Test drive: Opel Insigna GSI: The well-kept secret

Saloon cars sale have been declining for many years… and those that don’t have four rings, a bavarian propeller or a three-pointed star on the bonnet have an even tougher life! Mainstream manufacturers saloons are disappearing one after the other but, fortunately, there are still some worthy of interest for driving enthusiasts. The Insigna GSI is one of them.

The Insigna is the last Opel from the GM era and worth a look: in GSI guise, it benefits from a high quality chassis bringing great driving qualities. Its relative rarity on the road even gives it a welcomed exclusive touch.

Now part of the Stellantis Group, Opel remains active in the mid-size saloon segment. The second-generation Insigna was introduced at the end of 2016. Within the current range, it is the last representative of the GM era. It is an evolution of the first Insigna launched back in 2008. At the time, it was the most expensive project ever undertaken by GM Europe. Offering a complete range of equipment at an affordable price was no longer enough to be credible. Engines and chassis had to be up to the competition. The Insigna became a “world” car sold as the Buick Regal in the USA and China or as the Holden Commodore in Australia. It also served up as the basis for the last Saab, the 9-5 NG. Nevertheless, Europe remains its principal market where it is sold under the Opel and Vauxhall brands (in Great Britain and Ireland). On an SUV-dominated market where hybridisation and electrification are getting ever more common, the Insigna may seem completely at odds with punters expectations. What are its strengths?

At almost 5m long, the Insigna offers excellent interior space and its boot is practical, unlike many SUVs, which are bulky on the outside and… small on the inside!

Pleasing aesthetics and comprehensive equipment

The Insigna is available as a 5-door hatch and an estate, both with petrol and diesel engines. Aesthetically, it’s not divisive, its lines being rather harmonious and quite attractive. Our test car was a five-door hatch, proudly dressed in Jade White. That colour sets off its shape to perfection. The second generation Insigna got a mid-career restyling in December 2019. In the process, the range was streamlined and equipment levels updated. The front end evolved and adaptive LED headlights are now standard fit. Under our GSI’s bonnet there’s a two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine. Compared with the previous version, it lost a few feathers and is now limited to 230 hp instead of 260. This mainly benefits harmful emissions ; CO2 values being now well under the 200 gr threshold (189-194 gr/km). Torque is 350 Nm, conveniently spread between 1500 and 4000 rpm. The nine speed automatic gearbox is still GM-sourced. The car gets all-wheel drive with a torque vectoring rear differential. It is very similar to the one found on the VW Golf R, for example.

The Insigna has some american flair. It was also sold in the USA and in China as a “compact”, badged Buick Regal. It was sold in Australia too, there as a Holden Commodore.

The chassis also benefits from adaptive suspension, larger disc brakes with red Brembo calipers and 20″ alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport. The sport theme continues inside: leather steering wheel, heated and ventilated electric sports seats, Bose hi-fi system and all the up to the minute safety kit is there. 0 to 100 km/h takes 7.4 seconds. Let’s not forget that there are 1725 kg to move and that the car is almost 5 m long. This performance version resurrects the “GSI” moniker, first used on the aero Kadett back in the 1980s. Appropriately enough, it was fine-tuned on the Nürburgring.

The adaptive suspension, Brembo brakes and 20″ wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport are there for a reason. The Insigna GSI is a real sports car!

I like it

The Insigna is not a common car… sure, you may come across a few diesel station wagons in traffic, but there are not that many saloons around. That’s already enough to seduce us! The Opel Insigna takes its task seriously. In all circumstances, it displays an excellent mastering of the available power and torque. Its very neutral and balanced behaviour makes it a formidable machine on motorways and long straights. On small winding roads, it feels a little less comfortable but still shines.

The front passengers benefit from electrically adjustable heated and ventilated sports seats, a real pleasure on long journeys.

The Insigna always had a first class chassis and it still is the case here, even with 230 hp under your right foot. The steering may not be the most direct and communicative, but it’s precise enough and never feels too light. Despite the 20″ wheels, damping is excellent and the adaptive suspension limits body roll efficiently. The all-wheel drive system keeps the rear wheels on the right track and brings peace of mind. We can’t help but thinking that such a combination would have made a very convincing third generation Saab 9-5!

Interior fit and finish are very good. The central screen size is not too big but remains manageable, the various buttons and switches being ideally placed. The infotainment system is easy to use and is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

I don’t like it

Driving any car with sporty pretentions always tempts you to push the engine to the limit and rev it up. It’s a bit disappointing here, because the engine is on the lazy side and somehow reluctant to respond to the driver’s requests; go too far and it will make you feel it’s not happy. The automatic gearbox is very “GM”, very American with its sanitized character. Therefore, it’s not very exciting, the shifts delivering nearly no feedback.  At times, you could even think the car is fitted with a continuously variable transmission. The torque sent to the rear axle is generally insufficient for the vector distribution to be useful and truly felt behind the wheel. Starting off the car and driving it  at low speeds, the lack of a rear windscreen wiper is annoying.

The two-litre four-cylinder engine is the only petrol engine on the programme and is available in three power levels: 170, 200 and 230 hp. The GSI uses the most powerful lump. Too bad it doesn’t like to rev too much…

Quite clever

The interior is spacious, fit and finish are on par with many “Premium” cars. However, the interior is very dark and predominantly black. Fortunately, the sunroof allows you to benefit from a little more light inside. The dashboard looks the business and the 8″ central screen is not intrusive. The instrument cluster harmoniously combines analogue and digital instruments. Airco is easily adjusted using good old-fashioned buttons. The steering wheel controls are logical and rather intuitive to use. The infotainment system is easy to use too, without having to navigate through at least 45 different menus. The front seats are absolutely perfect: electrically adjustable in all directions, they are also heated and ventilated. The lumbar support is adjustable, while a movable centre section provides effective leg support. In the rear, passengers have plenty of room. The seats are heated too and they can use a pair of USB ports. The boot offers a 490 litres capacity and its regular shape allows four people to go on holiday without having to keep an eye on the amount of luggage they take with them.

The boot has a regular shape and is a useful 490 litres. The folding rear seat allows to increase its volume to cavernous size.

Why I buy it

Apart from being unusual on the road, the Insigna GSI is aesthetically pleasing. It even has a premium feel to it, with excellent fit and finish. Its lavish equipment is complete and easy to use. A 230 bhp all-wheel drive car selling for € 50,000 (excluding extras) is very tempting! On paper, the Insigna GSI represents excellent value for money and no doubt substantial discounts would sweeten the deal even further, turning it into a real bargain.

The steering is precise, although we would have liked it to be more communicative. The ergonomics of the steering wheel controls are well thought out.

Why I don’t buy it

On its own, the Insigna GSI is an excellent car but the competition moved on… The Insigna is under attack from premium saloons and SUVs displaying tempting PCP offers while the D-segment is shrinking by the day. The Insigna is still a “big Opel” and as such, it will certainly depreciate a lot (too much?) over a period of 3 to 5 years. Fuel consumption is not excessive but remains high. We recorded values between 8.4 and 8.7 litres/ 100 km during our test drive. It sorely lacks is a hybrid system (like on the VW Passat or the Peugeot 508), which would unleash more power and be very beneficial for the consumption values, not mentioning lower emissions levels. No doubt the next generation will get one and use one of the excellent Peugeot bases available. (Text: Dimitri Urbain; Photos: Paul-Edouard Urbain)

The GSI moniker appeared in the middle of the 80’s, with the advent of the first aerodynamic Kadett and has been part of the Opel legend ever since. This car was famous for its digital speedometer that went up to 288 km/h once the ignition key was turned!

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