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Insignia VXR review

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Europe Builds a Brand-New Buick

By Alistair Weaver, European Editor Email

Date posted: 08-20-2009


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There's a small plastic button on the fascia marked "VXR." Give it a prod and the throttle response quickens, the suspension stiffens and the steering becomes more direct. This is the moment when the 2010 Vauxhall Insignia VXR casts off its humdrum, mainstream persona and becomes a genuine rival to the Audi S4 and the BMW 335i.

This car is not short of ambition, and its claims are not without substance. The turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 has been tuned to provide 321 horsepower, there's all-wheel drive, and a revised front suspension system for better cornering grip has been introduced.

Imagine a revitalized Saab 9-5. Oops, you can't because Saab isn't under the General Motors umbrella anymore. Then maybe a toughened Pontiac G6. Nope, that brand is history. How about a serious Saturn Aura? Nope, another goner. Well, what about the 2012 Buick Regal?

The Opel Connection

The 2010 Vauxhall Insignia VXR is a derivative of the Opel Insignia OPC introduced in Europe earlier this year, itself the high-performance version of the Opel Insignia. The Vauxhall Insignia became the U.K.'s 2009 Car of the Year by a single vote over the Ford Fiesta. Built on the same GM Epsilon II platform familiar to us in the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Malibu, the Insignia rides on a 107.8-inch wheelbase and measures 190.2 inches overall, 73.1 inches wide and 60 inches high.

By the standards of the VXR tuning division, the Insignia's aesthetic makeover as a high-performance car is modest. The most obvious tweaks are at the front, where twin intakes surrounded by chrome appear like walrus tusks below the headlights. There are extravagant new cast-aluminum wheels. A discreet spoiler is integrated into the trailing edge of the trunk deck and the matte-chrome exhaust tips are prominent. These changes are meant to enhance the Insignia's silhouette, rather than render it anew.

This is a reflection of the Insignia's character. In the U.K., Vauxhall already offers the VXR8 with a 425-hp 6.2-liter V8, the muscle car equivalent of our 2009 Pontiac G8 GXP, and it seeks to make up for in bravado what it lacks in sophistication. The Insignia is different. This car is at the vanguard of GM's global product offensive and is supposed to compete technologically and philosophically with the best of the here and now. It is supposed to be a sophisticated product to tempt Europeans away from the premium German alternatives like the Audi A4 and BMW 335i.

You can feel a bit of this in the interior, where lightweight, plastic-frame Recaro front seats, a unique steering wheel and a leather-wrapped shift knob get your attention. When you engage the VXR button, the car calibrates itself to performance mode and then warns you by making the instruments glow red. There's no shortage of space or electronic gizmos, but the quality feels like a stretch at this price and the VXR logos that smother the instruments are excruciatingly naff.

Turbocharged Power by Holden

The 2010 Vauxhall Insignia VXR employs a retuned version of the Holden-engineered 2,792cc V6 turbo with a forged-steel crankshaft, forged-steel connecting rods and variable valve timing. By increasing the boost pressure of the single twin-scroll turbo to 13 psi and substantially reducing the backpressure from the stainless-steel exhaust system, the VXR technicians have managed to liberate 25 percent more power and 9 percent more torque. The headline figures now stand at 321 hp at 5,250 rpm and 321 pound-feet of torque at 5,250 rpm, output that compares well with the Audi S4's 328-hp supercharged V6 and the BMW 335i's 302-hp twin-turbo inline-6.

At idle, there's a nice V6 woofle from those extravagant exhausts, but on the move, the engine is disappointingly muted, save for a whistle from the turbo's wastegate.

Nor does the VXR ever really feel as fast as the outputs suggest. Vauxhall claims zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with top speed limited to 155 mph, yet when you're cruising along, this car never feels more than satisfyingly brisk. At 4,023 pounds, it is 395 pounds heavier than the S4 and 474 pounds heavier than the 335i, so you really have to work the engine hard to get the car to deliver its best. The final-drive ratio has been shortened to 3.76:1 from 3.90:1 to help out, but the long throws of the six-speed manual transmission work against you.

All the Right Stuff

GM deserves credit for investing in hardware. This might be the Epsilon II platform, but it has all the best stuff from the big worldwide bin of parts.

It starts with the Haldex all-wheel-drive system introduced by the 2008 Saab Turbo X. An electrically driven hydraulic pump ensures torque is directed to the rear wheels, even if all four wheels are stationary. Like the Turbo X, the 2010 Vauxhall Insignia VXR adds an electronically controlled rear differential, which can actively transfer up to 40 percent of the torque reaching the rear axle between the rear wheels. With the ability to transfer torque front and rear independent of wheel-speed variations and also across the rear axle, you can manage understeer and oversteer situations more effectively.

Coupled with these mechanical changes is a reworked FlexRide system. FlexRide's electronic logic recognizes 11 different types of driving dynamics, and the console button offers a choice among modes that adapts the car's damping, steering and throttle mapping. There are three modes — standard, Sport and VXR — with ascending levels of hyperactivity/stiffness. The VXR mode even turns the dials from white to red to emphasize the urgency.

The Insignia also incorporates "HiPerStrut," which stands for high-performance strut. The VXR engineers have reduced the kingpin inclination angle of the front steering geometry, which promotes better front tire grip by reducing camber change. More important, it also reduces torque steer and improves resistance to steering kickback — important issues in a car with so much power being delivered by the front wheels.

Compared with the AWD version of the Insignia, the VXR sits 0.4 inch lower both front and rear. The spring rates are increased by 5 percent at the front and 12.5 percent at the rear, while the antiroll bars are softer in front and stiffer in the rear, an overall combination that promises much livelier handling responses.

And Yet Not Just Right

We found ourselves frustrated by our inability to tune FlexRide to our preferences, as all such systems do not allow you to isolate the parameters for an ideal setup. It's impossible, for example, to achieve the most aggressive throttle response without choosing the most aggressive damping, which on badly surfaced roads can feel much too stiff. It's hard to complain about a system as sophisticated as FlexRide, yet we're still intrigued by the latest systems that let you change all the variables.

An even bigger issue, though, is the steering, which is utterly devoid of meaningful feedback. Its self-aligning action has increased due to the reduced kingpin offset, so stability has improved at the price of communication. As a result, you feel removed from the action, even though the general chassis setup is pretty lively. When you're up against a BMW 335i, this simply isn't good enough.

The 2010 Vauxhall Insignia VXR's braking system is very high tech, with Brembo calipers matched with floating brake rotors (fade-resistant iron discs carried by lightweight aluminium hats, much like those of the Nissan GT-R). There's lots of braking power, with four-piston front calipers complemented by 14-inch front rotors, but the high-performance brake pads don't make for a very communicative pedal feel.

There's plenty of cornering grip in any case, as these optional 20-inch wheels come with 255/35R20 Pirelli P Zero tires.

Edited by deftonesfan867

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