The locals in Bitche don’t bat an eye at the convoy of camouflaged cars. The historic French border town is used to seeing Germans crossing the border in disguise. What they probably don’t appreciate is that the disguised cars that travel from Opel’s Russelsheim headquarters 175km away are probably the most expensively built vehicles on these French roads.
We are here to test drive the next generation of Opel Insignia, currently in its final testing phase and set to make its public debut in the metal next March at the Geneva Motor Show. In preparing for its launch, Opel built 160 prototypes, hand-built at a cost in excess of €250,000 each. That's €40 million spent on early test cars alone. A further 80 prototypes were built during the development of the production process for the new car.
None of these cars will ever see a customer: all are destined for the scrap yard. Yet they serve their purpose along the way, allowing engineers and management to fine tune the final product.
Our test cars are the final phase prototypes, built in August and 95 per cent signed off for production. Yet there are differences between the four prototypes at our test. Engineers are still working on the acceleration performance of the 2-litre petrol automatic, for example.
Our test involves travelling in convoys, treading through the sweeping country roads of the Franco-German border, swapping between the current versions of the Insignia and the cars that’s set to replace them.
This will be the second generation of the award-winning family car and the flagship for the Opel brand. The original Insignia won the European car of the year title in 2009, selling close to a million vehicles since then. However it came under criticism for its weight, rather cramped interior and a dashboard littered with more buttons than the cockpit of a Boeing.
These were somewhat addressed with a mid-life facelift – particularly the dashboard – but this is the first chance Opel engineers have had to really address the weight issue. The result of their endeavours is impressive. The new Insignia has shed up to 175kg: that’s the equivalent of two well-fed Irish males. And it really makes a difference on the car’s performance.
You don’t make those sort of weight savings in one go, however. It’s all incremental engineering, the tedious study of every nut, bolt and panel. In this case improvements in the metal panelling helped shed 59kg, but each and every element was put on a diet.
Despite shedding the kilos, the new Insignia is bigger than before, though not in the same way as its rival, the Ford Mondeo. Many buyers in this segment have remarked that the Mondeo has grown a little too big, but that isn't really the case with the Insignia. Instead the new Opel is similar in size to the current BMW 5-Series.
The new car sits on the latest Opel architecture for this size of vehicle, known internally as Epsilon2. Aside from weight savings, much of the focus was on rear seat legroom. Here, the engineers have really delivered.
Opel claims a 25mm improvement in rear seat kneeroom but that doesn’t do it justice – the leg room in the back is only matched by the Skoda Superb. Finally we have a saloon car that challenges the Skoda and taxi drivers should really take note.
That’s all the more remarkable when you consider the exterior has retained its lozenge-shaped coupe lines. The Insignia has always been a good-looking car and while our test cars were fitted with false panels and eye-deceiving tape, we expect it to look as sharp as the current model.
The other noticeable difference is that the front seats are much lower to the ground. The end result is a more engaging driving position. It seems a little silly, but this slight change makes a real difference. You sit into the chassis of the new Insignia rather than ride along on top of it. It is a perception that makes you feel more in control than in the outgoing model.
As these are prototypes, most of the interior trim is simply untreated hard plastics, lacking the usual graining and soft-touch finish of production cars. The touchscreen is held in place with black insulation tape.
When it's finished, however, it will be a significant evolution of the move to unclutter the dashboard, with the option of a 7inch or 8inch touchscreen controlling most features aside from the air-con and volume controls. The driver's dials will be either analogue or an optional digital dial. It's not as slick as the latest Audi or VW system, but it is a move in the right direction. Probably due to the lower front seating position, the dash seems to have been lowered as well.
Powering the new Insignia will be a range of diesel engines, putting out 110bhp to 170bhp. This will include the recently launched 1.6CDTi ecoFLEX Whisper diesel that delivers a CO2 emission reading of just 99g/km.
Two petrol engines are also on offer: a 1.5-litre turbo 165bp and a 2-litre 250bhp, the latter matched to a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
While diesel will likely remain the engine of choice for Irish buyers, there is a gradual return to petrol by some buyers and these were the engines fitted to our prototype cars. Despite the extra power, the 2-litre seems rather languid and doesn’t make the most of the weigh savings. The 1.5-litre, however, is a star. It’s responsive and well matched to a new six-speed manual transmission. Shift it into third gear and the long torque curve means you can drive the car like an automatic in most situations.
Opel must wait for official confirmation of fuel economy figures for the car, but engineers expect the new gearbox alone should contribute a 3 per cent saving. The car’s handling has also definitely improved. Driving the new and old versions back-to-back the difference was particularly evident in bends: in the outgoing version you need to brake a lot more to keep your line, while the new Insignia holds position through the corners without the need to be constantly intervening or correcting it.
We have one issue with the new Insignia. For some reason, Opel has opted for a little rebranding. So instead of this being the new Insignia, it has been christened the Insignia Grand Sport. The estate will remain the Insignia Sports Tourer. Confused? Yes, so were most of us motoring hacks.
In a crowded market with customers distracted by a plethora of crossovers and SUVs as well, it is bordering on marketing suicide to start messing around with the naming convention of a car, yet that’s exactly what Opel has done.
Time for a little quiz. Name all the cars in the Opel range. I reckon most of you will struggle to get from Adam to Karl and from Meriva to Mokka. Insignia has taken some time to exorcise its Vectra ghosts so it is nonsensical to add yet more monikers to an already confusing line-up. If there’s one thing Opel can do between now and launch, it would be to bin the extra monikers.
The roads of Bitche will not see many more camouflaged Insignias, but they can certainly expect a few more prototype Opels.
While the Insignia is Opel’s flagship model, it is unlikely to hold that role for too long. There is an evident gap in the firm’s portfolio and a large crossover SUV is long overdue. The mid-sized Mokka is proving a hit but the rumour mill is ripe with talk of an Opel SUV based on this new Insignia underpinnings but also tapping into the growing alliance the firm has with French brand PSA Peugeot Citroen. Its new 3008 and 5008 models may well offer a template for a future Opel, which could arrive in showrooms in the next two years.