Say hello to the new Vauxhall Astra VXR, the most powerful and fastest accelerating car in its class. Can it handle the extra power better than its predecessor or will it spin it all away in a cloud of tyre smoke?
The headline figures are 0-60mph in 5.9 seconds and a top speed of 155mph. The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, a revised version of the Insignia unit, produces 276bhp. Vauxhall say it has been tuned for torque rather than outright power and the results are 299lb/ft between 2,450rpm and 5,000rpm.
Same Badge, Different Approach
The last Vauxhall Astra VXR was a bit of a rough diamond. It looked good and it was certainly quick in a straight line but the standard chassis barely coped with 240bhp being channeled through the front wheels.
So what hope is there for this new Astra VXR when it has 15% more power and 25% more torque? Fortunately Vauxhall have taken the job more seriously this time and treated the Astra to a proper mechanical overhaul to contain the forces within.
For a start there is a new Drexler limited-slip differential, similar to the one used to great success on the Corsa Nurburgring. Next we have Vauxhall’s HiPer Strut system that aims to reduce torque steer, in a similar way to Ford’s RevoKnuckle and Renault’s PerfoHub technologies.
Brembo have been called in to provide the new stoppers, ZF Sachs have supplied the dampers, and there is a new exhaust system that’s been carefully designed to reduce back pressure as well as emit an improved sound.
What About The Competition?
It’s interesting to hear Vauxhall claim that the VXR’s competitors are the Scirocco R and Megane 265. There’s no mention of the Focus ST or Golf GTI but if there were that could lead to awkward price comparisons. At £26,995 the VXR is £5k more than the new ST, £1,300 more than the GTI and almost £1,000 more than the Megane. It is, however, over £3k cheaper than the Scirocco and the VXR is the only one to come with an LSD as standard.
While the Astra might be handicapped slightly by its asking price it does have the most power and significantly more torque. It is the most powerful 2.0-litre turbocharged hot hatch on sale and has the highest torque/litre of its rivals. It also boasts a decent specification that makes up for the extra outlay, including DAB radio, cruise control with speed limiter, 19-inch wheels, a set of great sports seats, LED tail lights, automatic lights and wipers, hill start assist and an electronic handbrake (shame they couldn’t have swapped it for a proper handbrake).
Scan the myriad of buttons on the dashboard and you’ll spot one that looks very out of place. Yes, there’s an ‘Eco’ button and that means the VXR comes with Stop/Start technology. Don’t worry, it won’t interfere with your fun and it’s disabled when you press the VXR button.
There are a number of options available, the first of which is paint colour. The VXR is available in four shades – Carbon Black, Power Red, Summit White and the popular Arden Blue metallic.
The seats can be upgraded to include electric adjustment for the side-bolsters and lumbar support, and full leather can be specified too. There’s also an upgrade for the headlights that adds bi-xenon bulbs with adaptive forward lighting.
Probably the most important option to consider is the Aero Pack. This adds the lighter 20-inch forged alloy wheels seen on all the press cars, a bi-plane rear spoiler that genuinely adds downforce and a set of beefier side skirts. At £995 it isn’t cheap and yet Vauxhall were expecting 85% of customers to choose it – that rate has actually been over 98% so far!
On The Road
The VXR is a delight to tootle about in, just like the GTC on which it is based, with light controls that make for easy progress in traffic. The cabin is comfortable and nicely trimmed but doesn’t scream ‘sporty model’. It’s very dark in there with a black roof matching the black seats and carpets, while the black dash features dark grey surrounds on the centre panel. Mind you, it does mean the groovy red backlighting on the dials stand in VXR mode.
The steering is setup to be very quick with good weighting. The wheel is actually smaller than in a standard GTC (shrunk by 10mm diameter) and feels great to hold thanks to nicely padded leather. It’s not as talkative as, say, a Megane 265 but you get enough a sense of the front wheels approaching the limits of their grip.
Stamp on the throttle and there’s a little bit of a lull before … bloody hell, this thing’s quick! What it lacks in low-end response the VXR more than makes up for in mid-range shove. It runs out of steam a bit at the top end but between 2,500 and 5,000rpm it builds speed at an astonishing rate.
Accompanying the mid-range thrust is an intriguing series of noises overlaying the growly exhaust note. As the turbo gets into full boost there’s a sound of rushing air, a bit like someone’s just opened the rear hatch. Shortly after that comes a whistling sound, reminiscent of an old fashioned kettle coming onto the boil. It’s a strange mixture of sounds and is certainly unique but it masks the exhaust note too much and I’m still undecided whether I like it or not. From the outside things are better and the VXR sounds great as it flies by on full throttle.
