Good points: styling, comfort, quality, handling.
Not so good: major controls need better refinement.
Standing on the big diving board is an exhilarating feeling. You are, from your perspective, thousands of feet above a clear, blue rectangle below and you have two essential choices. To simply remain there, content to take in the view from such a dizzying eyrie, or to step off into space, plummeting at speed towards a watery impact. Observation or immersion.
For a while now, Opel's choice has been an awkward middle ground between the two. While others have embraced (indeed, fuelled) the recent rush towards making almost every family car a Willys Jeep in ambition if not in ability, Opel has held gingerly back. It has descended to the lower diving boards to dip tentative toes into the SUV sales waters, but has never quite gathered the resolution to plunge right in. Hands up who remembers the Antara. Anyone? Bueller?
That is about to change, and dramatically so. The little Mokka (a very likeable loft-converted Corsa) was a more serious statement of 4x4 intentions and the near future for Opel is chock full of 4x4s, SUVs and crossovers. Even those vanguards of the MPV advance, the Meriva and the Zafira, will shortly morph into more SUV-ish appearance, to boost their sales appeal while there are also rivals for the likes of the Qashqai and Santa Fe in the works, as well as a potential range-topping SUV that would occupy the showroom space once occupied by the dearly departed Omega.
This, the Insignia Country Tourer, is therefore the first flex of the muscles atop the high diving board. The swing of the arms and the bend of the knees before the big jump. Both in terms of its intentions and its physical shape, it is the halfway house between Opel's conventional saloon past and its SUV-ised future. It's also a rather pleasingly beguiling car.
The updated Insignia, launched to us last year, was impressive from the get-go. There was little-to-nothing wrong with the first Insignia - a car that was a quantum leap ahead of its dreary Vectra predecessors - and while the revised version didn't quite do enough to usurp the top-table positions of the Skoda Superb and Hyundai i40, it did enough to elbow ahead of the likes of the Ford Mondeo and Toyota Avensis in our esteem. Handsome, assembled of a collection of nice things and entirely good to drive, it was a reminder that the best value cars on our roads today are the mid-size saloons that so many buyers are now shunning in favour of SUVs and MPVs.
To give the Insignia some more munitions to combat this growing sales threat then is the Country Tourer. Conceptually, it follows the ground already trod by the likes of the Volvo XC70 and Subaru Outback. It is a conventional estate car raised literally and figuratively above its wagon station by taller suspension, some stick-on plastic panels and a bit of four-wheel drive techno-wizardry that gives it much of the appearance and some of the abilities of a truly rugged off-roader.
You can get a front-wheel drive Country Tourer, which has both lower emissions and price, but our test car was equipped with Opel's four-wheel drive system, which renders the car almost entirely front-drive for 99 per cent of its life, sending power to the rear wheels (and able to shunt that power from side to side across the back thanks to a torque vectoring differential) when it deems fit. It's a system both clever and effective, although the extra weight makes it rather hard to feel the effect of the torque vectoring. In spite of 350Nm of torque, the current 2.0-litre CDTi diesel engine is a little underfed in this application. With more compact 1.6-litre engines catching up with its torque curve, it needs a boost in grunt to make proper use of the Country Tourer's underpinnings.
Leave the Walter Rohrl ambitions at home though and things start to make rather more sense. Although grumbly at times, the engine is refined enough to make long distance cruising a pleasure, not a chore and in sloppy conditions the Country Tourer makes a very compelling case for itself. A staggeringly heavy cloudburst on one of our journeys, mixing hail and rain in the same barrage, almost brought an entire motorway to a standstill, yet the Insignia shrugged off the decreasing grip coefficient with apparent ease. No, it won't get as far into the woods and bogs as would a Land Rover Defender or a Jeep Wrangler, but it will prove entirely capable of tackling the sorts of damp fields and unmade country tracks to which its owners are occasionally like to lead it.
Is that worth the penalty in CO2 and fuel consumption? Debatably so. Most of the time it will probably not be, but in situations like that motorway deluge or when snow and ice comes again, Insignia CT owners will be amongst the smuggest around.
In the meantime they can comfort themselves (literally) with a nicely appointed interior (excellent quality, terrific seats, slightly limited rear seat space), a big boot accessed by a powered tailgate (which rather nicely can be opened and closed from the key fob) and Opel's IntelliLink infotainment system. IntelliLink is occasionally fiddly (the track pad control on the centre console is entirely superfluous and awkward to use), but it snaps to attention when you need to connect a phone or media player and the sound quality from the multiple speakers is excellent. On such things does long journey sanity hinge.
It's also the best Insignia to drive short of the ristretto OPC or the mocha 2.0 SRi Turbo 4x4. The taller suspension, fitted with Opel's excellent FlexRide adjustable damping as standard, gives the CT a lovely ride quality that softens and absorbs bumps without ever feeling floppy or under-damped. The steering adjusts from slightly too light in Tour mode to slightly too weighty in Sport mode, but either way proves accurate enough to allow you to enjoy cornering. The only black mark on the dynamic front is when it comes to control weights. Opel just can't seem to hit the slick sweet spot of steering motion and pedal and gearshift weights that Ford and the Volkswagen Group have found. It can occasionally feel a little clunky.
Still, you can see the results of Opel's premium-badge ambitions in the cabin, which feels more special by far than that of a Ford or Toyota, and up there with the likes of Volkswagen, Skoda and almost Audi in its quality. It's also a very handsome car, with those stick-on plastic bits that signify its 4x4 status actually enhancing the Insignia's already pleasant lines.
Will buyers be sufficiently tempted to join Opel's swan dive from the high board? They possibly should be, as the Country Tourer, although expensive, is potentially the best overall product in the Insignia range. It's practical, comfortable and capable, but comes with just enough of a whiff of 4x4 glamour to make it that bit more desirable. It's a long way down to the water below, but so far Opel's dive is scoring a 9.0 from the judges.