The idea for the trip emerged a few weeks earlier as a way of measuring the impressive progress of modern diesels. As is well known, UK weekend newspapers have spent the past couple of months tarring and feathering diesels as a breed for their exhaust emissions (principally particulates and oxides of nitrogen) despite the fact that the latest Euro 6 versions, being introduced now, are advanced enough to soar over the clean-air hurdles planned for a London 2020 ‘ultra-low-emission zone’ by mayor Boris Johnson.
The Insignia seemed the perfect candidate. The mid-spec Vauxhall is a decent car whose strengths (space, benign character, easy cruising, impressive high-speed stability) and weaknesses (nothing major apart from the fact that newer Volkswagen Passat, Ford Mondeo and Mazda 6 rivals have moved things on) are well known. The car was familiar; the point of our investigation would be its new engine.
This 2.0-litre diesel is related to the previous 161bhp CDTi, but 95% of its parts are new. It is the latest of GM’s Whisper family, which also embraces the 1.3 and 1.6. It sits near the top of its class for CO2 emissions (114g/km) and combined economy (65.7mpg), yet its power is up by 4% and torque by 14%.
That gives the big Vauxhall decent performance: a 139mph top speed and a 0-60mph sprint time of 9.0sec. More important than figures is the way it drives. It’s smoother than the outgoing engine at all speeds and has a remarkable spread of torque even for a diesel, so you get strong acceleration from 1000rpm, even in the higher gears. This is an Adblue engine meaning that the Insignia carries a small tank of urea additive, replenished at service time, to help reduce NOx emissions.
We reckoned this combination of frugality and a decently sized tank (70 litres), plus our keenness to discover as much as possible about a new engine soon to be adopted in the Zafira Tourer and Cascada, made the Insignia Whisper a perfect proposition for a long day’s driving in Europe. The idea soon grew. Why not visit six countries in a day? Pretty soon, with the help of Google, we had a route to prove it could be done.
Basing our calculations on a real-world 45mpg, which seemed quite a big ask for a biggish 1600kg five-door, I arrived at a workable touring range of just under 700 miles, or a fear-free 630. Google Maps put a total of 640 miles on our proposed route, first heading from the Channel Tunnel north-west through Belgium to Holland, then south-east to touch Germany at Aachen, then due south for a mile or two into Luxembourg (the all-important sixth country) before heading west back to Calais through Belgium and France.
Given the tightness of the calculations, Papior and I decided to start our journey from the salubrious Premier Inn, Folkestone, five miles from the Tunnel entrance. Only later did we discover that the aforesaid Google included 40 miles of Channel crossings in its mileage total, so the day’s driving would be a mere 600.
You’ve got to be unlucky these days to find a truly bad budget hotel. In exchange for £100 the Premier Inn did us a couple of comfortable rooms, dinner and breakfast, and this despite the fact that the place was stuffed with half-term kids and parents heading for Disneyland Paris who might have been milked for more. We were up at 6am, in the car at 6.30, checked in by 6.45 and rolling through the Tunnel dead on time at 7.20 with the Vauxhall (brimmed in Folkestone) boasting a 750-mile touring range.
Papior filled the Channel crossing by stroking his cameras and coaxing the Insignia’s sat-nav to accept seven waypoints that would define our journey. By 8.40am we were heading east through France to Dunkirk, before turning left towards Lille then forking north-east towards Westhoekweg, just over the Belgian border. Three countries visited already. This is easy, we thought.
At first, I was conservative with our speed, sticking to around 70mph in order to limit the aerodynamic load on the Insignia’s generous frontal area. It would be a disaster not to complete the journey on one tank. However, it soon became clear you could cruise the big beast at 80mph, or a bit more on downgrades, while maintaining 50mpg-plus on the trip computer. Soon, my new objective was to show ‘all the fives’: 55mph speed average and 55mpg consumption. That looked possible until two things intervened.
One was the realisation that we were being assisted by a big westerly tailwind which would be our opponent when we changed direction; the other was the need to do a lot of slow-speed manoeuvring for photography.
