How can a car manufacturer keep fickle customers loyal to their brand and win over potential new buyers at the same time? It’s a difficult one, to say the least, and is probably the Holy Grail of marketing departments. Handing out free cars would be one way, although perhaps not the most profitable. How about letting potential punters loose on a race track in a selection of fast cars and then treating them to a slap-up meal afterwards? Could that be one way of inspiring warm, fuzzy feelings and possibly loosening their purse strings?
That’s the setup for Vauxhall’s range of VXR Power Events. Essentially they’re a range of cheap track days that allow owners to take to the circuit in their own VXR models or give newcomers a taste of the VXR range. There’s even advanced tuition available in a race-prepped Corsa VXR with a professional driver for those who want to improve their skills.
Without a VXR to my name I wasn’t able to attend the owner’s events so I opted for the Track Experience. Vauxhall have been running these events for a number of years now and I’ve been on a few, starting off at the brilliant Donington Park and then attending a couple at Rockingham.
The setup is straightforward – various models from the VXR range line up in the pit lane at designated stops. You jump in the first available car of your choice where you’ll find a professional driver in the passenger seat, ready to keep a watchful eye on you and to offer advice. You then head out for three laps to destroy some tyre rubber, then return to the pits and grab the next available car of your choice. As the annoying meerkats would say – simples!
This year the only track on offer was Rockingham and the session was cut down to just an hour but at a cost of only £35 it seemed like a good reason to get my wallet out. It’s not every day that happens!
Upon arrival we were greeted by glorious sunshine, a great big marquee in which coffee and snacks were being served, and a very colourful lineup of the current VXR range. It’s easy to forget the breadth of Vauxhall’s performance range, one that starts off with the baby Corsa and reaches the dizzy heights of the mad-but-practical V8 Maloo pickup. Sadly the VXR8 and Maloo were only on display but that still left the Corsa, Corsa Nurburgring, new Astra and Insignia to play with on Rockingham’s International circuit.
Corsa VXR versus Corsa Nurburgring
Ever since I reviewed the Corsa VXR Nurburgring I’ve been wanting to drive it back-to-back with a normal Corsa VXR, just to see if the ‘Burg’s modifications really are worth the extra cash. Now was my chance.
After hopping from the ‘Burg straight into a vanilla Corsa VXR there’s no question about it – the Corsa ‘Burg is much, much better on track. The straight line performance is largely the same but with only 13bhp extra there was never going to be a massive difference
It’s in the corners that you realise just how different the two cars are. The Brembo setup on the ‘Burg is much stronger than the standard VXR so you can brake later. Steering response is that bit sharper and more controlled, the nose tucking into line earlier and with more determination, and it feels more stable through the corner.
It’s when you start to accelerate away from the apex that the ‘Burgs true abilities shine. The Drexxler limited slip differential allows you to get on the throttle earlier and apply more of it, making the most of the 1.6 turbo’s power. There’s no messy wheelspin or torque steer, just grip and plenty of acceleration.
Try the same trick in the standard Corsa and the tyres squirm, the nose washes wide and the ESP steps in to give you an electronic slap, frustrating and slowing you down. Yes, you could switch off the ESP but you would still have to be very careful with that throttle.
I knew the Corsa Nurburgring was better but not by this margin. Vauxhall really have done a superb job with the Nurburgring edition.
Return To The Astra VXR
It was only a few weeks ago I was given the chance to drive the Astra VXR at its launch at Rockingham. This time I didn’t have the pressure of a clock and onboard cameras recording every missed apex and so, despite the presence of a professional driver as a chaperone, I was able to enjoy myself more.
Out on the track the Astra was every bit as quick as I remembered. With more laps available than last time I was able to settle down and make more of the Astra’s huge reserves of grip and power and wow, it is properly quick. With such a huge chunk of torque to play with the Astra rockets out of corners and devours the straights but it has much more up its sleeve than that.
Once it’s settled into a bend the Astra will doggedly stick to its line. At one point I was the third car in a convoy of hard driven Astras and it was fascinating to watch the Astra’s movements as we swept around the long left hander on the infield. There’s a bit of body roll as the Astra tips into the bend but then the rear settles with a hint of lean and that’s it – it sits there, rock solid, all the way round. No twitching, no fuss.
If the unerring stability isn’t enough to boost your confidence, the limited slip differential works just as well in the Astra as it does in the Corsa. No messy battling with the steering wheel, just traction, power and speed. It turns the Astra into a devastatingly effective track tool where it displays none of the twitchiness that was evident on some the badly patchworked road surfaces on the launch route.
Don’t Forget The Insignia VXR
You couldn’t mistake the Insignia for a small car. With a kerb weight of 1,810kg it is a big, heavy beast and that’s a lot of metal to throw around a race track. Fortunately the turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 is more than up to the task of hauling the Insignia’s bulk around, thanks to 321bhp and 321lb.ft.
There’s also four-wheel drive to ensure that the power isn’t converted into tyre smoke and in a straight line the Insignia is wonderful. The sports exhaust gives the V6 a clear voice, with a purposeful burble down the pit lane transforming into an addictive howl on the track.
With a 0-60mph time of 5.5 seconds the Insignia is the on-paper favourite but from behind the wheel it was difficult to ignore the extra weight. You have to brake much earlier to get the speed down and there’s not a lot of feel from the brake pedal. There may even have been a touch of brake fade towards the end of my three laps.
You don’t throw the Insignia into a corner like you would the Corsa or Astra but it is still surprisingly nimble. Despite the bulk you can turn in and then make the most of the ample grip and exceptional stability. Don’t get on the power too early or you’ll find the nose heading for the grass, just wait until you’re nearly out of the corner then nail the throttle. The four-wheel drive hooks up and sorts out the rest.
They Think It’s All Over … It Is Now
It’s amazing how quickly an hour can pass when you’re having fun. It seems like only ten minutes have passed when my passenger tells me it’s time to head back into the pits for the last time. Mind you, by this point the track needed some attention. Several battered cones littered the exits of corners and the track surface looked like the aftermath of a Formula 1 race, with chunks of worn Bridgestones scattered everywhere.
Having built up quite an appetite I was more than ready for some grub and Vauxhall’s catering was top notch – a delicious barbecue with plenty of choice, big portions and pudding too. Yum!
A quick look around the VXRs in the car park and then it was time to head home. Car of the day? For me it’s a tie between the Corsa Nurburgring and the Astra VXR. I really enjoyed the lighter Corsa’s quicker reflexes but then the Astra has incredible grip and pace. It’s a tough choice but one I don’t really have to make – sadly I can’t afford to buy either of them, but that doesn’t mean that Vauxhall’s mission has failed. I drove away from Rockingham with even greater respect for their range and with a desire to swap my sluggish diesel Focus for something a bit hotter. Who knows, maybe even something with a VXR badge.
One last request – next year Vauxhall, please go back to Donington Park. I’d really love to try the Astra through the Craner Curves!