Suddenly, PSA has a new D/E segment hatchback

Suddenly, PSA has a new D/E segment hatchback

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It's August, once the month during which the northern hemisphere's automotive industry would quieten down. This being an odd-numbered year there's no chance of that, what with preparations for the Frankfurt IAA well underway. And now, Groupe PSA completing the acquisition of Opel and Vauxhall. The perfect time then to look at how those brands' newest car measures up.

Production, marketing, sales and distribution - it's complicated

Jump into any freshly released car and the first question has to be, "has the manufacturer created problems for the existing best seller in this model's segment?". In the case of the Insignia that's a tricky thing to answer. The latest model represents a new way of thinking for General Motors and now, for Groupe PSA too.

E2JO (Grand Sport - the hatchback) and E2JOW (second generation Epsilon architecture, global J-Car programme, Opel, wagon) are the only bodies, though a successor for the Country Tourer will be revealed to the public at the IAA. Technically then there are three cars, even if one of them is distinguished from E2JOW only by slightly elevated springs and shocks plus dark, thick plastic atop the wheel arches. 

The unsaid thing is that there is no saloon. Which, curiously, is anything but a big deal in the UK. Curiously because a lot of four-door Passats are sold here but not too many saloons from rival non-luxury brands. Elsewhere, it could be an issue, especially for Buick in China and the USA. Buick? We'll get to that in a moment.

RWD sedan replaced by FWD hatch

Hold on, isn't one of the terms of the sale agreement that PSA is forbidden from setting up dealer networks for Opel in places such as China and North America? That's true but here it gets complicated. GM is now PSA's client, in that Rüesselsheim, where the Insignia is built, is contracted to supply hatchbacks, estates and C.T. crossover wagons to a couple of General Motors divisions in various countries. Swap the lightning badges from the Irish Republic's Opel Insignia Grand Sport, estate and Country Tourer. Then, send them off to New Zealand and Australia from early 2018 fitted with the same metric gauges but lion logos. Hey presto - a new Holden Commodore is born.

How will buyers in AsiaPac take to a smaller, front-wheel drive hatchback replacement for the decade old RWD V6 and V8 sedan and wagon? No-one knows. Already though, GMH headquarters in Port Melbourne is making soothing noises about the segment having shrunk anyway. Therefore expectations are low. The glory days of Holden's big cars dominating the Aussie market are long gone but it's strange for GM to have decided that the latest J cars would not be developed with a sedan derivative as part of the global plan. After all, it isn't just the Australian market which has been used to having a large, four-door, Opel-ancestry car.

The other big piece of the puzzle with the new Insignia is its transformation into a Buick for China and North America. Again, there is no sedan to step in for what has been a successful sales run over many years for the Regal. Instead, there will be a five-door hatchback and the raised-ride wagon, in this case to be marketed as the 2018 Regal Sportback and TourX. Like the Opels and Vauxhalls, these look the business. Will that be enough to entice those for whom an SUV is now the default choice?

Apart from owning the firm which builds these cars, Groupe PSA takes no part in their marketing, sales and so on. Eventually, the replacements will be manufactured at one or more General Motors and/or SAIC GM factories though that won't happen for another six or seven years. By then, the automotive world will look fairly different. Perhaps PSA and GM might even collaborate for the successor models?

Is the new model as good as the original?

Hundreds of miles later, I've formed an opinion of the new Insignia and it's a favourable one. The old car was far better than many badge-snobs realised or more accurately, cared to discover. That was their loss. What a few of us believed to be two of the best looking European cars, the Opel Insignia OPC and Vauxhall Insignia VXR twins, were excellent vehicles. Way, way better than most people knew. There again, most people never saw one. Or knew that the OPC or VXR even existed. GME's major mistake with these cars was not offering a diesel alternative to the petrol V6.

Few were the buyers prepared to risk their money on these high-priced, beautifully balanced and indecently accelerative alternatives to the Audi S5 Sportback and S4 Avant. You know where this is going: there is, sadly, no direct replacement for the OPC and VXR. Indeed, it does seem as though under GM Europe at least that these sub-brands were for the chop. Instead, there is to be an Insignia GSi, which makes more sense for Europe-wide marketing campaigns in a way that OPC and VXR never did. This entirely sensible move will likely be continued under PSA's management direction.

The GSi is to be powered by a 191kW (260PS) 2.0-litre turbo engine, which produces 400Nm. AWD will be standard. Sales commence from October: a few weeks after the premiere at the Frankfurt show. One or more diesels to fill the 180-250PS power gap in the Insignia engine range, plus a GSi Sports Tourer, will probably be announced later in 2017. Adding these cars is a good move. The strategy was a GM Europe initiative but if it works, the resultant tidy margins will be warmly welcomed by Opel and Vauxhall's masters in Paris.

A 1.5-litre base engine, and a V6 for Buick and Holden

Let's take a look at the make up of the Insignia range, four months on from its public premiere as a hatchback at the Geneva motor show. GM was no doubt greatly influenced by how well the similarly sized Superb has performed in Europe and China and as noted in a review of that car, the big Skoda is the leader in its segment.

The Grand Sport's styling has some of the look of the Monza concept from the 2013 Frankfurt IAA. It was also influenced by the Buick Avenir concept from the 2015 Detroit auto show. The different grille and the option of a V6 in North America might turn the Insignia into a Buick but there is no getting away from one crucial fact about the latest global J Car programme: all relevant GM divisions and regions had to compromise and accommodate one another's requests and requirements.

