Car reviews - Holden - Insignia - VXR
Impressive ride comfort, decent on-board tech, ridiculous top speed bragging rights
Room for improvement
Slower and more expensive than a Commodore SS V, heavy, uncomfortable and cramped, quality issues, disappointing dynamics
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17 Feb 2016
Price and equipment
Holden says it is pitching the Insignia VXR against premium all-wheel-drive performance sedans such as the Subaru Liberty 3.6R and Volkswagen CC.
Forget the outrageously expensive VW, for at $51,990 the VXR is $10K more expensive than the Subaru and $1800 upstream of an automatic variant of the larger, more powerful and fruitier-sounding Commodore SS V sedan with which it shares showroom space. This alone makes the European-sourced Insignia interloper seem irrelevant – and a glance at the sales stats backs up that sentiment.
On the other hand the Insignia gets some technology firsts for the Holden brand, such as adaptive cruise control, lane change alert and autonomous emergency braking. It also features blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
There is also a reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors and adaptive bi-Xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights.
As the rebadged flagship of a European brand, the Insignia VXR is loaded with standard equipment such as an 8.0-inch touchscreen featuring Holden’s latest MyLink infotainment system with satellite navigation, the reversing camera, internet audio streaming apps Pandora, Stitcher and TuneIn via a Bluetooth-tethered smartphone plus DAB+ digital radio, a MP3-compatible CD player and USB/auxiliary inputs.
Of course upholstery is leather and the heated Recaro front sports seats are electrically adjustable – including thigh support – with memory modes for the driver.
Topping off the list are automatic headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control and a three-mode Flex Ride electronic suspension control system offering Normal, Sport and ‘VXR’ settings.
The sole option is metallic paint at $550 – and just one of the four colour options is non-metallic.
Despite having fancy Recaro sports seats with a significant range of adjustments, we never got entirely comfortable in the Insignia VXR due to over-firm padding, odd-feeling lumbar support and unyielding backrest.
While annoying the driver, the hard-backed Recaros also encroach into cramped rear quarters that severely lack headroom and deny even average-height adults the ability to sit in tandem with a tall driver. Considering it’s only 8mm shorter than Toyota’s capacious Camry, the Insignia does not provide very effective use of its footprint.
The hemmed-in feel also extends to pretty poor outward visibility, so we were pleased Holden had specified so many parking sensors and a reversing camera.
While the turning circle is better than a Commodore on paper, it felt hard to swing the Insignia into a car park bay first-time lucky.
Up front is a better sense of space due to the way the dashboard curves away from occupants, although the downside of this is that some of the centre stack controls are a fair reach for the driver. Thankfully, most functions are accessible via controls mounted on the steering wheel.
Holden’s MyLink system and the generously sized touchscreen are cabin highlights with simple smartphone integration, DAB+ digital radio and efficient sat-nav. However the screen was prone to being completely washed out by sunlight glare, the whole system crashed once when we attempted to answer a phone call and Bluetooth streaming was glitchy.
Less successful is the multi-mode digital instrument panel, which felt like a missed opportunity because it had pointless fixed gauges such as battery voltage, robbing space in which we would have preferred to see more useful information side-by-side. Instead, the digital speedo, navigation directions and trip computer must be viewed independently by scrolling through the menus.
Also, relying on the digital speedo gets annoying because other messages tend to pop up and obscure it. The cruise control’s 5km/h increments were frustrating too.
We regularly cursed the person who decided to install touch-sensitive temperature controls for the dual-zone climate system. They require touching in exactly the right place – not ideal when trying to keep eyes on the road – and even when that is achieved, there is a delayed response.
It’s technology for technology’s sake and does not work, while making it all to easy to accidentally activate the (oddly much more responsive) heated seat controls.
Although we were impressed by the quality of the upholstery and loved the plush steering wheel, the Insignia’s interior creaked a lot and was overwhelmingly black with some cheap and unconvincing printed fake carbon-fibre trim panels lowering the tone in a way only General Motors could conceive of.
Interior stowage is a strong point, with the small glovebox supplemented by another hatch beside the driver’s right knee, the door bins are generously sized with accommodation for drinks bottles and a couple of decent cupholders are located in the centre console.
