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Insignia puts Opel in a new league

Wednesday, 6th February, 2019 4:58pm

The problem, for Opel, is that it’s not really considered a German brand.

I mean, obviously, it is actually a German brand. These days it may be owned by PSA Group, the French conglomerate that also owns Peugeot and Citroen, but its headquarters and its main factory are still in Frankfurt (actually in Russelsheim, a short drive from Frankfurt) and its language and attitude are very much Teutonic.

The problem with all of that is that perception is everything, and the car-buying public — in spite of the facts — doesn’t put Opel up on the same pedestal that it does BMW, Mercedes, or Audi.

Of course, that’s because Opel makes cars that are a lot more affordable, right? Well, yes — of course, the Opel range is full of models such as the Astra and Corsa and Grandland that are, specifically and avowedly affordable family cars, but that doesn’t mean that Opel can’t reach up a little, and play in the shark tank with the big boys, right?

Well, we’re about to find out. This is the Insignia GSI, and while it may look, broadly, the same as the regular €27,995 reps-and-family Insignia, it’s not.

For a start, it costs all but twice the price of the most basic Insignia (do we really have to include the fatuous Grand Sport tag as well?) and it comes with some serious high-performance hardware to boot.

The idea is that by packing the Insignia full of technology, high-tech handling aids, and a more powerful engine, it can reasonably command a price tag that you’d normally find stuck to the windscreen of a 3 Series or an A4. In fact, the Insignia you see before you costs, wait for it, a panic-attack inducing €53,950 including options.

Hang on, let’s put that into some context. For a kick off, there were only two options fitted to our test car, and they were a wireless charging port for a mobile phone, and a heated windscreen. Combined, those two options added a mere €350 to the cost.

The other €53,600 certainly bought you quite a lot, including an eight-inch infotainment screen with the latest IntelliLink software, which can act as a wifi hotspot for as many as eight devices, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are thrown in.

It also included a premium Bose sound system, dual zone climate control, cruise control, a heated steering wheel, heated seats in the front and back, high-performance LED headlights, 20 inch alloy wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, a lane departure control system, forward collision alert with automated emergency braking, and traffic sign recognition.

Oh, and a couple of the best looking and most comfortable sports bucket seats you’ve ever seen. Or sat on. They’re so good, you’ll never want to get out.

More to the point, it also buys you the GSI’s engine and high-performance chassis. There is a 260hp petrol version, but our test car used the 2.0 litre twin-turbo diesel model, with 210hp and a chunky 480Nm of torque.

That power and that torque is sent to all four wheels by a computer-controlled four-wheel drive system, and there’s torque vectoring so that power can be shunted side-to-side between the rear wheels, depending on which one can handle the grunt the best. There’s also Opel’s Flexride electronically-controlled suspension dampers, which can stiffen up or soften out quicker than you can blink, and, to keep all the power under control, massive Brembo brakes tucked in behind those big alloy wheels.

So, yes, €53-odd-thousand is a lot of cash to pony up for a car with an Opel badge, but here’s the context: to get that kind of power, and that kind of equipment with a BMW or Audi badge is going to cost you more. Quite a lot more.

And Opel is, we should remind you, a German car maker. So why shouldn’t it, occasionally, charge premium prices for its products?

Ah, you’ll be thinking; it can’t possibly match the deft chassis responses of those premium-badge boys, now can it? Can it? Well…

Actually, the Insignia GSI is a hugely impressive car to drive. When we last drove the standard Insignia, in 1.6 diesel form, its steering felt a bit too slow and a bit too long-winded (especially compared to its engaging-to-drive predecessor) for it to be any fun.

The GSI retains a touch of that — the steering is never what you’d call agile or fast, in the manner of say an Alfa Romeo Giulia — but the extra power of the GSI model, and especially the torque vectoring across the rear axle, really helps to dial some of it out. While the Insignia never feels ‘pointy’ in the manner of the very best sports saloons, it is still enormously impressive.

On some of the tightest, twistiest, and most badly-surfaced back roads we could find, the Insignia GSI was, in fact, a revelation.

First off, while you’d assume that the combo of big wheels and sports suspension would make it ride like a plank, it actually doesn’t. Even in its stiffest Sport mode, the GSI flows and breathes with the road like running water.

You have to find the worst, most lumpen, surfaces possible before it feels even slightly hard in the ride department. And while that steering could do with being quicker, it never feels less than composed, controllable, and yes even fun, when the corners are flying at you as fast as you can find them. The Insignia GSI is a hugely impressive sports saloon, badge or no badge, Germany or no Germany.

The only let-down is in the cabin. It’s roomy, well-made, and those wonderful sports seats are good enough that you’d like to take them home and use them for watching TV, but some of the plastics, and the half-digital instruments, just don’t look classy enough for the price tag.

No matter. What counts is how the GSI drives, and it drives beautifully. Little wonder that more than 100,000 Insignia GSIs have been ordered across Europe already.

At that price level in Ireland, it’s sadly probably going to struggle to find customers, but if there were ever any doubt that Opel can truly be a maker of premium German sporting cars, then the Insignia GSI just blows that doubt away.

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