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Vauxhall Astra VXR

Click to view picture gallery“If you like your hot hatchbacks
 
devastatingly fast and effortlessly
  effective then you
ll want to drive
  the most powerful front-wheel drive
  car currently on the market

  Vauxhall
s new 276bhp Astra VXR
...”

THE MOMENT I KNOW the VXR is a great car comes as the braking markers flash past. I'm approaching the hairpin bend at the end of the straightest section of the oval that forms the Rockingham circuit. And I've been told I can brake as late as 50m before the corner, despite carrying well over 110mph of speed.

I can't believe I can brake that late, so I bottle it and drop the anchors early, but hard. The VXR simply wipes its speed away, and I'm in the embarrassing position of having to speed up again to the corner…

Welcome to the hyper-speed world of the new Astra VXR. Highlighting the brakes as the first element of a test drive is unusual, but in truth they're the best aspect of the car. Volker Strycek, former DTM driver and Nürburgring 24-hour winner and now head of VXR product development, certainly believes this. A joint development between GM and Brembo, and unique to the VXR, the brakes are phenomenal.

“The new VXR is going
to account for a modest
10% of Astra GTC
coupe sales in the UK,
which means
around just 1,200 cars
per year. That’s low
enough to make it pretty
exclusive
...”
The new VXR arrives in a country that is already VXR-mad. At the peak of VXR popularity, UK drivers snapped up two old-shape Astra VXRs to every one grudgingly purchased by the whole of the rest of Europe. The new VXR is going to account for a modest 10% of Astra GTC coupe sales in the UK, which means around just 1,200 cars per year. That's low enough to make it pretty exclusive.

At the VXR's heart is an engine based on the Insignia 2.0-litre four-cylinder block, but with its own aluminium cylinder head and unique turbocharger. The net result is 276bhp; some 39bhp more than the last Astra VXR.

The crucial figure, however, is the torque output: a stonking 295lb ft of torque (25% more than the old VXR) delivered all the way from 2,450rpm to 5,000rpm. Indeed, the turbo is spooling up from as low as 1,400rpm, which gives you a big clue about how this new VXR drives.

If I were to describe it as like a very powerful diesel, I'd be doing it a disservice, perhaps, but it does feel like this, and it does indicate how easily the car pulls in the mid-range. In fourth gear, 1,400rpm equates to 30mph; and you can hoof it at that point and it'll just keep running to well over 100mph without ever going off-boost. That's a huge strength in real-world scenarios, and makes the VXR an utterly effortless and ruthlessly quick cross-country machine.

But it's also the biggest problem I have with the VXR. I want a car with this much power to have a sense of occasion, but while the VXR is extraordinarily rapid, it's lacking in real drama. Where's the thrill of hitting the upper revs?

There's none because, frankly, in terms of speed it's pointless taking the engine over 5,000rpm — its puff drops off notably at that point. And neither does the unaristocratic sound of the engine encourage high-rev runs…

“In fourth gear, 1,400rpm
equates to 30mph;
and you can hoof it at
that point and it’LL just
keep running to well over
100mph without ever
going off-boost.
That’s a huge strength
in real-world scenarios,
and makes the VXR
an utterly effortless,
ruthlessly quick, cross-
country machine
...”
Ah yes, the sound... On one level, the VXR team has done a very good job of making the car sound purposeful. The exhaust — co-developed with Austrian company Remus — has only two silencers rather than the normal three, and it's got a real edge to its sound quality; and the whoosh of induction and whine of the turbo combine to give a jet-turbine sound in the mid-to-high rev-range.

But is it aurally exciting? Not really: it's still very much a four-cylinder in-line in tone, and winding down the windows in a tunnel produced a shrug of the shoulders from me rather than a whoop of delight.

There's an enticing button marked 'VXR' in the dashboard. Hitting this button turns the dials red in anticipation of something exciting happening. And something exciting does happen: the dampers stiffen and throttle response becomes sharper. The ride quality in VXR mode is notably harsher, but it's never crashy in the way that some rivals can be.

In normal mode, the ride is actually very compliant for a hot hatch, yet the performance is hardly affected. On regular roads you may very well choose only to use 'normal' mode, saving VXR setting for the odd track day or balls-out bash over a mountain pass.

Undoubtedly the star-turn of the VXR's chassis is its Drexler mechanical limited-slip diff — a unique fitment in this class of car, and developed from the diff used in the Corsa VXR Nürburgring.

This is unbelievably effective at reining in the might of those 276 horses coursing through the front wheels. This is instantly evident from the fact that, with the steering wheel straight-ahead, torque steer is very evident; the wheel fidgets, eager to dart one way then the other. However, as soon as you apply any sort of steering lock, virtually all trace of torque steer simply vanishes.

And it gets better — you can feel it working on the turn-in and you can almost hoof it as much as you like and it'll grip through bends. Even on a circuit, mashing the throttle hard out of a sharp corner, the stability control system has no need to intervene because the limited-slip diff is already dealing with it.

“One of the most
confidence-inspiring
hot hatches of all
to drive fast
...”
It's a real trump card for the VXR, and helps to make it one of the most confidence-inspiring hot hatches of all to drive fast.

Across twisty roads, the combination of effortless, torque-steer-free cornering and massive midrange grunt endows the VXR with a sublimely easy, unbelievably fast pace. Very few cars — front-drive, rear-drive or all-wheel-drive — could keep pace with a well-driven Astra VXR… and it's so easy to drive fast.

So the handling is sensational. But I can't help feeling that something is lacking. Where is the 'edginess'; that nervous energy that's bursting from the Ford Focus RS? In being so ruthlessly effective, perhaps the chassis has lost a little — and here's that phrase again — sense of occasion.

I don't think I'm nit-picking here. If you like your hot hatchbacks sizzling and chomping at the bit, the VXR is probably not the car for you. If you like them effortlessly effective and devastatingly fast, it most definitely is. — Chris Rees

Vauxhall Astra VXR | £26,995
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-60mph: 5.9 seconds | Overall MPG: 34.9mpg
Power: 276bhp | Torque: 295lb ft | CO2 189g/km