The demise of the executive fleet car has been precipitous as changing fashions, premium marques and SUVs have taken their toll. Take Vauxhall's well-received contender, the Insignia, for example. It was launched in 2008, won the 2009 Car of the Year award and in 2011 sold 46,000 examples in the UK.
But last year that figure fell to 25,095. And while Insignia leads a sharply defined non-premium class, if you include premium makers, BMW's 3-series outsells everything. What we all really want, it appears, is a German executive car.
Happily, the Insignia is a German executive car, designed and built by Opel in Germany and a pretty good one, too. Just two things currently hold it back. First is Vauxhall's resolute refusal to give up on heavily discounted fleet business, which means the Insignia has to be remorselessly built to a price and has zero exclusivity value. Second is that Vauxhall's new owner, PSA, has promised that when replaced, all Vauxhall/Opel models will switch to PSA chassis platforms. In the case of the Insignia, that means the 508 Peugeot.
So this is the last of the line. The last all-new dedicated Vauxhall chassis before it becomes subsumed into the PSA maw.
The looks are said to derive from the striking Monza concept car, which debuted at the Frankfurt Show in 2013. Conceptual, beautiful, with an amazing back-projected dashboard, Monza is absolutely not like the new Insignia unless you count the radiator grille. Insignia looks beaky rather than muscular, with a long, low bonnet and clever swage lines linking the door handles. There's none of the Monza's testosterone, or attitude and instead Insignia's been surfaced, refined and smoothed until it's almost unmemorable.
The shell is lighter by 59kg and model-for-model, the maximum weight saving is up to 160kg.
It's available as an estate or as a five-door, saloon-esque hatchback dubbed the Grand Sport. The hatch is 55mm longer, 7mm wider and 29mm lower than its predecessor and it sits on a 92mm longer wheelbase. In other words, it's bigger, which has allowed the cabin to expand. There's 25mm more rear leg room and more headroom. Some of that is traded out of the boot, which is now 10 litres smaller. Seating positions are lower and the rear bench feels as large as the class rivals; bigger than the rear-driven Germans.
So the cabin feels comfortable, spacious and with lots of storage space. The dashboard is attractive and more simple than that of the outgoing car, which bought into the mid-noughties vogue for accessing centre-screen functions (audio, phone, sat nav, apps) in confusing, frustrating ways. Clean, functional, comfortable and quite classy sums it up, although I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the designers discussed that row of excruciating fake stitching across the easily-marked dash top.
There's some interesting kit available, too. LED headlamps were introduced on the Astra and have been made more powerful for the Insignia. A £1,010 option on all but the top-model Elite, they're certainly powerful, but like a lot of these systems, the system that supposedly prevents blinding other road users isn't convincing – we were repeatedly flashed – and undulating roads can result in dazzled lorry drivers, who sit high above their headlamps and therefore baffle this new technology.
There's a £290 head-up display, which works really well, a rather lovely glass sunroof for £705 and the option of a radar-based brake intervention and adaptive cruise control in a £480 pack. There's also a £595 advanced parking pack which has a rear camera and parking assistance, plus lane-departure assistance, which gently encourages the car back into its lane if it feels that you might be straying. Standard equipment is pretty good, though, with forward collision alert and city braking as standard.
For a fleet car the range is surprisingly simple. Sure, there are eight different trim levels, but at the same time there are four basic engine derivatives: a small 1.5-litre turbo petrol delivering 140 and 165PS; a punchy 2.0-litre 260PS turbo petrol, which comes as a 4x4 automatic; GM's first-rate 1.6-litre turbo diesel, which comes with a choice of two different power outputs and six-speed manual or automatic transmissions; and a 2.0-litre turbo diesel with GM's new eight-speed transmission.
We started in the 136PS 1.6 diesel, the more powerful of the two engines available with that displacement, and despite the fright mask that various mayors are trying to force onto oil-burning cars, this seems like the model the engineers concentrated on. Refined, with sparkling performance and fine economy on and off the motorway, the engine suits the chassis and its six-speed manual transmission.
