Opel is reintroducing the 'GSi' moniker, but the new Insignia GSi doesn't replace the OPC model of old; instead, it sits below that position, signifying a more involved driving experience without sacrificing everyday usability. It's more than just a trim level though, as the chassis upgrades are significant, even if the Insignia GSi is offered in petrol and diesel formats in both Grand Sport hatchback and Sports Tourer estate body styles. All feature a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system and a new eight-speed automatic transmission. Here we test drive the diesel Grand Sport on Irish roads and on Mondello race track.
In the Metal:
The GSi makeover is a relatively subtle one and, painted a more sober hue than the bright red of our test car, it could pass unnoticed by the majority of onlookers. There is a modest body kit including a sliver of a rear spoiler, some chrome add-ons, stylised exhaust outlets and a GSi badge or two, but the biggest giveaways are the bespoke 20-inch alloy wheels, sitting on special Michelin Pilot Sport 4-S tyres. Behind the wheels are new Brembo brake callipers, too, while the ride height is 10mm lower than in a standard Insignia Grand Sport.
Inside, you can't miss the excellent new leather sports seats, which feel as good as they look. They feature adjustable side bolsters, heating, ventilation and even a massage function. Complementing them is a chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel with plastic gearchange paddles behind, and a set of sportier pedals in the footwell.
Our first taste of the new Opel Insignia GSi was, unusually, on home soil, ahead of the European launch of the car. Late in the evening we were given the keys with no further instructions other than meet at the gates of Mondello Park race track the next morning bright and early. Over the next few hours we tried the Insignia on sweeping N roads, quiet motorways and a thrilling deserted mountain route that took in the Wicklow Gap and Sally Gap in one long loop. As first drives go, this could not have been much more thorough. And you know what? We didn't want to stop. That's despite the fact that our test car was powered by a diesel engine, there were rain showers to contend with and road temperatures approaching zero.
So, why is the Insignia GSi such a compelling driver's proposition? The chassis, in short, though before we get to that, it's worth taking a look at the powertrain. Up front is a biturbo 2.0-litre diesel engine producing figures of 210hp and 480Nm of torque - useful, if not headline-grabbing. Its not the quietest diesel in the world, but that low-down torque is impressive, giving the Insignia effortless shove without needing to rev the engine. The standard transmission, an eight-speed automatic, is a brilliant partner to it. Even in the back lanes of Kildare and Wicklow, there's little reason to override the standard calibration and use the gearchange paddles or the lever itself in manual mode, as it's well-judged to make the most of the engine's torque characteristics no matter how 'enthusiastically' you're driving.
That gearbox sends power to all four wheels, which is what gives the Insignia GSi its all-weather performance. The GSi's all-wheel-drive system uses a clever twin-clutch rear differential that can vary output to the rear wheels individually as deemed necessary by the car's brain. This has been extended to allow torque vectoring for stability and for driver enjoyment. So, on the exit of a corner, for example, more torque is applied to the rear wheel on the outside of the turn than the one on the inside, helping rotate the car better. Only on longer corners do you really appreciate this happening, but overall the GSi certainly feels a step up from its lesser siblings in the handling stakes, much more responsive and engaging. It also is astoundingly effective at finding traction without any unseemly wheel scrabble. We proved that the following morning with a couple of hours on a rather icy Mondello Park international loop...
Back to the mountain roads, and the GSi's standard set-up proves to be well-suited to the task. There are Tour and Sport settings for the FlexRide system, altering the damping, throttle response, gearchange shift points and electronic power steering, but, notably, the Insignia GSi's suspension never turns into a teeth-shattering rock. Indeed, I found that Sport mode was ideal for the bumpy roads as it controlled body movements better without much of a compromise in terms of comfort. Along with unique damping characteristics, the GSi cars get stiffer springs and a new front anti-roll bar. It's also worth noting that Opel's engineers sensibly resisted adding weight to the steering for the sake of it in the Sport setting, and it's a really good system because of that decision, conveying how much grip there is at the front to the driver's hands.
Next morning, we pushed the GSi hard on track in poor conditions and it shone. The Brembo brakes didn't complain, the tyres didn't wear down and the car didn't put a wheel wrong. It gave us an opportunity to explore the limits too, with the ESP stability control switched on, off and in its 'Competition' setting. Needless to say, nobody buys a diesel D-segment car such as the Insignia with the intention of bringing it on track, but the GSi certainly didn't feel out of its depth, which says a lot about its set-up.
What you get for your Money:
There's no way to dress it up: the Opel Insignia GSi is an expensive car in Ireland and that will severely limit its success in terms of sales numbers. The petrol-powered Grand Sport model starts at €49,500 and the diesel car reviewed here is €53,600. The Sports Tourer estate variants are more again. It's a shame, really, as the GSi is well-equipped and features all the sophisticated hardware mentioned above, so it's not over-priced for what it is, just, in our opinions, over-priced for the market it competes in. It'll remain a halo model for the brand rather than a sales leader, we suspect.
Our time at the wheel of the new Opel Insignia GSi revealed real talent in the chassis set-up, giving it impressive cross-country ability regardless of the road conditions, plus a willingness to engage the driver in proceedings. And yet, it also functions perfectly well as a mile-munching motorway machine, with only a slight reduction in refinement in comparison to a regular diesel Insignia. While it's a shame that there won't be many Irish buyers willing to pay such a high price for the sparkling chassis talents of the reinvented GSi badge, it goes to show that Opel can make a good driver's car that isn't just for hardcore enthusiasts.