Vauxhall Astra VXR review
by David Finlay (12 June 2012)
The determination among manufacturers to produce the most appealing two-litre super-hot hatch (or coupé equivalent) has become so energetic in the last few years that this may one day be looked on as a golden age by people who like that sort of thing. Vauxhall's latest contribution to the debate is the VXR, whose maximum output from its two-litre turbo petrol engine of 276bhp makes it the most powerful car in its class, if you consider that the 301bhp Ford Focus RS can't be included on account of no longer being in production.
Unlike the last one, which was a hatchback, this VXR is a coupé, based on the GTC, though Vauxhall isn't using the GTC name for it. The old hatch didn't feel as if it had been modified sufficiently to cope with its 237bhp, but this time round the development has been much more serious, as hinted by the significantly revised styling.
Uprated brakes and a proper mechanical limited slip differential, co-developed with Brembo and Drexler respectively, are part of the standard package, and the very effective FlexRide adaptive damping system first used on the Insignia appears here with an extra setting called VXR in addition to the usual standard and Sport.
The GTC's suspension - already quite clever, what with its fancy rear axle and camber change-reducing HiPerStruts at the front - has also, of course, been revised to take into account the extra performance, and the overall effect is really quite something. Despite all the power, and the unrelievedly wet conditions of the media launch event at Rockingham race circuit and on the surrounding road network, the VXR behaved exceptionally well with the barest minimum of fuss.
This, indeed, is possibly the best thing about the car. It remains calm in situations which would have caused its predecessor, and perhaps some rivals, to go mental. It almost never struggles to put its power down, and it will generally go exactly where you point it, all the while riding surprisingly well even on the optional 20" (rather than standard 19") wheels which are so far all that have been made available to UK journalists.
You can, of course, overdo it. There comes a point where, if you boot the throttle on the apex of a tight bend on a wet surface, a certain amount of struggling will take place. The answer is not to do that. I've read in other reports that the VXR can easily become wayward, and I don't think I'd like to sit beside anyone who thinks along those lines. If you drive it like an idiot, the VXR will feel as if an idiot is driving it, just like any other car.
If user-friendly behaviour is the VXR's strongest suit, its weakest is the feel of the major controls. These, in a characteristically Vauxhally way, have a suggestion of marshmallow to them which is perfectly fine in other GTCs, and actually makes the VXR feel very unthreatening when it's being driven gently, but doesn't help when you're on a race circuit. I blame this for an embarrassing missed gear at Rockingham, though I would have to admit, rather grudgingly, that a failure of co-ordination on my part may have been responsible. If you drive like an idiot, etc.
There is only one standard specification for the VXR and with the expection of the 20" wheels it includes everything mentioned so far, plus DAB digital radio, six airbags, a deliberately noisy exhaust, cruise control, air-conditioning and automatic headlights and wipers. That will cost you £26,995, a price which is regarded by some as absurdly high, though in fact it's reasonably competitive when seen alongside some of the opposition.
However, you do have to splash out more if you want a really well-equipped VXR. More supportive and electrically-controlled seats cost a further £495, or £1100 if you want them trimmed in leather. There's an Aero Pack consisting of the 20" wheels plus extended side sills and a twin-plane roof spoiler (of whose usefulness I remain to be convinced, though it does look good) for £995. Adaptive bi-xenon headlights with automatic beam levelling, LED running lights and high-pressure washers can be yours for £790. Upgrading to dual-zone climate control air-conditioning costs £305. £855 buys you a considerably better audio system plus satellite navigation. And so it goes on. If you want to spend over £32,000 on your VXR, you can.
The VXR's most immediate rival is the Megane Renaultsport 265 Cup, a very similar car to the limited-edition 265 Trophy we reviewed last year, with the Volkswagen Scirocco R slightly further away thanks to its substantially higher price. Other challengers, all of them hatchbacks, are the Mazda3 MPS and SEAT León Cupra R, plus - if you want to include four-wheel drive models - the Audi S3 and VW Golf R, both of which, like the Scirocco, cost over £30,000 with no options fitted at all.
The new Ford Focus ST is also a contender to some extent, not least because it's the cheapest of the lot. Then again, it's also less powerful than anything else mentioned in the last paragraph, and I don't quite see it as a direct rival.
Against the others, the VXR may have a power advantage, but this doesn't show up in the standing start acceleration time. Vauxhall quotes 5.9 seconds from 0-60mph, so let's call that 0-62mph in about 6.1. That's about average, though admittedly 0-62 isn't as important a performance figure as people like to think. Combined fuel economy, helped by the car's start/stop system, is 34.9mpg, which is matched by the Scirocco and León and only narrowly missed by the Megane.
The differences in character are more marked. The VXR is fluffier than the Megane, feels more eager than the VWs and is perhaps closest in spirit to the León. Or at least that's my view. Potential customers will pick one over the others according to how it chimes in with their own idea of the way a hot hatch should be.
For me, it's the ease with which the chassis of the Astra VXR deals with the power of its engine that makes this one of the best hot hatches around. And while I don't believe Vauxhall has quite matched its own achievement with the smaller Corsa VXR Nürburgring, it would also be true to say that I don't think anyone else has either.