Good: handsome looks, comfort, low emissions
Not so good: only average to drive, some cabin fixtures not up to scratch
Oh, ye lonely and tired sales reps of Ireland, plying the highways with your carpet samples, your shoes and your brewery call-out sheets. Ye of the long day's drive, the petrol station BLT and the astronomical annual mileage figure. You've never had it so good. Seriously, you haven't, and the car you can thank is the BMW 3 Series. You see, while you might not have yet ascended the corporate ladder quite far enough for the fleet manager to give you the keys to a shiny chunk of Munich metal, the fact is that BMW has made the 3 Series so much more affordable over the past decade that it has taken deep and satisfying bites out of the mainstream saloon car market. After all, if the monthly repayments are tantalisingly affordable and the resale value so much stronger than for a more proletarian family box, then it's a no-brain decision, isn't it?
For those bereft of premium car park status though, there is succour and that lies in the fact that, with the 3 Series poaching on their turf, the makers of conventional four-door family saloons have had to seriously up their game this past ten years. The simple fact is now that a Mondeo, an Avensis, a Passat, a 508, an i40 or any other big four-door is pretty much as good to drive, as well engineered and as technically clever as the Beemer. And the Insignia? Yup, that one too.
You only have to look at the instrument binnacle of the updated 2014 model year Insignia to see this fact brought to life. Where once there were two simple clocks to tell you speed and engine revolutions per minute, now there is a digital TFT screen that allows you to pick and choose what you want to see and how you want to see it. Why, key in an address into the (optional) satnav system, twiddle a couple of buttons and a tiny digital map, mirroring the bigger one in the middle of the dash, comes to life in the centre of the virtual speedo. It's pretty impressive.
As is, by and large, the rest of the IntelliLink infotainment system Opel is touting as the big flashy new gimmick for the updated Insignia. The screen in the dash is bigger and more colourful than it was before and it's vastly easier to get your Bluetooth phone or media device hooked up to it and playing your tunes or podcasts than was the case with the fiddly old system. Using either the touch-screen or the few buttons below the screen, it’s pretty intuitive and easy to use. It only falls down when you try and use the whizz-bang track pad located down by the gear lever. It's too small and too awkward to use, and when you already have steering wheel buttons, a touch-screen and voice control, why do you need a track pad too?
Of more serious significance is the diesel engine under the bonnet. No, it's not one of Opel's brand-new 1.6-litre diesel engines (they're coming soon), but instead a thorough redevelopment of the existing 2.0-litre unit. In this form it develops a competitive 140hp and 350Nm of torque and, better still, it has the lowest CO2 emissions of any diesel engine in its class - 99g/km, which means you can tax this big, comfy, swish saloon for just €180 a year. A shame that that figure is based on a bit of obfuscation though. Emissions of CO2 are related directly to fuel consumption, and while the Department of Environment might be quite happy to accept Opel's quoted figure of 3.7 litres per 100km (or around 76mpg) the Department Of Your Wallet will shortly know it to be pure fiction. Yes, possibly, if you over-inflate the tyres, take out every piece of extraneous weight and drive as if there were Faberge eggs rolling around in the footwell, you might just be able to match Opel's official figure, but for the rest of us, in normal driving conditions, you'll get more like 50mpg, which is hardly anything to complain about.
As for the rest of it, the engine proves why Opel's new generation of diesel units can’t arrive soon enough; it's a little noisy at low rpm and although this loosened-up example felt perkier than the low mileage 163hp version we tested recently, it's still hardly convincing when you put your foot down hard for an N-road overtake. Better to stick to the motorway or dual carriageway where the Insignia becomes a really lovely cruiser - wafting you along, with the engine quietening down in the background, perched on very comfy seats.
A shame then that things don't quite stack up when you get off the motorway and onto the corners. The ride quality, which was surprisingly fidgety on the main road, actually improves a little at lower speeds and around town (odd when you think that most Insignias will spend most of their time on the bigger road), but the steering and chassis deportment just can't keep up the momentum. It's not bad, not bad at all, but it still feels a shade behind the brilliance of such rivals as the Ford Mondeo and Peugeot 508. A major part of the appeal of the 3 Series is the way it makes you feel when you drive it on a challenging road, so Opel really needs to step more convincingly up to the mark here.
Still, it's a very good looking car, is a very nice place in which to while away a long journey and every time your motor tax demand plops onto the doormat, you'll feel a little swell of smugness. Not a perfect car by any means, and not we suspect as good as Opel could have made it had the desire been there, but good enough that if your fleet boss says "no BMW for you, pal" you won't feel too hard done by.