What’s Hot: Surprisingly nimble on snow, very potent V6 turbo, more traction than we expected
What’s Not: Snowbound skidpans are disappointingly rare in Australia
X-FACTOR: Is this the hi-po sedan for Australian drivers once the SS and XR8 exit stage left? Maybe, it's fast, and, snow or not, the VXR has brilliant AWD grip
Vehicle Style: Medium performance sedan
Price: $51,990 (plus on-roads)
Fuel Economy claimed: 11.3 l/100km
It's brutally cold, the car is properly sideways and I've run out of opposite lock. A snowbank looms through the side glass, and is rapidly growing larger.
A voice crackles over the radio stashed in the cupholder: "Straighten the wheel, then power, power, power".
It seems counterintuitive. A misspent youth driving RWD cars with no traction control taught me to steer into a slide, while common sense dictates the brake pedal should bring an end to any unexpected vehicular behaviour, not the accelerator.
But not here on the compacted snow surface of the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, near picturesque Queenstown in New Zealand's southern island.
Here we're learning about the Holden Insignia VXR, the brand's first-ever AWD turbo sports sedan.
Previously sold under the Opel badge as part of its OPC line of performance products, the Insignia is finally back with a number of internal and external enhancements - as well as that “VXR” suffix.
So if we've experienced it before, why are we driving it again? More importantly, why travel across the Tasman to drive it on snow, an environment foreign to all but a few Australians?
Well it seems we were a bit harsh on the Insignia the first time around. It's not the overweight execu-sedan we initially judged it to be, and when the going gets slippery it's actually an accomplished and exciting steer.
How do we know? Because we did as the voice said. We straightened the wheel and floored the accelerator.
Now we're still travelling sideways, but less dramatically so. The Insignia’s twin-scroll turbo is cramming the V6's 2.8 litres with 0.9bar of boost and drive is now being delivered to all four wheels.
The front wheels scrabble at the icy surface, but now that they're not pointing left they're actually pulling the Insignia into line. While that’s happening, the rear tyres spin away to help push the VXR where it needs to go.
The rule of thumb out here is "point the front wheels where you want to go, then power out".
Pretty soon the car is doing controlled orbits round a snowmaker (the centrepiece of this particular skidpad), in a comfortable four-wheel drift with the front wheels pointed roughly straight ahead. It feels glorious.
Snow is a challenging surface to drive on, for sure, but it allows us to fully explore the Insignia VXR’s AWD chassis safely.
To do the same kind of tricks on tarmac would require insane speeds, and more risk than we (or Holden) would be comfortable with.
So, what makes the Insignia VXR work so well on the slippery stuff?
Up front is a transversely-mounted 2.8 litre V6, which is force-fed air by a single twin-scroll turbocharger to make 239kW and 435Nm.
Built in Port Melbourne at Holden’s engine assembly plant, this engine comes hooked up to a six-speed automatic. Drive is then taken to all four wheels via a clutched centre differential, with a nominal front to rear torque split of 50:50.
That torque split becomes more rear-biased depending on which drive mode is selected.
Sport mode encourages more oomph to be sent to the back axles, while VXR mode sends even more again. On the ice, that rear bias helps the car rotate under power and neutralise understeer.
On a steady cruise the torque bias favours the front axle, but there will be none of that during this exercise. If needed, up to 100 percent of torque can go to the rear wheels.
Further aiding traction is the rear end’s virtual limited-slip-differential, which brakes each rear wheel independently to limit wheelspin and help vector torque to the outside wheel when cornering.
Of course, a great deal more traction was also gained from the 19-inch Pirelli winter tyres fitted to our cars. The standard rollers are shod in 20-inch Pirelli P-Zeros, which are about as tractable on snow as a skateboard.
But driving a car like the Insignia VXR on compacted snow isn’t just about technology, there’s a certain amount of technique involved.
Professional driving instructor Steve Pizzati and his team were on hand to give us some tutelage.. and to keep us from snowbanks.
Sliding, braking, emergency lane-change and a slalom drill demonstrated just how much grip you can find in a car like this on compacted snow.
Not much, but more than you’d expect thanks to the winter rubber.
Stopping distances were triple or quadruple what you’d get on dry asphalt, while it didn’t take much steering angle at all to induce understeer.
The latter could be addressed by winding off some lock and slowing down, while the former simply required leaving more room for braking.
A “dogbone” exercise (picture a dogbone or peanut-shaped track) required a defter touch, with the car needing to smoothly transition between left and right slides, while also incorporating a long drift around the big ends of the ‘bone’.
Get this one right, and the VXR twists and turns like a ballerina.
What was the point?
On face value, drifting on snow isn’t an activity most Australians regularly engage in. We’d forgive you for thinking that the relevancy of this exercise is suspect.
But what about when a sudden burst of rain hits roads after a long dry spell, bringing oil to the surface? What about that puddle of spilled coolant that’s left on the ground after an accident?
It’s situations like these when a well-sorted AWD system can make all the difference.
And while very few Australians live above the snow line, many thousands will regularly visit the alpine region each winter and potentially encounter black ice and snow-covered carparks.
For these people, the Insignia VXR could be the all-season sporty midsizer they’ve been looking for.
For everyone else, they can take comfort in the knowledge that the Insignia VXR isn’t some weaksauce front-biased faux-AWD sedan.
This is a very capable machine, the Insignia VXR, and easily one of the most exciting non-premium midsize sedans around.
The fact that it’s also $8000 cheaper than its Opel-badged predecessor - despite carrying more equipment - is a handy bonus.
There is a lot of car sitting between those wheels.