The loss of a sedan body is the big issue for Buick and Holden though they did manage to make sure their cars weren't too small. Opel and Vauxhall in turn needed to accept that a length of 4,897mm (+55mm), with a 2,829mm wheelbase (+92mm) are on the XL side for the Insignia's segment. Having said that, the new VW Arteon looks larger than the Insignia - and it IS bigger than the CC which it replaces - but is in fact only 4,862mm long. Will Europeans reject these cars as too lengthy? Surely not, when 4.9m long SUVs such as the Volvo XC90 and Land Rover Discovery are often too wide, long and high for lots of parking spaces and garages. Somehow though, sense goes out the window and they continue to be snapped up in cities as diverse as Berlin, Breda, Bordeaux, Birmingham and Bratislava.

The smallest petrol engine in the Insignia is a new 1.5-litre four-cylinder unit. That's fine thanks to the fact that Opel engineers were able to remove a fair bit of weight from the body-in-white (60kg) and also by having suppliers meet strict requirements for component mass. The car I spent multiple days with instead had the 2.0-litre diesel which has a Turbo badge on its tailgate. This comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, and an eight-speed auto is optional.

Engine choices in the UK market are as follows, and all have four cylinders and turbocharging:

  • 110PS 1.6 diesel
  • 136PS 1.6 diesel
  • 140PS 1.5 petrol
  • 165PS 1.5 petrol
  • 170PS 2.0 diesel
  • TBA 2.0 diesel for GSi (Opel has announced it but as yet, nothing from Vauxhall)
  • 260PS 2.0 petrol (GSi, from Q4)

Version for version, up to 175kg has been banished and that is almost immediately obvious from the first turn of the steering wheel. Remember when we all got excited about the Alfa 159 after the sublime handling of the 156 which it replaced? And then it sank in - a heavier platform (shared with GM in fact) and not enough engineering resource input on the Fiat side of the JV meant the 159 was burdened by stodgy dynamics. Happily, the opposite rings just as true. Less mass generally allows lighter, more precise steering action as well as a reduced load on the shocks and springs. Which naturally equals better acceleration and braking plus improved fuel economy.

Big inside but the Whisper diesel isn't too hushed

Opel has given in to the trend for fewer real buttons, though it has to be said that there were lots and lots in the old model. Thankfully, even though the HVAC controls are now on the touchscreen, they're fairly easy to find quickly. Depending on trim levels, you've a choice between eight and nine inch displays and even the smaller one is perfectly acceptable.

The plastics are good, if not terribly nice to look at or touch. If the test car had had a variance of shades, that might have helped. Seemingly everything being battleship grey - dashboard, part of the seat coverings, door trims - didn't help with the feeling that VW and Skoda do it better in this class.

What cannot be criticised is the amount of rear seat legroom, which is truly in the Business Class category. Maybe a Superb has more, though that car is limo-like and without peer in the segment. Which is the issue I have with the Insignia. Returning to where I came in on this review, you have to ask the question: does this new entrant push the current class champion into second position? Unhappily for PSA, it doesn't. If you want a saloon, the Mazda6 takes some beating, as does the Passat, and the Ford Mondeo is another great choice though a bit of an unfairly forgotten car nowadays.

The big Skoda hatchback and estate are just so tricky to find serious fault with, plus they have more pleasing design touches everywhere and the diesel engines purr instead of sometimes clattering. Despite Opel and Vauxhall's insistence on calling the 2.0-litre 'Whisper' quiet, it never has been. In any GM Europe model. The 2.0-litre isn't at all objectionable, it's simply that calling it near-silent isn't accurate.

If PSA has the will to try, it wouldn't take much to elevate the Insignia up a few rungs to place it on an equal footing with the best and most popular. Attention to NVH, some less generic alloy wheel designs and some softer looking/feeling interior materials in light colours would do it. At the moment, if the Mondeo and the way more popular Superb are the gold standard then the new Insignia is silver, and with potential to reach the top of the class.

In both five-door and estate forms, the Insignia certainly has the looks and the handling, as well as a luxury car ride, to commend it. It's almost there.

Why Opel and Vauxhall still needs its own management

At the moment, teams are in place examining all areas of the Opel and Vauxhall businesses. PSA will want to get these companies onto firm ground when it comes to sustaining them as businesses. Especially given the fact that the Peugeot family hasn't in the past exactly surrounded itself in glory when it comes to take-overs of other car brands. Sorry to mention Chrysler Europe but back then, the thinking was the same: grab a troubled rival which appears to be going cheap. Because size matters. But does it?

We shall have to wait and see if PSA makes sensible decisions over how to lift the new brands' margins, and makes a convincing case to its investors over why adding two non-premium brands is a good business decision. Not to mention dealing urgently with its own business which is in terrible strife in the world's largest car market. Sales of Chinese-made Peugeots fell by 37 per cent YoY to 102,199 passenger vehicles in H1, Citroen plunged by a frightening 68 per cent to 40,138 units (Volvo and Renault will likely soon overtake it) and as for DS, what more can be said that hasn't already been? Deliveries in the first six months of a mere 3,053 cars and SUVs (down 65 per cent on an already low total).

The attention of Carlos Tavares is going to have to be elsewhere, fixing the freefall in the PRC and trying to quell what must be an at least simmering level of anger from not just JV comrade and major shareholder Dongfeng Motor but manufacturing partner Dongfeng too. Ergo, Opel and Vauxhall's management is going to very quickly see that Dongfeng and the Peugeot family's cash will not be lavished upon it. Nor can Groupe PSA's CEO afford to devote himself as fully as may be needed to oversee what Opel-Vauxhall's new CEO (and former CFO) Michael Lohscheller is tasked with doing. Namely, getting these two divisions to become properly profitable. Hopefully, for the sake of all who work within Opel and Vauxhall and their associated suppliers, the Insignia will bring in strong returns. It's certainly more than good enough to be a success. But so too are the rival cars it must try to outsell.

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