REVIEW DATE: 21 Jun 2010
You don't need a 4x4 to get the benefit of four-wheel-drive. At least, that's the message behind the 4x4 versions of Vauxhall's Insignia Sports Tourer estate. Steve Walker takes a look.
When we talk about 4x4 vehicles, we're usually thinking of SUVs of one kind or another, cars with raised ride heights, chunky styling and a certain outdoorsy image. There are, however, lots of four-wheel-drive cars that don't fit this description. Many sporty models send power to all four wheels to enhance performance and some manufacturers give the option of adding a 4x4 transmission system to bring extra traction to their otherwise conventional hatchbacks and saloons. Vauxhall's Insignia Sports Tourer range has just such a 4x4 option but is it one that buyers should consider and why?
4x4s of all shapes and sizes are everywhere at the moment but in many cases, it isn't the all-wheel-drive mechanicals that are drawing people to them. The convenience of these higher riding vehicles with their easier access and improved visibility is a big part of their appeal, as is the rugged styling that marks them out from more conventional cars.
Models like the Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer 4x4 can't offer any of this. In body shape and design, it's an ordinary estate but it can be specified with Vauxhall's Adaptive 4x4 all-wheel-drive system which brings advantages in terms of traction and all weather performance but disadvantages in terms of fuel economy.
Within the Insignia range, the Adaptive 4x4 system is put to slightly different uses. It's fitted to the high performance VXR models as standard and available with the Vauxhall's more powerful petrol engines where it helps to deploy the sizable power outputs effectively. A front-wheel-drive layout would undoubtedly struggle with the 321bhp generated by the Insignia VXR and even the 256bhp 2.8-litre Turbo and 217bhp 2.0-litre Turbo models get their power onto the road in a cleaner, smoother fashion if it can be redirected to the rear when wheelspin is imminent. In all these models, the 4x4 technology also produces safer, more secure progress in wet or icy conditions but that's more central to the thinking behind the Insignia 4x4 with 2.0-litre CDTi power.
".it doesn't come at a huge premium over the front-wheel-drive models"
With 158bhp, this diesel engine isn't a high performance unit, even though its can match the turbocharged petrol alternatives with its 350Nm torque output. It's one of the most popular engines in the front-wheel-drive Insignia range but by offering it in 4x4 guise, Vauxhall has created an alternative for buyers wanting the security of all-wheel-drive with low running costs. For some, it will even be a realistic alternative to a compact SUV.
In all the 4x4 Insignia models, the 4x4 system is part-time, operating in front-wheel-drive mode when grip is plentiful and only directing a proportion of the power to the rear when things get slippery. Using sensors on all four wheels, the system is designed to recognise a shortage of grip before wheel slippage occurs so power can be redistributed early and traction can be maintained without diminishing driver appeal. It's mated to Vauxhall's FlexRide adaptive dampers and an electronic rear limited slip differential which also work to match the car's set-up to the driving conditions.
The Insignia saloon and hatch models are good looking things and the Sports Tourer estate version is even more impressive. Certainly, when it comes to estate cars, style is a key factor. In the war against chunky compact 4x4s and frumpy MPVs, the sleek, road-hugging lines of a well-conceived estate can have a major impact on its fortunes.
The Insignia Sports Tourer definitely looks the part. Taking the core styling features of the Insignia such as the raised grille and the cutaway sections down the flanks, the designers have expertly integrated the extended rear end. With its long roofline falling away towards the rear and the tailgate wrapping around the car's corners, the Sports Tourer is a classy visual proposition.
The elegant lines don't come at the expense of space inside either. A 540-litre load compartment can be extended to 1,530 litres with the seats properly folded. That's significantly down on the 1,850 litres of the old Vectra estate, but then that car sat on its own extended platform, something GM couldn't afford to do again with this Insignia.
Mere space isn't enough anyway in this kind of car: it's got to be usable. Vauxhall set out to ensure that the Sports Tourer fits the bill by introducing a series of features unique to this estate version. Self levelling rear suspension is standard on all models dropping the loading height to a more convenient level. Then there's Vauxhall's FlexOrganizer system that can be used to secure cargo in a series of rail-mounted nets and dividers.
The 4x4 system found in the Insignia Sports Tourer can also be specified in the saloon and hatch models but we'll concentrate on the estates here. A 4x4 model comes at a premium of around £1,600 over the front-wheel-drive alternatives but is available only in the Insignia's core upmarket trim levels. Since it became available, the 4x4 system has proven surprisingly popular, with over 20% of Insignias sold with the 2.0-litre Turbo petrol engine having it fitted.
While the VXR performance models continue to compete against the leading sports saloons and estates, Vauxhall will be looking for the 2.0-litre CDTi Insignia 4x4 to strike a chord with family buyers. It could well be seen as a good alternative to a compact SUV, particularly with the Sport Tourer bodystyle adding prodigious space into the mix. There aren't too many large estate cars that currently combine 4x4 mechanicals with a diesel engine and fewer still have a mainstream badge and pricing like the Insignia.
Choosing a 4x4 Insignia typically lands you a fuel economy penalty of around 3mpg as a result of the extra weight. It's the kind of difference that could easily be made back by driving in a more efficient manner or turning off the air-conditioning though, so this isn't something to get overly concerned about. The CDTi diesel models return close to 45mpg on the combined cycle with emissions of around 160g/km which will give it a fighting chance in the competitive fleet sector that's so important to cars of the Insignia's type. Go for one of the quicker petrol models and you're looking at around 30mpg from the 2.0-litre and 25mpg from the 2.8 V6.
These days, car buyers increasingly need to ask themselves whether they want a 4x4 or whether they want four-wheel-drive. They aren't always the same thing. There are numerous SUVs and crossover 4x4s on the market, many available with only two driven wheels. At the same time, conventional cars like the Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer are making 4x4 mechanicals available as an option. Whether you're after the fiery performance and traction of a 4x4 sports estate or the security and economy of a 4x4 family car, the Insignia 4x4 range can deliver.
Choosing Vauxhall's Adaptive 4x4 system brings a small fuel economy penalty but it doesn't come at a huge premium over the front-wheel-drive models: the increase is about what you'd expect to pay for a modern automatic gearbox. Buyers looking for enhanced ability in difficult conditions on the road but who don't want a fully-fledged compact 4x4 could well find the Insignia Sports Tourer 4x4 a handy compromise, particularly with the diesel engine installed.
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