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Vauxhall Astra VXR review (2012 onwards)
What - Vauxhall Astra VXR
Where - Rockingham, Northamptonshire Date - June 2012
Price - £26,995
Available - July 2012
Key rivals -Renault Megane Renaultsport 265, Volkswagen Scirocco R, Mazda3 MPS, Ford Focus ST.
Summary - Vauxhall revisits its VXR formula of big power and lairy looks with the latest hot Astra, but this one's got real depth of talent too.
Read Vauxhall car reviews
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We like - engine pace and flexibility, striking looks, well-judged chassis set-up
We don't like - It isn't cheap, patchy interior quality, rear legroom
Progress is a wonderful thing. It isn't so long ago that the idea of channelling 280 horsepower through the front wheels of a family hatchback would have qualified the car company executive who thought of it for indefinite gardening leave and a course of strong sedatives. Today we learn that Vauxhall's latest Astra VXR does exactly that and it's us who need a long lie down, to quell the excitement.
Vauxhall's VXR performance sub-brand has a long and proud history of giving small cars big power. The original Astra VXR had a ground-breaking 240hp when it launched in 2005 - although the consensus since has been that the men in white coats with the chloroform should have stepped in before that one got off the ground.
The old VXR Astra hot hatch didn't handle its power very well
The old VXR Astra hot hatch didn't handle its power very well. Treating the throttle as though there was anything other than a nest of baby birds under it provoked a frenzy of crazed tyre scrabbling and steering wheel jolting as the front wheels tried, and failed, to gain purchase.
Today's new Astra VXR does have a sobering 276hp in its locker but even before driving it, we could reasonably expect this hot Astra to have a better stab at utilising all its shove. The reasons for this, in no particular order, are the mechanical limited slip differential, Vauxhall's clever HiPerStrut front suspension system and a clued-up development team headed by ex-DTM racer Volker Strycek.
The last Ford Focus RS managed to operate admirably with up to an amazing 345hp coursing through its front tyres so Vauxhall hasn't plonked this Astra VXR into completely uncharted territory. What it has done is provide the car with more muscle than any new front-wheel-drive hot hatch available at the time of its launch.
Rivals like Volkswagen's Scirocco R, SEAT's Leon Cupra R and Renault's Megane Renaultsport 265 are outclassed not only by the 276hp power output but by the VXR's thumping 295lb ft torque, which is produced from 2,500rpm right through to 4,500rpm. The 0-62mph sprint takes 5.9s and the top speed is 155mph.
it really flies and there's massive flexibility to hurl you out of corners
The car feels as quick as that sounds. The initial step off the line probably isn't as ferocious as you're expecting but that adds to everyday usability of the car and gives the tyres a chance to get up and rolling before all hell breaks loose. From that point it really flies and there's massive flexibility to hurl you out of corners or pile on overtaking speed, seemingly regardless of what the rev-counter is reading.
On the power, the VXR's unique exhaust system provides a loud, angry, rather unappetising accompaniment through to around 4,500rpm. Then the noise takes on a sweeter whistling tone as it lunges towards peak power at 5,500rpm. Feather the throttle, though and it's possible to cruise quietly without the domineering blare that has owners of other highly strung hot hatches reaching for the ear defenders.
Ride and handling
The stylish Astra GTC provides the three-door basis for the VXR model but Vauxhall hasn't been shy about making modifications. Compared to the sportiest GTC, the VXR is 10mm lower and rides on springs that are 30% stiffer.
It has a chunkier anti-roll bar, a specially tuned version of the HiPerStrut suspension system and a mechanical limited-slip differential from the motorsport experts at Drexler. Topping it all off is a special version of Vauxhall FlexRide adaptive damper system through which normal, Sport and VXR modes can be selected.
there are only the merest tugs on the wheel as you feed the power on
The main aims of the VXR's differential and HiPerStrut suspension are to improve traction and to isolate the steering from the inevitable battle for grip at the front wheels. We tested the VXR in the British summertime and the way it performed on the cold, rain-sodden, puddle strewn tarmac would be a revelation to anyone who's ever wrestled with the old Astra VXR.
It's not perfect but the car turns in sweetly and there are only the merest tugs on the wheel as you feed the power on to remind you of the physics involved. The VXR mode adds steering weight, quickens the throttle's reactions and firms up the ride to the point where the car feels super-stiff but still avoids incessant jiggling.
Opt for the tamer Sport or 'normal' settings and comfort levels on good surfaces get incrementally higher to the point where the Astra VXR becomes an attractive prospect as an everyday drive. The Sport suspension is probably the best compromise but the steering feels more accurate in VXR mode.
The hottest Astra looks the part from the outside where the long, curving lines of the standard GTC have been given an overdose of steroids. Vauxhall says that all bar 3% of the buyers who pre-ordered the car opted for the £1,000 aero pack that tacks 20-inch wheels, the bi-plane roof spoiler and side sill extensions onto the basic car. It adds even more aggression to the looks, a bit like putting a Viking helmet on Rambo.
The inside isn't quite as hot. You do feel that a bit more could have been done to make the VXR feel special. It's the pleasantly beefy steering wheel and optional (another £1,000) leather seats that did most to create a quality performance hatch ambience in our test car but elsewhere the chaotic cluster of buttons on the dash and the hard minor trim materials are as unimpressive here as they are in lesser Astras. Maybe more work could have been done on the VXR logoed instruments that illuminate red in VXR mode.
The seats are the highlight with loads of adjustment and handsome looks. Electric side bolsters come as part of the aforementioned leather seat pack and as they inflate to give extra support they make the kind of noise you'd usually blame on the dog. Another downside of these high-tech chairs is that they further impinge on the already limited rear legroom in the three-door Astra. With a six-foot driver sitting comfortably there's very little space behind.
Economy and safety
Official combined economy of 34.9mpg is superb for a 280hp hyper hatch but you'll never see anything close if you drive in the manner Volker Strycek and his team intended. For what it's worth, we were getting around 26mpg on our test route helped by the stop/start system cutting the engine in traffic. At least 189g/km emissions will help the tax bill.
All Astra VXR models get an ESP stability control system with three modes, normal Competitive and the even more competitive 'off'. There's also a clever ramp-control mode engaged by the VXR FlexRide setting that gets the wheels back in contact with the road quicker after you go over a crest. Hugely confidence-inspiring braking performance is delivered by a lightweight four-piston Brembo system that worked a treat on our wet test route.
Vauxhall has been churning out VXR models with big power for a while with mixed results but this Astra VXR could well be the first true thoroughbred to come out of the stable. Behind its headline-grabbing power output is a depth of talent that will really put the wind up the competition.
It's a hot hatch with bags of presence on the road, that goes like stink and handles with keenness and security. On the downside, interior quality could be better at this £27,000 price point, rear legroom is pinched and ultimately it isn't the most scalpel-sharp driving tool in this sector.
The VXR's core strength is the finesse that makes it as attractive as an everyday ownership proposition as it is for a few hours of track day blasting. In that respect, it's a far, far cry from the hooligan tendencies of the old Astra VXR but that's progress for you.
|Need to know||Vauxhall Astra VXR|
|Engines, petrol||2.0i 16v turbo|
|Torque, lb ft||295|
|Top speed, mph||155|
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