The Vauxhall’s new engine wasn’t entirely silent in low-speed manoeuvres, although it did ‘Whisper’ along at 2100-2400rpm (80-90mph) on the motorways, delivering constant, reliable readings between 45 and 55mpg. Two things stood out: the extreme flexibility of the new engine, which feels really strong and responsive right down around 1000rpm (its predecessor was peaky for its type), and the fine co-operation between the Insignia’s long wheelbase and accurate steering. It would glide for miles hardly needing any correction from the driver.
Around Ghent and Antwerp we rolled, hardly hindered by traffic and gently assisted by the wind. Gradually we turned further north until Breda hove into view. By that time we were well educated about the place. It’s an ancient fortified city with 180,000 souls living in its centre and bounded by a picturesque canal.
Magnificent cathedral in the old town, which back in the 11th century was controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor. Lots of aristocratic owners including William of Orange, leader of the Dutch revolt in the 16th century. Occupied by French revolutionaries in 1795 and the Germans in World War 2. And most important of all, cradle of the man who made Elvis…
Disappointment: we searched but there was no sign of Tom Parker. Or Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. While Stan snapped pictures of the Vauxhall from a canal bridge I interrogated some of Breda’s honest burghers, and it became painfully clear that I knew more of this man’s beginnings than they did.
And the only statue we could find featured a lady in clogs and national dress, fairly far from Colonel Tom and his famous big hat. Just as our heads began to drop, we caught sight of a carnival in the city centre, complete with huge moving mannequins, truck-mounted floats, merry-go-rounds, strolling buskers and that pervading smell of chip fat I thought was purely British. The locals, however, seemed universally weary.
There was no secret about the reason: this was the last afternoon of a five-day festival before the start of Lent, the 40-day period of austerity that ends at Easter. Suddenly we knew why everyone seemed obliging but tired: they’d been partying solidly for the past four-and-a-half days.
Papior, resourceful to a fault, grabbed the opportunity to park the Vauxhall among all the colour and movement, and start snapping. Four days ago security men would have come from every point of the compass to send us away. Today they just didn’t have the energy.
The trouble with good shoots is they eat time. Suddenly it was 1.30pm and we’d not yet accomplished a third of our trip. We pressed on, abandoning the pretence of economy driving. The Insignia played its part by being effortless, quick, flexible and easy to drive. We headed into Germany via Aachen at 2.15pm, having travelled 279 miles, then gave more time away by stopping for 45 minutes at the Spa circuit for pics and some communing with ghostly racing heroes.
As we headed back west through Namur, Charleroi and Mons, things started to go bad. There was a major hold-up on the Lille road because some idiot had driven the wrongway up an autoroute.
The sat-nav, which we’d previously criticised for its slow reactions and weird screen colours, suddenly came into its own by routing us on minor roads around the problems. How was it to know that driving as fast as possible on narrow, curved roads, almost entirely devoid of lights, would reveal the Insignia’s one bad fault: its alarmingly poor standard headlights? If you buy one of these cars – no bad move if the price is right – make sure they throw in the seven-mode Adaptive Forward Lighting (AFL) lights which, for us, would have completely transformed the situation.
What with the delays, and some three-lane-into-one-lane traffic queues tightly packed with trucks as far as the eye could see, our average speed fell below 50mph for a while, and our consumption also dropped away. Just as the situation looked irrecoverable we made it to the main A1 to Calais wondering, as we came closer to the coast, why this road is always deserted.
A few miles short of the coastline we paid our only autoroute toll for the entire trip (a matter of £7) and pitched up at the Channel Tunnel ticket office two trains later than planned, leaving France at 10.20pm (local time) and reaching Blighty at 10pm with the Insignia’s trip computer showing 594.2 miles, 51.0mpg and 53.5mph.
It was a good moment for the three of us. A car that had started with a gentle 1200 miles on the clock now showed a more robust 1800, and was noticeably the better for it.According to the Insignia’s computer, the remaining range was 154 miles.
Our Teddington offices outside London, to which the car had to be delivered, were only 90 miles away, so we drove on without bothering to refuel. We heard the first ‘bong’ of the low-fuel warning just as we arrived. It had been as long a day as you’d want but like so much of motoring, it was also absorbing and fun.
Read our full review on the second generation Vauxhall Insignia
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