But retail customers and some fleets will naturally be looking for a petrol-engined alternative and that's where the new 1.5-litre turbo petrol comes in. This new unit is lighter and more economical than the 1.6-litre one it replaces, but while it's reasonably well installed, it isn't as smooth and refined as its rivals. It's also highly geared, which means that even in 165PS form, it doesn't feel that quick and often requires a change down when overtaking. On motorway (where Insignias spend much of their lives), it pulls reasonably at low revs, but then enters a Slough Of Despond before you've dialled in half the available revs, whereupon it wakes up again, albeit with an unpleasant exhaust resonance.
Perhaps we should say here that these were pre-production cars with, in varying amounts: noisy door seals; whistling turbochargers; inconsistent on-centre steering responses; variable panel gaps; roaring tyres, etc. While we can't ignore such issues, there's reasonable certainty that Vauxhall will sort all this out in full production later this year.
Dynamically the new car builds on the strengths of the old, with a fluency and steering response, which feels more communicative and suspension/damping response that allows the wheels to ride more freely for typical British roads, but not at the expense of the accuracy of the old car. When it's right, it's a clever mix, a relaxing car which rides the bumps, but which feels quite sporting when driven fast.
There's been a fair bit of testing on UK roads and the launch was hosted on the switchback surfaces 'round the Malverns. It was a brave route and for the most part, Insignia was good drive, relaxing and comfortable, but accurate and secure, with nicely weighted steering, well balanced ride and handling and powerful but sensitive brakes. Again, it was the more powerful of the two 1.6-litre turbo diesels that provided the best all-round driving experience.
With prices up to £1,500 cheaper to fit in with the new benefit-in-kind tax categories, the new Insignia is not only cheaper to run and own than the old model, it is actually cheaper, full stop. But to say the car with the griffin on the front is now better than the equivalent Ford, isn't really enough in this market anymore. Insignia has to take on BMW, Audi and even Mercedes-Benz in this sector, and not just on price. I wanted to like new Insignia very much (I certainly liked its predecessor), but those niggely faults and the grating quality of the 1.5-litre turbo petrol meant it felt like work in progress rather than the finished item. It should be a four-star car, but on the evidence of this drive, I can only justify three.
Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport
TESTED 1,490cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol, with six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive.
Length 4,897mm, width 2,093/1,863mm (with wing mirrors, without), height 1,455mm
Wheelbase 2,829mm, weight 1,440kg, boot 490 litres, 1,450 litres with seats folded.
PRICE/ON SALE from £17,115. As tested £20,010, with £5,640's of extras, as tested £25,640/On sale June
POWER/TORQUE 163bhp @ 5,600rpm, 184lb ft @ 2,000rpm
TOP SPEED 138mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.4sec
FUEL ECONOMY 47.1mpg/38.7mpg (EU Combined/Urban), on test 33.4mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 136g/km
VED BAND 131-150 (£200 first year, then £140)
VERDICT On this evidence Vauxhall's new Insignia comes up slightly short, although the 1.6-litre turbodiesel is a fine machine. How much that's down to the pre-production nature of the test cars is difficult to say, but the promise of the early drive last autumn hasn't been built on for these early-build models.
TELEGRAPH RATING three stars out of five
Vauxhall Insignia – key rivals
Ford Mondeo from £21,555
What used to be the fleet stalwart has suffered a series of setbacks; being late to market, lacking the previous model's driver involvement and living on past glories. Mondeo is still a good drive though and it's huge, especially in estate form. In real life the company car tax and monthly payments persuade a lot of drivers that Mondeo is still worth it. Read our Ford Mondeo Estate review here.
Skoda Superb from £19,945
It came up on the rails with its generous accommodation, unsurpassed ride quality and VW Group drivelines and now is fourth in the non-premium D class in the UK only just behind Ford's Mondeo. Looks slightly cumbersome and lacks the handling edge of its rivals, but damn comfy and well put together. Read our Skoda Superb review by clicking here.
Volkswagen Passat from £23,310
A fleet car, which straddles premium and non premium classes, but while it's super refined, beautifully designed and has a terrific range of drivelines, (which it shares across the Group), the UK public has worked out that Skoda's Superb offers almost the same deal at quite a bit less money. Read our Volkswagen Passat by clicking here.