What’s Hot: Technology plus, dynamic AWD performance, solid price
What’s Not: Small cabin, noisy, a bit porky, no spare wheel
X-FACTOR: Holden’s car to maintain 'showroom momentum' comes courtesy of a performance-plus German sports sedan.
Vehicle style: Mid-size sports sedan
Price: Holden Insignia VXR - $51,990
Engine/trans: 239kW/435Nm 2.8 turbo petrol V6 | 6spd auto
Fuel economy claimed: 11.3 L/100km | tested: 12.8 L/100km
Yes, rumours of its death are premature. Its bread-and-butter large car range may be headed to oblivion, but Holden isn't wasting time rejuvenating its product menu.
The first road sign that points to Holden’s refocused new direction is the Insignia.
Borrowing from its sister company Opel in Germany – paralleling a similar move made in 1978 when the German-born Commodore first hit Australia – the Insignia VXR is an impressive car designed to recapture interest in mid-priced, mid-sized but 'large power' family sedans.
Holden admits it’s a niche product.
It’s all-wheel drive, for a start. And a turbocharged V6 engine (a variant of the Commodore 3.6-litre V6) with tricky differentials and quick-change six-speed automatic are all spicy ingredients of great appeal in rev-happy Australia.
But it should be treated as a precursor – a 'toe in the water' to see how Opel products will now be accepted after the German’s withdrawal only two years ago as a stand-alone marque here.
If wearing Holden badges makes a difference, the Insignia VXR should be a hit with keen drivers (but limited in sales, granted).
But the interest will be in what comes after the VXR.
Holden is expected to follow up the hot XVR with 'plain Jane' (read: front drive) variants of the Insignia, building a mid-size Euro-centric battlement that would fend off Ford (Focus and Mondeo), offer some presumption of prestige from Toyota and take on the rolling momentum of Mazda.
But is the VXR good? Is it what!
- Recaro leather front sports seats
- 8-way electric seat adjustment (front)
- 4-way electric lumbar adjustment
- Satellite navigation
- Dual-zone air conditioning
- Isofix child restraint system (two)
- 8-inch colour monitor with vehicle info (driver)
- 8-inch colour touch screen monitor (console) for audio, communication, navigation, infotainment
- Holden MyLink connectivity
- 7-speaker audio with digital radio
Though it sits in the crowded mid-car segment, the Insignia is noted for its rather compact dimensions.
These extend to the cabin and boot and though there’s room for four adults – five is too squeezy – it is not in the same arena as perceived rivals such as the Mazda 6, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima.
Compare it more to one of its European competitors, the Volkswagen CC 3.6 ($66,990), and its dimensions slot into place.
Typically Teutonic, the cabin is decorated in matte black, with relief provided by chrome-tipped switchgear, wide and bright instrument gauges, perforated leather upholstery and gloss plastic trim.
There’s a sense of understatement throughout, complementing the craftsmanship and eloquent curves of the Recaro sports seats (which are also heated).
Personal storage is reasonable, with cupholders in the centre console, a useable glovebox and bottle holders in the door inserts.
Thanks to Insignia’s mid-life makeover last year, improvements to the cabin are highlighted by the new dashboard with its bigger, simpler and better-equipped centre console and bright but misty touchscreen monitor.
Air-conditioning controls are digital (with dual-zone temperature control), the satellite navigation is excellent, as is the audio with its seven speakers and the connectivity that uses Holden’s MyLink network for internet access.
The park brake is electric which is a neat solution to freeing up space on the centre console.
It’s not exactly criticism, but the car is small on the inside. Not cramped, just friendly.
The sporty steering wheel – a small-diameter, thick-rimmed piece of leather art that replicates the perforated dimples of the seats – falls perfectly to hand and, driving enthusiats will be pleased to note, screams “drive me!”.
ON THE ROAD
- 2.8-litre V6 with twin-scroll turbocharger and 0.9bar pressure
- 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds (claimed)
- 11.3 litres/100km (claimed)
- 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters
- Adaptive all-wheel drive (up to 100 per cent front or rear)
- Three-mode Flexride drive select
- Brembo drilled front brakes (355mm) and rear vented discs (315mm)
- 20-inch alloy wheels with 255/35ZR20 tyres
- MacPherson-based HiPerStrut front suspension
- Multi-link rear suspension
The road is roller-coaster fun, twisting over blind crests, diving into 40km/h-speed posted bends, turning upward in a cocoon of bowed trees and ferns.
