignia felt powerful enough to idle its way up the switchbacks.
This kind of driving really made me wish I had the manual transmission. I rowed the gears of a manual Insignia in Geneva, and it felt buttery smooth. Instead I had to waste these mountain roads pretending that the manumatic function on the six-speed auto was a proper stick. Then again, the diesel doesn’t offer much help either. With a 4,000 rpm redline, there’s not a whole lot of sexy engine noise when the car’s running at peak. None of this mattered too much because my heart was racing anyway from the narrow roads with shear cliff drop-offs and no guardrail – like roads in the beginning of The Italian Job (the original one, not the Marky Mark re-make.)
As I made my way down the Italian side, the twisty roads also revealed a driving quality that was distinctly not German. The Insignia can’t imitate premium domestic models because it doesn’t have the refinement of the Mercedes E-Class nor the seat-of-your-pants feeling of the BMW 5-Series. But it’s also distinctly sharper than the middle-manager VW Passat. In total, the Insignia feels more Japanese. As it hurried down the steep roads it felt like an Acura TSX: telepathic, in control, and a hint of a wild side as it snaps to attention.
I make it out of the mountains to discover that the rest of the roads in northern Italy are as flat as Kansas. So this is was a good time to start noticing the interior of the Insignia. Opel took a page from Audi on this one, and the car is awash with premium materials that are mostly black and grey. It’s not depressing, just very businesslike. Everything glows red at night, and there are enough buttons, dials and switches to make an owner feel like he/she bought a premium auto.
The driver’s seat is a leather-wrapped ergonomic miracle. It’s almost infinitely adjustable including four lumbar support zones and an extension for the lower cushion. I can’t remember any other time I’ve spent multiple days with eight to ten hours behind the wheel without my back or my butt crying out for mercy.
The navigation screen/command center is one of the most logical layouts around. It’s managed through a “Multi-Controller” knob in the center console that is used to scroll through all the main functions of the car. Surrounding the knob are five buttons of the most commonly used functions. Visually the layout is odd, but it ergonomically designed to fit exactly where fingers would normally rest -- great for muscle memory. Even better are the independent buttons on the center console that represent utilities like climate control, radio, and navigation. Accessing essential functions doesn’t require scrolling through the command center. This is what BMW’s iDrive should have always been.
The DVD navigation system was a particular surprise. It wasn’t a touch screen, so entering names did take a few extra seconds, but it is clear and very user-friendly. It could not only find destinations by the usual method of entering an address, but entering the name of the attraction or hotel was also part of the look up function. Like many navigation systems it knew about attractions near the destination, but this one went a little further. For example it had a feature to find hotels using a questionnaire that narrowed the search field by asking everything from price range to atmosphere to type of credit card accepted. The system would then compile a list of appropriate hotels, which included a description, exact room price, and even pictures. I was a little skeptical of its accuracy at first, but after a few run-ins with lousy accommodations I found on the internet, I gave this a try. The Opel did a much better job than I ever could.
The next few days were spent going back to Germany and opening up the Insignia on the Autobahn. The 2.0-liter diesel has a 0 to 60 mph time of 8.9 seconds, which isn’t blindingly fast but is still a second quicker than Europe’s diesel Mini. Like any good German car, it gives its best performance when it’s above 80 mph. At speeds that are illegal in the U.S., the Insignia tracks straight and gives a feeling of total control. This version tops out at 135 mph (217 km/h), but it has no trouble cruising at 124 mph (200 km/h). It’s not exactly like driving a Porsche through Germany, but it was sharp enough to keep up on the Autobahn’s endangered unlimited sections.
I was spending most of my time outside of the cities either on backroads or highways, so my average mpg began hovering around the low 40s. This is better than what BMW is promoting with its 2.0-liter turbo diesel, and it is especially welcomed when keeping in mind that fuel costs about three times as much over here.
The Insignia was beginning to grow on me. At first I wasn’t sure if the car really was designed well inside and out, or if this was just a case of being content with an old friend. My answer came at a small parking garage in Munich. My hotel was using an underground facility to park eight cars in a space most Americans would use for four. Because of this the desk clerk came down to guide me into my corner space. My red Opel stood out in a garage that was a sea of dull colored 3-Series, 5-Series and an E-Class. After I was wedged into the space, and wiggled my way out of the car, the clerk looked at me and said, “Ah, the new Opel,” in a tone of genuine interest. As I walked away, he took a few extra seconds to look the car over. Even to a German, the Insignia was something special.
I have a lot of praise for this car, but the Insignia is not infallible. On my final day I hopped the boarder into France for a quick visit to a museum. My eyes weren’t perfect, and neither were the Opel’s. The museum’s parking lot didn’t seem like a tricky place, but the Insignia’s parking radar only picked up the lot’s beer can-like markers right after I heard the crunch of them under my tire.
There was no damage to the car, but the Insignia’s heavy weight did uproot two of the cylinders from the dirt and made a few dents. I didn’t think scuffing parking cones qualified as desecrating a national monument, but the museum officials were seeing it a little differently. After handing over my passport info, e-mail address, and a signed confession including paying for a multi-man crew to come out and bury new beer cans, I was let go. They haven’t sent me the bill (yet), but the Insignia’s iffy radar may mean I’m no longer welcome in France.
Regardless I made a B-line for the Frankfurt airport, tossed the keys to an Opel rep and took one last look at the big red sedan. It had been 10 days and 4100 km (about 2550 miles), and I wasn’t tired of the car.
I can’t help but think this Insignia is exactly the kind of car that could have saved a GM brand. Before GM chopped off Saturn and Pontiac, this Insignia would have been a perfect flagship for either brand, if priced correctly. In Germany, this Insignia 2.0 CDTI Ecotech with loaded with options would run about €34,000. This kind of money buys a comparable German Passat and stays €4,000 below the most basic 2.0-liter diesel 5-Series. That’s exactly the pricing where this car would be competitive in America.
There is some light at the end of this tunnel. The upcoming Insignia-based Regal along with the new LaCrosse are re-launching Buick into younger, sportier territory. If the execs in the U.S. don’t fiddle too much with the Insignia’s packaging, the whole thing just might work. It shouldn't be too hard to get right considering the first year of the Regals will be built in Rüsselsheim and imported from Germany.
Plus GM has decided to keep Opel. Now if we can only convince GM to bring Opel back to North America...
Opel Insignia sedan Europe features