Further storage is provided in an ashtray style recess and beneath the central armrest is another small storage space. Rear passengers also get bottle-holding door bins and a fold-down armrest provides a further pair of cupholders plus a lidded storage tray that looks large enough to stow a small tablet such as an iPad mini.
The 500-litre boot is four litres bigger than a Commodore’s and extendable by folding the rear seats down or opening the ski hatch. Inside are four metal tie-downs, a net-style side pocket and an elastic strap but no hooks for securing shopping bags. Under the floor is a puncture repair kit, probably because a 20-inch spare wouldn’t fit.
Engine and transmission
The Insignia’s 239kW/435Nm 2.8-litre turbo-petrol V6 is a boomerang, built by Holden in Port Melbourne and shipped to Germany for installation before making the return journey to Australia in the fully assembled car.
At 1836kg the VXR is a well-built gentleman heavier than a Commodore SS V, so despite the benefit of all-paw traction, the import’s bloat and comparatively weedy six-cylinder conspire to make it 1.3 seconds slower than our home-grown hero in the 0-100km/h sprint.
The Insignia’s official 11.3 litres per 100 kilometres combined fuel consumption is also just two tenths of a litre less thirsty than its 6.2-litre V8 cousin but we bettered the official figure with an average of 10.8L/100km during our week of mixed driving – and on the motorway that came down into the eights.
But you aren’t thinking about fuel consumption in a car that can hit a frankly ridiculous 274km/h where conditions and laws permit. In the real world, this Holden’s turbocharged and towering performance unit sadly hides its talents because it takes some time and a build-up of momentum before it really gets into its stride.
As a result, it never pins occupants into their seats but the way it piles on speed in third gear from 4000rpm seriously jeopardises the driving license anywhere in Australia other than a few far-flung stretches of road in the Northern Territory.
Holden makes much of this car’s Autobahn breeding and acceleration from 90km/h in third is where this shines through. Trouble is, the lacking sensation of speed is likely to bring trouble and you have to watch the rate the speedo needle whizzes clockwise to fully appreciate it..
Noise-wise, there is an omnipresent, unpleasant and characterless exhaust drone at any speed. The expectation of a sports model is that it will be a bit loud but surely, you’d only make it loud if the sound itself was pleasant.
Thankfully it is not made worse by selecting the VXR or Sport modes.
At law-abiding rates of progress we never enjoyed real punch out of corners and the washing machine spin-cycle sound effects from under the bonnet combined with aforementioned drone drained emotion from the experience.
News gets no better from the six-speed automatic transmission, which is hyperactive for everyday driving with its hair-trigger kick-down response and propensity to drop two ratios under even gentle deceleration, which in urban and suburban driving delivers a lot of unexpected engine braking to supplement the big Brembo stoppers. It’s disconcerting and hampers smooth progress.
We could understand this being a feature of one of the sports driving modes but we checked the various dashboard buttons and sub-menu settings to discover it was not.
Despite these histrionics, when pressing on the VXR’s gear changes are cumbersome and not quick enough, with responses to manual paddle-shifts disappointingly sluggish.
Manual mode is exactly that and it will bounce off the rev-limiter waiting for the driver to respond, which revealed some gear ratio shortcomings when we found ourselves in rev-range dead spots after some manual redline up-changes, particularly second-to-third.
We also got caught short several times approaching a junction in automatic mode, the car having selected second gear and then deciding to shift into first with a heart-stopping delay followed by a surprise surge of acceleration as we pulled into the flow of traffic.
It is not the slickest box of cogs in the world and the unit in our car made a terrible whining sound from cold, which made it sound broken. The noise went away once everything was up to operating temperature but this is not good for a car with just 8000km on the clock.
Ride and handling
A car with performance intentions is expected to have a firm ride but despite the big 20-inch wheels and their high-performance, low-profile Pirelli P Zero 255/35 tyres, the Insignia VXR expertly irons out road imperfections on its firmly sprung but excellently damped adaptive suspension.
