General Motors – the name is a clue – are virtuosos in the art of the world car. This is not to say they haven’t played a few bum notes in their time.
It’s too early to speculate how the Opel Insignia B will perform on its world tour, but its diverse audiences will demand versatility as well as capability. Launched proudly earlier this year in Switzerland, the Insigregaldore carries four badges; a lightning bolt, a mythical beast which appears to be self-conscious about underarm odour, three shields, and from February 2018, a lion.
Not the lion rampant of Franche-Comté, but the emblem of Holden, GM’s troubled Australian subsidiary. In a strange twist of destiny, on the day before the Opel Insignia was presented to the world, GM agreed the sale of its chronically unprofitable European operations to the French company whose symbol is the first-mentioned lion.
The first Insignia was a Vauxhall in the UK, an Opel in the rest of Europe, and a Buick in North America and China. For the difficult sophomore iteration, it adds the Holden Commodore role to the repertoire.
In anticipation, here are a few thoughts on the task it faces in Australia (and New Zealand), and also the extent to which the Antipodes have shaped the Insignia.
There’s a ghoulish circularity about a car from Russelsheim replacing the last Australian-built Holden Commodore, 39½ years after the first of the series was presented to the Australian buying public, who largely resented an undersized, very German car replacing their beloved Kingswoods, Belmonts and Monaros.
1977 Opel Commodore C and 1978 Holden Commodore VB. The Australian version had a hose-clean interior and replaced the 2.5 litre CIH engine with a home grown 3.3 litre straight six engine which could be fixed with two spanners and a hammer. On the credit side, the bodyshell was reinforced to save drivers the embarrassment of their car splitting in two on outback roads.
Over the decades the Commodore acclimatised to its new home, with the inevitable utes and panel vans joining the range, and V8 powered range-toppers affirming its ‘Aussie Hero’ status. However, tax changes in the early ‘90s opened the market to imports without punitive tariffs, and gradually Australia’s car buyers succumbed to the curse of sophistication. Mirroring North America, SUVs, pick-ups, and premium German marques conquered the Australian market. The Commodore and Falcon, once chart-toppers, dropped to the lower reaches of the top ten, many of these were police, government, and taxi fleet purchases.
Therefore the Commodore from Germany hasn’t a high target to match, owing to the inexorable decline of demand for the full-size Australian saloon. In 2014 30,203 passenger Commodores were registered in their home market, plus 4349 utes. In 2015 the numbers were 27,770 + 4936. Without utes (although they are still listed as available), registrations declined to 25,860 in the following year.
Last year was a record year for vehicle sales in Australia, with 1.178 million cars and LCVs registered, in a nation with a population of 23 million. The best-seller was the Toyota Hi-Lux. The car-based pick-up (referred to widely by the revolting term “coupe utility”) is held by Australia to be its own invention, their foremost contribution to the automotive pantheon. Be that as it may, the nation’s people voted with their finance agreements for the strictly utilitarian Japanese interpretation of the genre.
Australians love wordplay. The Commodore is colloquially the “Dunny Door”. (Note for non-Australian speakers. “Dunny” is an earth closet located outside a dwelling. Not many Australian homes still have such things, but they are remembered with great affection). The outgoing Commodore is the VF. Most of the two-letter vehicle designations have amusing anti-acronyms.
Perhaps the last Australian Commodore will be remembered as “Very Fine”. Its successor is labelled ‘NG’, which probably signifies “New Generation”. If Opel stumble, it will forever be the “No Good” Commodore.
The first Commodore, the VB, shares its two-character identity with Victoria Bitter, a misleadingly-named and inexplicably popular chemical lager otherwise only notable for inducing skull-splitting hangovers even after a very moderate intake. I’m sure it isn’t coincidence.
The VF is not a bad looking thing, although there’s a feeling of trying to do an Audi and coming up with a very big Laguna. Big is relative – the chart below shows that the German Commodore’s ‘footprint’ is scarcely smaller.
Did the Insignia B grow to meet Australian expectations? More likely it was driven by Karl-Thomas Neumann’s ambition to “upset the upper class”, by offering a near-Audi A7 sized car for well under the price of an entry-level A4.
The VF Commodore engine line-up is very much one for a big engine, cheap fuel nation. A 1.5 or 2.0 litre turbocharged European Wundermotor looks like a poor substitute for the locally made direct-injection GM High Feature V6 in 3.0 litre (248bhp) and 3.6 litre (280bhp) capacities, and an imported 6.2 litre, 408bhp LS3 V8.
Although Europe and China will only get four cylinder engines, a 3.0 litre High Feature V6 will be offered in the Commodore NG, in combination with the ‘Twinster’ 4WD system. It seems that there’s no room for turbochargers in the new generation of V6 Insignia – in this matter the previous generation did better with the mad 325bhp 2.8 litre V6 OPC / VXR. The V6 will not be Australian-built. The Fishermen’s Bend HFV6 facility made its last engine in November 2016, having produced 1,137,282 examples since 2003.
GM would, it seems, prefer us to think that the V6 Insigregaldore was an Australian exclusive, but word has leaked out, by way of the California Air Resources Board, of a 3.6 litre 4WD Buick Regal GS for the 2018 model year.
TTAC reported that Buick Canada’s website revealed the forthcoming Regal 4WD GS prematurely, on a page which was taken down a day later. Badging apart, there is little external differentiation across the marques. The Insignia Country Tourer becomes a Regal Tour-X and a plain ‘Tourer’ for Holden. Without off-road pretensions, the Commodore estate is a ‘Sportwagon’. In either case, loadspace is about 80% of the outgoing wagon.
Utes and Panel Vans are, one imagines, out of the question.
There’s some disappointment from Australian sources that the ‘Adventra’ name was not revived for the new car. It previously applied to a high-riding 4WD Commodore wagon in the Volvo XC / Audi Allroad style sold from 2003-2006. Despite being overshadowed by the Ford Territory a year later, it is regarded as a minor Aussie icon.
The Adventra. Holden’s answer to the Rover Streetwise, but with 4WD and a 5.7 litre V8 option. Lasted less than four years before being replaced by a Holden-badged Daewoo Captiva. The very definition of ingnominy…
So how will the German Commodore fare? It’s anybody’s guess, and will probably come down to vulgar money. The outgoing Commodore is no longer a cheap car. A base model Commodore 3.0 V6 costs A$39,689 (€27,949), the rather more tempting 6.2 litre V8 Commodore SS is A$47,490 (€33,450). For comparison a 2.5 litre Toyota Camry is being offered at A$30,000 (€20,600), the Aurion, as they call the 3.5 litre V6 Camry, is yours for A$40,000 (€28,000).
With Australian production of both the Commodore and Camry/Aurion set to end in November 2017, new battle lines are going to be drawn.
May the best – fully-imported – car win.