The Vauxhall Insignia VXR has lofty ambitions, but can it realise them?

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The Vauxhall VXR brand is still in its relative infancy, but the Insignia VXR marks a milestone: the launch of a direct replacement for one of its models.

The VXR version of the Insignia is a car with a proper predecessor. The Vectra VXR was a large, front-wheel-drive family car with a 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 engine. 

The Insignia is short on rivals from mainstream manufacturers

Things are slightly different this time, though. Not only is the starting point – the Insignia – vastly more competitive than the Vectra was when it received the VXR treatment, but this version also features four-wheel drive, which is a first for the VXR brand.

Offered as a saloon, hatchback or Sports Tourer (estate), the Insignia has some of the loftiest ambitions yet for a VXR. The Astra medium hatch and Corsa supermini compete against cars of similar status, while the VXR8 GTS and Maloo are glimpses of what makes Holden so fabled in Australia.

At its price point, the Insignia is short on rivals from mainstream manufacturers such as Ford, Renault or Nissan.

The now defunct Volkswagen Passat R36 aside, the Insignia VXR’s closest price rivals are (admittedly smaller) premium models from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. That’s a tall order.



Vauxhall Insignia VXR estate

The design changes Vauxhall has effected work to differentiate the VXR from the rest of the Insignia line-up. There is inspiration aplenty from the 2007 Opel GTC concept car that heralded the beginning of the Insignia revolution, such as the gaping front cutaways that manage to transform the standard car’s relatively unremarkable face into something much more dramatic.

The rear gets twin matt silver exhausts for the same effect, and our test car’s two-tone, 20-inch alloys complete the less than subtle VXR facelift. Yes, styling is partly a subjective issue, but all our testers agreed that the estate’s more balanced proportions were the most pleasing of the three body shapes, at least in part justifying the significant premium it demands over the VXR hatch and saloon.

The Insignia VXR’s basic drivetrain components are the same as other top-end four-wheel-drive Insignias

The Insignia VXR’s basic drivetrain components are the same as other top-end four-wheel-drive Insignias, including a Haldex clutch to control the torque split front to rear and a ‘torque vectoring’ differential that distributes torque between the rear wheels.  Both manual and automatic transmissions are offered, each with six speeds.

The biggest changes are to the front suspension, the VXR getting new struts (dubbed ‘HiPerStrut’) that help to reduce torque steer, in the same way as Ford’s RevoKnuckle on the Focus RS. Elsewhere, spring rates have been stiffened by five per cent at the front and 12.5 percent at the rear.

The anti-roll bar diameter has been reduced at the front and increased at the rear to improve handling balance, and the whole car sits 10mm lower than the next most sporting Insignia, the SRi.

This new suspension, combined with a more potent 321bhp output from the uprated turbocharged V6 engine, is intended to make the VXR feel like a significantly different model, rather than merely a fast Insignia. 


Vauxhall Insignia VXR dashboard

Although there are aspects to the Insignia VXR cabin we would like to see improved (mainly the finish on some of the switchgear), Vauxhall should be commended for its overall design and ergonomics.

To this, the VXR adds a suitably more sporting steering wheel (thicker and flat-bottomed) and gear lever (thankfully more comfortable than that fitted to the Astra VXR). The dials feature VXR logos, as do the entry side plates, and a black headlining reiterates that this is the most serious Insignia. 

One aspect of the regular Insignia we particularly like is the range of seat adjustment

One aspect of the regular Insignia we particularly like is the range of seat adjustment, specifically that the driver can get nice and low. The VXR goes further still, its Recaro front seats sitting up to 15mm lower. And providing comfort and support in equal measure, the seats are suitable for both lapping a circuit and long-distance cruising.

Exterior colour and wheel size apart, the only options available for the Insignia VXR are sat-nav and a leather pack, both fitted to our test car.  The navigation system is good (if a little slow to zoom).  The leather is more a matter of personal taste. 

The VXR’s all-wheel drive system does nothing to reduce the impressive interior space. The Sports Tourer has a vast boot. With a minimum of 540 litres, it matches that of the Ford Mondeo estate and offers more than the BMW 340i Touring, Audi S4 Avant and Volkswagen Passat estate.

This rises to 1530 litres with the rear seats folded – still more than the BMW and Audi, if not as much as the Ford and Volkswagen. As with all Insignia Sports Tourers above Exclusiv trim, the VXR gets a powered tailgate.

The saloon and hatchback aren't exactly lacking for boot space either. The saloon offers up 500 litres, while the hatchback provides an additional 30 litres alongside improved access.

As for standard equipment, there is only one trim with an aggressive bodykit, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, a sports exhaust and automatic wipers on the outside, while inside there is Recaro sports seats, climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and Vauxhall's IntelliLink infotainment system complete with DAB radio and sat nav.


2.0-litre Vauxhall Insignia VXR engine

With headline outputs of 321bhp and 321lb ft of torque, both peaking at 5250rpm, the Vauxhall Insignia VXR is more powerful than all of its chosen rivals apart from the 349bhp Audi S4, but this isn’t reflected in its performance on the road. 

The turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 is a large, lazily boosted engine that gives a smooth build-up of power, virtually free from the sudden, non-linear turbo surge that afflicts the Astra VXR. But while the engine spins freely and quickly, initial acceleration is surprisingly leisurely (first and second gears are torque-limited). At lower revs you either have to be patient or work the gear lever hard to achieve the level of acceleration or speed required. 

The performance from the standard Brembo brakes is excellent

Things pick up as the turbo kicks in and you climb higher up the rev range. Performance here is strong, if not as outright quick as Vauxhall might like. In the Sport Tourer version, we recorded a two-way average 0-60mph figure of 6.7sec – completed with two occupants – lags well behind the claimed figure of 5.9sec and leaves the VXR trailing its closest rivals in a straight line. The five-door and four-door variants both claim a 5.6sec dash to 62mph.

On track, or during overtaking on the road, you soon learn to keep the car in the upper reaches of its rev range as much as possible in order to stay within its strongest performance band. It’s no particular chore, thanks to the slick gearshift (which could be shorter but still offers a rewarding level of resistance and precision) and the vocal Remus exhaust, which will thrill the majority of enthusiasts but could irritate those sitting in the back.

There are three performance modes to choose from: Normal, Sport and VXR. The latter is the most sporting and stiffens the dampers, weights up the steering and sharpens throttle response, but even in this setting the amount of throttle pedal travel and revs needed for a smooth downchange makes heel-and-toeing difficult – a fact that frustrates on the track.

Brake pedal travel suffered after extensive testing, but otherwise the performance from the standard Brembo brakes was always excellent, with 70-0mph achieved in just 45.3 metres, or 52.0 metres in the wet. 


Vauxhall Insignia VXR cornering

Vauxhall has done a lot of work to help the Insignia VXR transfer its 321bhp to the road. Not only is there the permanent four-wheel drive and the electronic limited-slip differential, but the new front suspension also allows more power to be put through the front wheels. In addition, it gets an uprated version of Vauxhall’s FlexRide adjustable damping system.

As a result, the Insignia has little trouble deploying its considerable power and makes for a highly effective cross-country weapon. Given its girth, the Insignia retains reasonable control of its body movements, even if – at the extremes – quick direction changes start to catch it out.

The Insignia has little trouble deploying its considerable power

Turn-in is crisp and there’s strong front-end bite in the dry, but the VXR’s cornering finesse is dealt a serious blow by its sterile steering. Though quick enough, it is too light and fails to give the driver any feedback, no matter which of the dynamic modes are selected.

The speed-sensitive variation in weight is just too subtle to be effective. There’s no torque steer, but understeer becomes evident closer to the Insignia’s limits, and inevitably a low-grip surface only makes it more pronounced.  

Although all the signs are that the VXR Insignia will have a poor ride (20-inch alloys, suspension lowered by 10mm over the SRi model and stiffer springs), it is actually admirably comfortable and a fine cruiser. Both the primary and secondary ride are among the best you’ll find in this class. Body roll is subdued even in the softest Normal mode, and imperfections and undulations in the road surface are easily absorbed without fidgeting and jarring, regardless of the setting. 

Low-speed town driving is less composed but still far from uncomfortable, giving the Insignia VXR a pronounced ride comfort advantage over some of its rivals.


Vauxhall Insignia VXR

The Insignia VXR is not a cheap car. Vauxhall would like you to look at it this way: that the VXR offers as much driving appeal as BMW’s 340i and Audi S4 for several thousand pounds less.

While there is some logic to the argument – the Insignia is a fast, competent, comfortable and spacious car – it is not watertight. In reality, both the BMW and Audi are quicker, and the 340i’s broader appeal (it has a much better engine, for starters) justifies its extra cost.  

The Insignia VXR is likely to cost more to run than its German rivals

The Insignia VXR is also likely to cost more to run than its German rivals. For private buyers it will depreciate at a faster rate, and for company buyers a CO2 rating of 274g/km places it in the highest BIK band (the 340i sits three percentage points lower).

The Vauxhall also has the worst claimed fuel consumption, which in our experience means an average in the low 20s. 


4 star Vauxhall Insignia VXR

The Insignia VXR is effective at fulfilling its role as a fast, spacious and comfortable car, proving, perhaps for the first time, that VXRs can be both usable and comfortable without diluting the endearing lunacy that is a characteristic of cars wearing Vauxhall’s hottest badge.

But despite its undoubted appeal, the VXR has a few flaws that prevent it from reaching its full potential.

The VXR has a few flaws that prevent it from reaching its full potential

The steering conspires to rob it of the intimacy and feedback of the best, while its engine is a little underwhelming and its performance isn’t as strong as its ample power output suggests it ought to be.

And it won’t be cheap to run, especially if you take depreciation into account. 

So while it’s an interesting diversion, the Insignia VXR falls short of the standards set by the class best.

Vauxhall Insignia VXR 2009-2017 First drives