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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: July 3, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    Venezuelan Idyll

    Neil Briscoe

    You’d have to move to Venezuela.

    Sorry, I gave the answer there without asking the question first. The question was, what would you have to do to justify buying an Opel Insignia OPC?

    You see, a litre of 95RON unleaded petrol in Venezuela, thanks to that country’s vast oil deposits and the egalitarian (if that’s the word) policies of its famed president, Hugo Chavez, costs just USD$0.02. That’s two cent. So filling the 70-litre fuel tank of your hot Opel saloon would set you back $1.61. Or €1.29. As compared to €111.30 if I were to hop up to my local Texaco right now and fill it up from dry.

    Sorry to mix Yorkshire and Venezuela (and I’m from neither) but when I were a lad, cars like the Opel Insignia OPC were my genuine dream machines. And there were a lot of them back then; hot, fast saloons based on humble family haulers. The Ford Sierra Cosworth was, of course, king of the pack, but there was also the Peugeot 405 Mi16, the short-lived but wonderful Rover SD1 V8 Vitesse, the rare and oddball Renault 25 Turbo and the various SRI and V6 versions of the old Opel Vectra. There were some intriguing bit-players such as the 2.0eGT Nissan Primera and the early turbo version of the Subaru Legacy, although probably the less said about the Citroen BX GTI the better…

    Their recipes were simple ones; spacious and practical saloon (or hatchback in the cases of the Rover and Renault) bodies with beefy turbo or high capacity engines shoehorned in. If you were lucky, you got vaguely tuned suspension and some uprated brakes. Sophistication was in short order, but you got cars that could cover ground at eye-watering rates and which could still carry four big lads and a boot full of luggage. I loved them all. Still do.

    The Insignia OPC is a different beast. For a start, sophistication is served as the entreé, soup, fish course, main, desert and as a petit four with the coffees. It’s powered by a V6 twin-turbo 2.8-litre engine (the last flickering ember of GM’s ownership of Saab…) developing 325bhp compared with the 200bhp if you were lucky, on a clear day with a following wind, that you would have gotten from my childhood heroes. The suspension, suitably tweaked and lowered all round and bolted to the back of mean-looking grey-powdered 20” alloys, uses Opel’s brilliant FlexRide damper, which uses electromagnets (no, really) to constantly alter the stiffness of each corner and which manage to keep you both glued to the ground and comfortably cosseted at the same time. Witchcraft, we’d have called it way back when.

    Then there’s the adaptive all-wheel-drive, the switchable throttle and steering weights, the massive Brembo brakes etc, etc and so on. In other words, it’s a world away from the cars I dribbled over as a youth.

    And yet, it retains an animalistic, genetic link to those lairy old four doors. It’s quick (bastard fast, I’d have called it back then if you can forgive such an uncouth phrase) even if it feels more languid in its performance than you expect. Until you look down at the speedo and then up at the flashing blue lights in the mirror. The performance is curiously short of drama, speed building rapidly but linearly with none of the aggressive kick in the back that you’d get from a BMW M car or Mercedes AMG. Then again, neither of those brands can provide the sort of peerless all-weather security and confidence that the Insignia’s all-paw 4×4 system grants it. It is an effortless car to drive, never bumping or jarring unnecessarily, but equally capable of covering ground at a pace unmatched expect by helicopter. And the howitzer bang from the exhausts when you shift up under hard acceleration is just brilliant, in a deeply childish way.

    But is there a point? That’s the question that’s been troubling me since the keys were crowbarred from my hands. In modern Ireland, where we’re all broke, where the 249g/km Co2 figure looks woefully out of touch and where there’s a GATSO van in every hedge, who will buy an Insignia OPC?

    According to Opel, probably no-one, realistically. It’s there purely as a halo model, a demonstration of what Opel’s engineers can do when let off the leash, and as such, putting the Insignia in a unique position in the saloon car marketplace. It’s the only family four door that can match the likes of an Audi S4 or BMW 335i if you’re prepared to stump up the €53k asking price. The likes of the Ford Mondeo, VW Passat, Toyota Avensis or Peugeot 508 do not have a weapon in their respective armouries to match the OPC’s megaton punch.

    Fair enough, and as a 325bhp marketing exercise I can see the appeal. But, as a practically minded man, I’m struggling to see any point beyond that. And that also applies to the likes of the BMW M5, Audi RS4, Mercedes E63 AMG… All fabulous cars, towering engineering achievements but strangled and constrained by the economy and the law.

    I’m just starting to think that there has to be a better way. Yes, I want to enjoy my driving, but I honestly don’t want to destroy the planet as I do so (or, more accurately, be singled out by friends as doing so, ahem). Surely, within the fevered minds of motoring engineers, there exists a way to create a car that has the pace and poise of the Insignia OPC yet which uses fuel at a more sensible rate and which keeps its purchase and tax costs within reasonable bounds?

    Not yet, perhaps, but I feel that day may be coming. Lexus’ really rather terrific new GS450h is a possible signpost on the way (soulful sound, punchy performance, titchy emissions) but it’s still on the expensive side of costly. Renault has been making some sotto voce noises in recent weeks about investigating the potential for high performance electric cars. Interesting…

    Essentially, I suppose, I want to have my cake and eat it. I want my practical, percussive performance saloon, but I don’t want to have to pay through the nose for it nor feel guilty merely for driving it. So it’s either wait for the car makers to catch up with my dream, or start pestering Senor Chavez for a visa.

    Come on Hugo, old son. Help me out. I’ll throw in a tank of fuel to sweeten the deal…

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