The Vauxhall Astra VXR is a hot hatch with a devastating haymaker under the bonnet. Jonathan Crouch is left reeling.
Ten Second Review
Packing a solid 280PS and featuring a bombproof feel and sharp driving dynamics, the Vauxhall Astra VXR is a car that feels as if it's been engineered with care and not just to attain a headline-grabbing power figure. It's also probably the best-looking car in its class. In other words, there's a lot to like.
The Vauxhall Astra VXR develops 280PS from its 2.0-litre engine. That in itself might not mean too much to you, but try this for perspective. Remember all those fantastic Japanese super coupes from the Nineties? Hero cars like the Honda NSX, the Toyota Supra Turbo and the Nissan Skyline GT-R? They were all packing 280PS too. It's a testament to how far we've coming in the few short years since then that a front-wheel drive hatchback can now easily handle that sort of power and handle superbly to boot. The VXR badge hasn't always been an exemplar of dynamic subtlety, but with this Astra, there are clear signs that here is car developed by people who get it, who know how to make a mechanically 'correct' vehicle. It's got some formidable rivals to face down, but the Astra VXR is making some real strides.
There's talent here. The HiPerStrut front suspension does a great job of reducing front wheel camber changes during cornering, boosting steering feel and quelling undesirable torque-steer under hard acceleration. As a result, the VXR's front end feels enormously reassuring. Even with the stability control switched fully off, the chassis doesn't feel playful and delicate in its reactions, like that of a Renaultsport Megane, but it counters with a very Germanic feeling of healthy over-engineering. The three-stage FlexRide switches between 'Normal', 'Sport' and 'VXR' modes and adjusts both throttle action and damping: even the sportiest VXR mode works well on British roads. In addition to the work done by ZF Sachs on dampers, Vauxhall engineers have stiffened the standard springs by around 30 per cent and lowered the car by a further 10 millimetres all round, compared with a 1.6T Astra GTC. The ESP stability control can be switched from 'Normal' to 'Competitive' and then fully off. Unlike some rivals which feature a mimsy e-diff, the Astra gets a heavy duty mechanical multi-plate limited slip differential made by motorsport component manufacturer, Drexler. This offers great traction out of corners, where you can feel the diff dragging you to the apex under power. Delicious. As you'd expect, the VXR is properly rapid, smashing its way to 60mph in just 5.9 seconds on the way to a 155mph maximum. It also makes quite a few odd noises, the soundtrack being a symphony of chuffs, whistles and muted roars under full power. It's not a peaky engine, with maximum torque being developed all the way from 2,450 to 5,000rpm. As such, power delivery isn't as dramatic as you might expect, but it's one of those cars that can make effortless cross country progress and is always going 15-20mph quicker than your initial estimate.
Design and Build
The Astra VXR is based on the GTC three-door which is one of the best-looking hatches around. I can't think of a more handsome car in its class and the VXR builds on the GTC's fundamentally elegant lines, adding a well-judged amount of aggression without lapsing into caricature. Visual identifiers for the Astra VXR comprise a set of specially sculpted front and rear bumpers, side skirts, an aerodynamic roof spoiler and two exhaust tail pipes in a trapezoid shape. Inside, the VXR's cabin gets bespoke performance seats with embossed logos in the backs, a flat-bottomed VXR steering wheel and upgraded instruments. A little more about those seats. They look like Recaros and they feel like Recaros but they're not. In fact, they've been designed in-house and I have to admit, they're unexpectedly good. The seats are formed using an injection moulded sheet in the seat shells, which reduces their weight by 45 per cent compared with a conventional shell. The sheet is filled with a composite material and its strength and agility means that it only needs to be two to three millimetres deep. Pneumatically adjustable cushions in the seat sides add further levels of adjustability at the push of a button and provide a figure-hugging grip. The cabin feels genuinely solid; certainly a lot beefier in terms of materials quality than a Renault or Ford and probably on a par with a Volkswagen Scirocco. The boot measures 370 litres and the use of an electronic parking brake frees up space on the centre console for additional stowage.
Market and Model
You'll need to be fairly committed to the pastime of duffing up Porsche sportscars with an ordinary-looking hatchback to stand paying around £27,000 for the privilege of Astra VXR ownership. It's a sum that now looks a little self-conscious given the budget pricing of Ford's Focus ST. To be fair to Vauxhall, the Astra feels a premium product with more power and a higher level of standard equipment than Focus ST models with more eye-catching sticker prices. Vauxhall have decided to align things fairly closely to the Renaultsport Megane 265, which is perhaps this model's closest spiritual rival, and were you to sit in the two cars in a showroom, the Astra would win the orders all day long. The equipment list comprises 19-inch alloy wheels, a DAB stereo with USB input, an onboard computer, climate control, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and fog lamps. The smaller steering wheel feels good in your hands with its perforated leather rim, while there's also a black headlining and a full leather pack for the seats available. The lack of a central touch screen is a bit of a strange omission but Vauxhall infotainment systems have never really been a company strong point. There are several option packs available, including the 'VXR Aero Pack' which adds bigger wheels, a spoiler, and side sills and which around 85% of VXR customers opt for. There's also the 'VXR Leather Seat Pack' which features heated and multi-adjustable front seats. A 'Performance Seat Pack' also features the multi-adjustable front seats but with cloth upholstery. Bi-Xenon and LED daytime running lights are an option, as are rear parking sensors, metallic paint and tinted windows.
Cost of Ownership
Even driven in a spirited fashion on the press launch, we saw around 24mpg and many other drivers who were a little less leaden-footed returned better than 30mpg on the cross country test route. Vauxhall quotes an economy figure of 34.9mpg which isn't out of the question on a moderate tootle but which would be hard to achieve if you used the car to the extent of its design remit. Carbon dioxide emissions are rated at 189g/km - not bad for such a potent car but bettered by many. Those figures are around 10 per cent better than this VXR's less powerful predecessor, helped by energy-saving features such as electrically-adjustable power steering, a start/stop system and better aerodynamics. Vauxhall plans to sell around 1,000 VXRs per year in the UK, which isn't a huge number, so used demand should bolster residual values reasonably well.
The Vauxhall Astra VXR is an interesting vehicle. It's intriguing from a technical perspective in the way that it makes 280PS through the front wheels seem like such a sensible engineering solution. It's thought-provoking in the way that its interior feels built better than you'd ever expect from this bluest of blue collar badges. It's a car that will focus your attention when it does what it's designed to do, namely demolish a series of corners with real aggression. It's like the Nissan GTR of hot hatches in that it gets the job done effectively, while at the same time making many of its rivals look a bit silly. But is it an easy car to fall in love with? That's a very different question. At no point during the drive did it tug at my heart strings in the way that a Megane 265 might, and I questioned why this was the case. It's well equipped, it's a lovely shape, it offers a great blend of ride, handling and sheer oomph and it's not overly showy. Perhaps it lacks that last couple of per cent that separate the very good from the great. Talking to some of the madly passionate engineers in charge of the project, I left in no doubt that if those last couple of per cent aren't quite there now, they'll be along shortly. This is one to watch.