Friday 9 December 2016

Behind the camouflage, here's what I found when I drove the new Opel Insignia prototype

Behind the camouflage, here's what I found when I drove the new Opel Insignia prototype

Published 26/10/2016 | 02:30

The new Opel Insignia prototype - in camouflage
The new Opel Insignia prototype - in camouflage
The dash looks to be much slimmer than the current one

This is the new Opel Insignia, believe it or not. It is a heavily disguised prototype but, despite that, we found and were given several clues about how it will shape up.

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I've been driving pre-production models of it on roads traversing the borders of southern Germany and France to get a sense of what they have planned for buyers of mid-size family/fleet cars next year.

It will be officially shown in all its finery on December 7 and on display at the Geneva Motor Show in March. I reckon we'll see it for 172-reg sale in Ireland.

You can expect the following as being the more relevant engine line-up for Ireland: the existing, but tweaked, 1.6-litre and 2-litre diesels and a brand new 1.5-litre petrol (165bhp) which impressed a lot more than the 2-litre turbo we also tested. Basically the petrols will range from 140bhp to 250bhp and the diesels from 110bhp to 170bhp.

Behind the façade and camouflage of what it will ultimately look like, I got a good idea of what it will drive like, and feel and behave.

This is the second new generation of the car (first one 2008) that has been bought by nearly a million people and garnered a European Car of the Year award in 2009.

Eddie Cunningham with the current Insignia and the new prototype
Eddie Cunningham with the current Insignia and the new prototype

It's a large 5dr hatch but for some reason Opel are going to call it the Insignia Grand Sport. I think that's mad and will cause confusion. It doesn't take a genius to recognise that this is more coupé-like than the current one (pictured alongside it in our pictures) but Grand Sport suggests something other than a large family/fleet motor.

Rivals include the Ford Mondeo, Volkswagen Passat, Skoda Superb, Hyundai i40, KIA Optima, Peugeot 508 etc but they also will target more 'premium' buyers of the Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3-series. You can't knock them for being ambitious.

Even though the previous Insignia got a fair old facelift two years ago, criticisms lingered. There were, Opel concede, three main areas:

* It was, and felt, too heavy; interior room wasn't great and there were too many buttons on the dash (even after a purge). So they cut the weight significantly - by up to 175kg (even more we're told for the estate). That's effectively the same as two of me in the car.

Heavily disguised prototype: the new Opel Insignia
Heavily disguised prototype: the new Opel Insignia

* There's more room: it is wider (+7mm to 1,863mm), longer (+55mm to 4,897mm) and lower (-29mm). Wheelbase is up 92mm to 2,829 with front track (1,596) and rear (1,599) up 11mm.

* And there are few buttons, with all key functions embedded in the touchscreen (7in/8in dependng on trim; same for analogue or digital information cluster).

Prices, we're told, will be 'mainstream' to sweep the general market primarily and of course there will be premium high-spec versions.

From what we could make out under the camouflage inside, the dash is much slimmer than the current one. I liked the digital cluster. It lets you prioritise what you want to see and where - a bit like Audi's virtual cockpit but, no, not quite.

We sat much lower in the cabin; I really prefer that; it's much more engaging.

The big surprise came with the amount of rear-seat room. I had loads even after getting my front seat the way I want it. There is far more space than the 22mm legroom increase suggests; the same for the +8mm head clearance.

Built on what they call the Epison 2 (E2) platform, they have heavily revised the suspension. Overall, there was a much sharper, lighter feel to the car; it had a crisper chassis response and while we didn't push it madly it was much more on the button going into and coming out of bends especially.

I drove two engines: the 1.5-litre petrol 165bhp (6spd manual) and the 2-litre 250bhp turbo petrol with a most disappointing 8spd auto box. No life in it at all. It had all-wheel-drive. The old automatic with AWD (pictured too) we drove to compare was far better.

In contrast the 1.5-litre (derived from the 4cyl 1.4-litre in the Astra, which in turn is based on the 3cyl 1-litre in the Corsa) was lively and sprightly, only showing a little weakness in response up a gradient. It replaces the old 1.6-litre (170bhp). Yes, it drops 5bhp but it's got a much lighter frame to push. It was smooth, quiet and mostly lively.

Now all we need to see is what they've done with the looks. If they are as decent a step up as the other elements we sampled, they'll have done a good job.

The cars I was driving were pre-producton: they are about 95pc of the way there. Before them were first prototypes which cost €250,000 each. Just gives a clue to the sort of money involved in bringing a car to market these days. l They also showed us the next generation of their Intellilux lighting system. A camera monitors the road ahead and tells an on-board control unit which, and how many, of the 32 LED segments to turn on, or off, depending on what's ahead - be it an oncoming car, or vehicle in front. You press a little switch on the indicator/lights stalk and it works automatically, closing down just enough to avoid glare in oncoming or preceding vehicles but giving high-beam vision everywhere else.

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