The weight of the VXR came as a surprise, tipping the scales at 1,475kg, despite some significant weight savings. The 20-inch forged alloy wheels and Brembo brakes save 7kg at each end of the front axle and the supportive and comfortable sports seats (developed in-house by Vauxhall) are said to be lighter than those used by rivals.
The power of the engine masks the weight but the Astra VXR can’t completely hide its bulk in the corners. It doesn’t have the nimble responses of some of its lighter rivals but what it does have is great composure. It takes a lot to knock the VXR off-line and there is so much grip that you can turn in at some incredible speeds and it will happily stick to the road.
Then there’s the differential. Get back on the throttle early in a corner and you’ll find the nose is pulled in tighter, allowing you to slingshot out of the corner with even more speed. On uneven and loose surfaces you can feel some tugging on the wheel as the diff tries to shuffle power between the front wheels. It’s a reminder that the VXR’s front wheels are having to work very hard but you quickly learn to hold onto the wheel just a bit tighter when giving it some beans.
Vauxhall’s FlexiRide system is fitted as standard to the VXR and comes with three different settings. ‘Normal’ provides the most cushioning and is good for all but the worst surfaces. Considering the elastic bands stretched around the 20-inch wheels of my test car the VXR rides very well and did a great job of masking the thumps and bumps from some of Northamptonshire’s back roads.
Switch to ‘Sport’ mode and the chassis tightens up and you can feel the difference straight away. The VXR corners flatter than before but the payoff is more jiggling, making this mode most suitable to those rare stretches of smooth tarmac.
In ‘VXR’ mode the Astra goes into maximum attack. The dials glow red, the chassis turns to stone and the throttle is suddenly much more manic. Now there’s hardly any movement in the chassis even when you really throw it into a corner and the VXR leaps forward at the slightest prod of the throttle. VXR mode is best suited to track use where the rock-hard ride doesn’t matter, but it quickly becomes tiresome on normal roads.
The Brembo braking system uses cross-drilled and ventilated 355 x 32mm discs that are gripped by four-piston calipers and harder compound brake pads. They’re certainly effective out on the road and coped admirable considering the abuse they received on the Rockingham circuit.
I have a couple of grumbles about the VXR. For a start visibility isn’t great, a problem inherited from the GTC, with very little to see out of the back windows and big A-pillars causing some issues in corners and at junctions. The turning circle isn’t great either so the VXR can be awkward to park in tight spots. Personally I’d recommend the optional rear parking sensors.
The centre console is a bit cluttered with lots of buttons but that’s common to all Astras. Erm … that’s about it really.
With an engine offering 277bhp you can’t expect the Astra VXR to be the new favourite of environmental campaigners but it is noticeably more efficient than it used to be. Fuel consumption is rated at 34.9mpg, a reduction of 14%, while CO2 emissions have dropped by 12% to 189g/km. On our 100 mile test route the economy came out at 29mpg, but we weren’t driving for economy.
The Astra VXR now sits in Band J and will cost £460 to tax in year one, and £250 after that.
Insurance? It’s unlikely that new drivers will be getting behind the wheel of an Astra VXR unless they’ve got very, very deep pockets or very generous parents. The VXR is expected to fall into group 35 so expect premiums to be high unless you’ve got a good insurance history.
The Final Reckoning
Just like the previous Astra VXR, the new model looks good and goes extremely quickly (now even more quickly) in a straight line. Unlike the previous Astra VXR this one can then tackle a series of bends without losing its composure.
A Megane 265 can still teach the Astra a thing or two about steering and chassis response but the gap is smaller than it used to be. The asking price may be high but look more closely at the specifications of the Astra’s rivals and you’ll see that it represents better value than first impressions might suggest.
The unruly nature of the old VXR is gone, refinement is up and equipment levels improved. The Astra VXR is now much more grown up and is all the better for it. If you prefer your hot hatches to be raw and unconstrained you may not appreciate this but for an everyday hot hatch that can also thrill on track, the new Vauxhall Astra VXR is a winner.
Vauxhall Astra VXR Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Keep it in the mid-range and you’ll be flying||9|
|HANDLING||Huge grip and traction, corners flat and fast||8|
|AFFORDABILITY||Expensive compared to rivals but much quicker||7|
|DESIRABILITY||VXR brand has loyal following, a big seller for Vauxhall||7|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||A great road car but needs a track to make the most of its abilities||9|
Vauxhall Astra VXR Statistics
|Engine:||1,998cc 4-cyl Turbo|
|Kerb Weight:||1,475 kg|
|Top Speed:||155 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||189 g/km (Band J)|
|Official Economy:||34.9 mpg|
*Prices taken from Vauxhall website, June 2012
All photographs © Chris Auty 2012