PSA has a problem that Vauxhall can resolve
In all the automotive shenanigans that have taken place over the past decade, highlights Iain Robertson, one of the most concerning has been the unwarranted and sudden escalation of French PSA onto a bigger world stage for its products.
In the thirty years prior to the global financial crash of 2008, the motor industry bounded from one brand takeover, or strategic partnership/alliance, to another with unbridled glee. Motor vehicle marketing budgets were like bottomless pits. In the most extreme cases, they were hiring Concorde and QE2 to ferry members of the motoring media and major corporates to and from exclusive launch venues, all on an excuse of ‘brand experience’. The excesses were mad. In just one week, I recall ice driving in the Arctic, skateboarding on a private Spanish island and taking up residence at what used to be Loew’s Hotel, in Monaco, all under the pretext of test driving a manufacturer’s latest model.
In truth, I became seriously jaded about new cars, all the air travel (up to three trips a week) and editors demanding ever more copy. However, the ‘crash’ put the kibosh on almost everything. It was a wake-up call. The extravagant treks to Johannesburg, Lake Tahoe and Arjeplog all but ceased. Buy-outs of the 1980s and 1990s were unstitched and dismantled. The industry looked to be in a parlous state, because it was. Champagne was swapped for Prosecco. VIP charters reverted to mixing it with the public in regular airport terminals. Two and three overnight events were reduced to one.
PSA, the umbrella brand for Peugeot and Citroen (latterly DS too), was struggling along, not selling into North America and unable to make headway with its larger models. Much like Renault-Nissan, an example of an unholy partnership fraught with internal wrangling that would soon be joined by Mitsubishi, it did seem as though French carmakers were resigned to working their domestic markets but not much else. However, around five years ago, Bernard Peugeot, one of the remaining family influences in PSA, headed for China, beret-in-hand. His aim was to engender the financial support of Dongfeng, its long-standing, state-funded, Chinese partner. A deal was struck.
Within two years, PSA inveigled a deal to acquire Vauxhall-Opel, which American General Motors (GM) was only too happy to offload. In just the past year, it sniffed at Jaguar-Land-Rover (JLR) but made moves on the Fiat-Chrysler Group (FCA). From knocking at death’s door, to becoming a major world car making group within just five years is only a surprise, if you do not comprehend the might of China’s wealth, or its guile.
China wants to introduce its fast-developing domestic brands to the rest of the world; a world that is already brand-heavy. Remember that virtually all of its major corporates have state support and that another of its corporations, Geely, owns Volvo, Lotus and London Taxi. However, even as arch-copyists, the Chinese appreciate that the majority of their many models would simply never pass muster in many foreign markets, with (perhaps) the exception of Russia and India. Funding western manufacturers, with a partial aim of cutting out rivalry, is an intriguing programme.
Coronavirus has given PSA all the ammunition it needed to shut down Vauxhall production at Ellesmere Port, let alone at Luton (vans). Should those plants not reopen in several months’ time, production being centred on less troublesome European factories, they will be little more than casualties of Covid-19. Yet, PSA has always struggled with its larger models: Citroen C5/C6, Peugeot 508 and even the DS variants. It will also have difficulties with its Italo-American products. Yet, the Vauxhall (Opel) Insignia, built in Germany and as close a rival to the BMW 4-Series, Merc C-Class and Audi A4 as any, let alone Ford’s faltering Mondeo, can out-perform its rivals, given the right impetus.
It is a handsome machine. Roomy. Practical. Well-built. Well-regarded. While I was ringing a death bell’s knell for the range a year ago, today I can actually see a light at the end of the tunnel for Insignia. Being keenly priced helps its cause and makes it better value than the Skoda Superb, even if it does not possess as much rear legroom. Insignia’s key registration targets should be taxi firms and emergency services. Retail strength, of which Insignia has an adequate amount, would follow in short order.
Vital to its performance is the engine range and the latest refinements ensure that they consume an average of 18% less fuel than the outgoing models, with CO2 ratings as low as 100g/km. It is topped by a heavily revised GSi model that also benefits from a low-friction gearbox, an electro-hydraulic brake booster, mechatronic suspension and four-wheel drive with torque vectoring. The line-up features three- and four-cylinder units, beginning with a 1.4-litre 145bhp turbo-petrol engine and a 1.5-litre 122bhp turbodiesel capable of 74.3mpg. Above them is a pair of 2.0-litre petrol units developing 200 and 230bhp, as well as a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, to be introduced later in the year. Interestingly, the 2.0-litre petrols are also the first Vauxhall engines to feature cylinder deactivation. Unless the driver needs access to power, the variable camshaft control deactivates two cylinders, in the process reducing fuel consumption significantly.
The range topping GSi is the star turn. Equipped with four-wheel drive and torque vectoring, it is more agile during cornering manoeuvres, impeccably balanced and provides excellent traction. The new nine-speed automatic transmission can be operated manually using the paddles on the steering wheel. The red four-pot callipers highlight its Brembo braking power.
With its electro-hydraulic brake booster, the Insignia represents a platform for technology that will be required for automated driving in the future. The integrated ‘eBoost’ system is a component for ‘braking by wire’, which dispenses with the need for separate ABS/ESP modules, vacuum lines and vacuum pumps, as it is generated by an electric motor instead of the engine. Fuel consumption is further reduced.
The Insignia GSi comes as standard with mechatronic FlexRide suspension, which adapts shock absorbers and steering in fractions of a second. In addition, FlexRide changes the characteristics of the accelerator as well as the shift-points of the nine-speed automatic transmission. The driver can choose between the driving modes, Standard, Tour, Sport and, exclusively for the GSi, ‘Competition’. Does it need more?
Conclusion: Were PSA Group to look more closely at its assets, rather than potentially wiping them out, it would recognise that at least one Vauxhall model could turn its fortunes around. Insignia is everything that a large car ought to be.