First Drive: Vauxhall Astra VXR
Key features: Power and torque to outgun rivals, performance chassis.
Our view: VXR has for many years represented the pinnacle of Vauxhall’s performance models – cars for out-and-out enthusiasts, allying themselves closely to the UK’s most visible performance arena, the British Touring Car Championship.
Often, levels of comfort have been sacrificed for roadholding and pure potency – the writer well remembers a delivery driver dropping off an example of the manic go-kart, the VXR 200, with the words “have fun, they all come back crashed…”
So now that we have an all-new version of Vauxhall’s most popular VXR, the Astra, a car we are told with more power and torque than not only its predecessor but also all its current hot-hatch rivals. So you would expect something pretty extreme.
Well surprisingly, you would be wrong. The new Astra VXR is indeed a very potent tool – but it is also a very well-behaved performance car, a performance car that you could, perish the thought, live with on a daily basis…
The new VXR replaces the 2010 version of a car first introduced in 2005, and is a direct development of the three-door variant of the latest Astra, the GTC. But it is also a car developed considerably beyond the GTC.
According to Volker Strycek, who heads up Vauxhall/Opel’s VXR product development team – and whose day job was once racing in the DTM German Touring Car Championship with its F1-levels of sophistication – the aim with the Astra VXR was simple, to be the best in the segment.
This was no easy task, as the hot hatch market is pretty buoyant right now, with notable recent models from Volkswagen and Renault in the Scirocco R and Megane Sport 265, and a new version of the arch-rival – the Ford Focus ST – coming soon.
Strycek, however, claims to have achieved the aim with a car that outguns its challengers but costs less – at least that’s what Vauxhall claims, basing its figures on similar spec at which we are told the Astra undercuts the equivalent Renault by more than £2,000, the Scirocco £4,000.
The new Astra’s engine started life in the Insignia large saloon, but was given a bespoke aluminium head, and a new turbocharger with a latest-tech intake system to pump in as much air as possible.
Power goes up to 276bhp – almost 40 more horses over its predecessor and combined with 295lbft of torque. But it’s the range of this torque that makes the big difference, a wide rev band between 2,500 and 4,500rpm, resulting in this VXR being a real ‘puller’ under hard acceleration.
Remarkably, all this comes alongside improved fuel consumption, Vauxhall claiming a 14 per cent gain over the previous car to 34.9mpg combined. Emissions are down too, to 189g/km.
This potency is put through a chassis also significantly uprated over the GTC. The latter’s HiPerStrut system is retained but a mechanical limited slip differential added to the front wheels, aiding traction under cornering.
Springs are stiffened, new dampers added, the FlexRide active damping system supplied as standard (with its Standard, Sport and VXR modes resetting dampers and in the case of VXR throttle response) and new brakes fitted from race supplier Brembo. These cross-drilled, vented units are made from aluminium with a cast-iron rotor, thus cutting both weight and heat build-up.
The standard-fit ESP has three modes too, clearly demonstrating Vauxhall’s belief that the VXR owner might drive their car to work in the week, but will certainly find a track to enjoy its potential on at the weekend. So one has a default ESP mode, ‘competitive’ which raises the level at which it comes to the rescue, and for the serious racers ‘ESP off’, which needs no explanation at all…
The car looks the part too. Unique to it are heavily-sculpted bumpers front and rear, side skirts, a roof spoiler which is there for aerodynamic effectiveness as well as visual effect, and twin exhaust pipes. All this, combined with the 19-inch standard-fit wheels, gives the car seriously aggressive visuals. With the optional 20-inch forged aluminium rims, it looks even better.
And of course there’s been work to the interior. The signature flat-bottom, leather-clad steering wheel is 10mm smaller in diameter compared to its Astra sisters. Naturally the gar-lever is sporty and the pedals alloy-plated. The bespoke, injection-moulded sports seats sit 17mm lower than the GTC’s and dark shades and VXR signwriting abounds.
Yet for a power-packer, it’s still practical. You still get the full rear seats, there’s nothing getting in the way in the boot. This car can still be a family hatch.
Particularly as it will happily make its way slowly through traffic-choked town centres without complaint, the performance powerplant purring unconcernedly, gear changes smooth through the six-speed manual ‘box.
Once the road opens up, however, you will find it difficult not to explore just what this car can do. It accelerates very swiftly indeed, accompanied by a glorious noise, and holds its poise through the twisty bits, the steering inspiring confidence to the degree that one would have to do something really silly to get into trouble.
Compared to some previous VXRs, such prowess and controllability is a bit of a revelation. It especially shows up in the wet, conditions which sadly prevailed for our VXRs on their optional 20-inch wheels at the UK press launch.
Both on the road, and in a rain-soaked sprint competition at the Rockingham race circuit, the VXR simply excelled. Those that got into trouble were simply trying far too hard – this is one fun hot hatch.
At a shade under £27 grand before you start adding the highly desirable options, it’s not that inexpensive a hot hatch. But when you consider what you get for the money, and try it on a track, you could well fall under the VXR’s spell…
Model tested: Vauxhall Astra VXR
On sale: June 2012
Engine: 2.0i 4-cyl 16V turbo petrol
Power (bhp): 276 @ 5,500rpm
Torque (lb/ft): 295 @ 2,500-4,500rpm
0-62mph (sec): 5.9
Top speed (mph): 155 (limited)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 189
Key rivals: Volkswagen Scirocco R, Renault Megane RS
Test date: June 2012
Words by: Andrew Charman