They're on the right track
Posted on: 5th Sep 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
Market and Model
You'll need to be fairly committed to the pastime of duffing up Porsche sports cars 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.