The differences in Sport and VXR modes of the Flex Ride electronic damper control system were subtle and testament to the well-tuned suspension set-up in that neither made the ride unbearable, as is the case in some German performance cars. Only some seriously poor surfaces caused occupants to experience significant jiggling.
In addition to unrestricted Autobahns, fast sweeping corners are where the Insignia VXR thrives – but with such high levels of fast corner grip and numb steering, the first sensation to reach the driver is usually the sound of tyres starting to squeal.
Mid-corner bumps also send the Insignia way off line and the steering, while mostly pleasant to operate, is lacking in feedback and suffers some terrible kick-back on lumpy corners. For example, hitting a cats-eye on a roundabout abruptly returned the steering wheel to its central position.
Things also get a bit hairy on tight curves and hairpin bends, which elicit some front-end wash unless adopting a slow in, fast out approach but when doing so, the engine doesn’t fire the car out of bends in the satisfying manner we hoped for.
More impressive are the VXR’s Brembo brakes, which although quite long in pedal travel are immensely potent and scrub off speed quicker than the digital dashboard can keep up with.
Like the absent sense of acceleration, even slamming on the anchors never gave us the feeling of hanging off the seatbelts. It’s another symptom of the Insignia VXR never truly coming alive and its unfortunate over-competent, under-involving feel that high-performance Audis have been criticised for.
In addition to the transmission whine mentioned earlier, there was an ominous metal-on-metal howl from the steering during the first turn of the tiller after leaving the car parked. It wouldn’t happen again until the next time it had been parked but we experienced it a number of times.
Safety and servicing
Holden offers a three-year/100,000 kilometre warranty on all passenger vehicles, with roadside assistance for the same duration.
Under Holden’s lifetime capped-price servicing scheme, the Insignia’s 15,000km/12-month maintenance intervals cost $229 for each visit until 60,000km, rising to $289 until 105,000km and the first sizeable bill coming at 120,000km for $1057 (prices correct at time of writing).
ANCAP testing applies to the pre-facelift Opel Insignia introduced in 2012, which was awarded a top five-star rating based on testing of left-hand-drive diesel variants by Euro NCAP.
The sedan scored 15.16 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a perfect 16 in the side impact test, a maximum 2 out of 2 in the pole impact test and was deemed ‘good’ for whiplash protection. Pedestrian protection was ‘marginal’.
Standard safety equipment includes six airbags, stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, cornering brake control, hydraulic brake-fade assist, trailer sway control, breakaway pedals and tyre-pressure monitoring.
Even finished in subtle Phantom Grey, the Insignia we drove attracted a fair bit of attention from other road users, mostly males, possibly due to its rarity and probably due to its purposeful and unusual – if slightly effeminate – looks.
But let’s be honest, the Insignia is not a particularly well-regarded car in its domestic European market so we question what Holden is playing at by bringing it here. Australians expect quality and impressive handling from European cars – and the Insignia doesn’t offer enough of either.
Impressive ride quality apart, as a driving experience the VXR can’t cut the mustard against its rag-tag handful of rivals and anyone with a brain in their head would walk straight past it in the Holden showroom and into the nearest V8 Commodore.
If, as we suspect, the Insignia is here as a preview of future imported Holden Commodores, people who have driven one will be chaining themselves to the factory gates come 2017.
Subaru Liberty 3.6R from $41,990 plus on-road costs
Since Subaru slashed $14,000 from the price, the Latest Liberty has become one of Australia’s all-wheel-drive performance bargains. Shame then, that it doesn’t have enough visual or aural sizzle, but at a full $10,000 more affordable than the Insignia, it deserves a look.
Volkswagen CC V6 FSI 4Motion from $66,990 plus on-road costs
Holden would like you to think the Insignia VXR is a bargain-priced alternative to this. It’s similarly cramped in the back, similarly dated and similarly German but the Holden smashes it for performance and ride quality, if not the VW’s classy feeling of interior luxury.
Holden Commodore SS V from $50,190 plus on-road costs
The last of a kind and my oh my what a dramatic exit. Walked past this in the Holden showroom and bought an Insignia VXR? Drive straight to hospital and get your head checked.
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