But the bitumen is narrow, forward vision is poor and … whoops, out steps the back end on a smear of black ice.
These are the things that you may not have been taught in driving school and one of the reasons while, occasionally, the verges and ditches aside New Zealand’s roads have a smattering of bent cars.
It’s treacherous, but the roads are damn near perfect for an all-wheel drive car. Especially one with 239kW and 435Nm of torque pumping through a constantly-changing flow of power to four wheels.
Which is why the scare factor of hitting some ice on a cold winter’s morning near the South Island’s pretty lakeside Glenorchy township, wasn’t such a scary moment.
The drive in the Insignia VXR starts with a button. Then the cabin fills with the deep bass of the exhaust – an aural assault that both incites the driver and yet can become damn annoying – and then all this converts to forward motion.
The starter button is de rigeuer in sports cars today and perfectly suits the VXR. As does the small steering wheel, the hug of the Recaro seats and the low-seat driving position ahead of two large dials.
The initial impressions are positive, even if visibility from the driver’s seat is poor and reliance on the (standard) front and rear park-sensors and reverse camera can become paramount.
At the wheel, there are a few buttons that need clarification – notably the “sport” and the “VXR” buttons on the top-centre of the dash.
They are the spark that will tweak the engine, encourage the tachometer needle, restrain any notion of the gearbox to upshift, alert the traction and stability control that they’re not needed, and firm the steering.
True, these nanny aides should not be turned off completely unless you have a damn good reason.
Only a track – such as the ice-graded one at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground on top of a snow-capped mountain overlooking the town of Cadrona – should call for the switches to be off.
And here’s the trick. The VXR is all-wheel drive, able to send up to 100 percent of power to either the front or rear wheels and then, by calling on the electronic differentials in the axles, allocate power to left or right-side wheels.
With so much traction, it requires a special technique to use accelerator pressure to force power to the front or rear wheels.
Back on the wet roads with their invisible black-ice patches threatening to throw the VXR off its chosen line, the techniques from the mountain circuit come into play.
Use the accelerator pedal to assist the power flow, while allowing the clever system to over-ride my judgement, and this becomes an exciting, perceptive and uncanny sedan that can be made to go quick despite some decidedly poor road conditions.
What to love about it? The mid-range power of the engine, when the single turbocharger is feeding the 2.8 litres and flexing its muscles right up to the 6500rpm red line.
The handling is absolutely spot on. Yes, push it extremely hard and understeer will show its head and even oversteer can be provoked. But that’s what this car is all about – it just answers whatever you command.
Ride comfort is very good and will surprise some HSV owners.
What could improve? There are moments when the turbo can’t spool up quickly enough, leaving the engine in a snooze mode.
And, funny, but despite all the oomph, it’s not particularly fast against the clock (a relative notion, I'll concede). That’s primarily because it’s a bit of a porker at 1836kg without the driver.
The gearbox though is pretty quick – especially when using the steering wheel’s paddle shifters – but could be even sharper or another two cogs added in there.
On road, you'll find the exhaust growl and roar is intrusive, especially for the rear passengers, and it can become tiresome on anything but short journeys.
ANCAP: This vehicle has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Auto emergency braking (radar and camera), adaptive cruise control (radar), auto adaptive headlights, lane change alert, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear park sensors, reverse camera, electronic stability and traction control, heated mirrors and six airbags.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Few competitors have the right verve, technology, style and (Opel) heritage. But check these out anyway:
- Subaru Liberty 3.6
- Volkswagen CC 3.6R AWD
- Audi S3 quattro
- Volvo S60 T6 AWD
- BMW M135i hatch
- Mercedes-Benz CLA250 Sport
- Skoda Octavia RS
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL RATING: 4/5
HSV and SS owners are unlikely to transition down to the VXR, but it will lure owners of other European hot sedans.
It will also give a warm fuzzy feeling to those who get a kick just thinking about a Euro in the driveway.
There are a handful of quality rivals – and more with Alfa’s Giulia in the wings – but if you throw in ownership costs, the Insignia is almost dirt cheap.
It’s a car you’ll love to drive because it’s as astute and confident as a Golf R, though it isn’t as fast as you’d wish and it can be noisy as heck and firm riding on some surfaces.
One for the driver, the athletic Insignia VXR, but you may have to win the argument with the family.
- Holden Insignia VXR: $51,990