Somewhere the other side of Antwerp, about 200 miles into our one-day European tour by Vauxhall Insignia diesel that aimed to connect six countries on a single tank of fuel, the discussion turned to Elvis Presley.
Not so much The King himself but his rapacious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who made the singer a star but swiped half his earnings in the process.
My companion in the Insignia’s comfortable cloth-faced passenger’s seat, master photographer and indefatigable fact-finder Stan Papior, had just discovered, with the help of Wikipedia, that Tom Parker’s real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk and that he was born in the Dutch city of Breda, currently located 100 miles dead ahead.It’s weird how such fragments of knowledge can colour a journey.
This one lifted Breda right out of the background geography to a new level of importance. Although this journey was to involve 700 miles and more than 13 hours of driving – the time extended by the need to stop now and then for photography – we resolved to scour the town ahead for signs of Parker, aka van Kuijk, and indeed for connections with Elvis himself.
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.