Scorching hot hatchbacks have become something of a Vauxhall speciality. From the hairy Astra GTE of the eighties, through to today’s wild VXR models, the brand has become a top choice for drivers seeking out hardcore pocket rocket thrills.
As a result, the new Astra VXR has got a lot to live up to. And on paper, the Vauxhall has all the raw ingredients to succeed. For instance, there’s a muscular 276bhp turbocharged engine, specially developed front suspension and steering, bespoke Sachs adaptive dampers, a mechanical limited-slip differential and Brembo brakes. The Vauxhall looks the part, too.
Based on the three-door GTC, the VXR looks more like a rakish coupé than a humble hatchback. However, a deeper front spoiler, turbine inspired 19-inch alloys and large, square-edged twin exhausts leave you in no doubt about the model’s high-performance potential. Yet our test car went one stage further, as it was fitted with the aggressive £995 Aero Pack, which adds 20-inch multi-spoke rims, wider side skirts and a bold double decker rear spoiler.
The Astra is less extreme inside, where the cabin is carried over largely unchanged from the GTC. There’s a pair of heavily bolstered front seats for the driver and passenger, plus a sprinkling of VXR badges, but otherwise you get the same smartly designed and solidly constructed cabin. Standard kit includes air-con, Bluetooth and a DAB radio, but you’ll pay £1,650 extra for leather seat trim, rear parking sensors and dual zone climate control, all of which are standard on the Renault.
What the Vauxhall lacks in kit, it makes up for with practicality. Unlike the Scirocco, the VXR is a full five-seater, with occupants in the back getting decent head and legroom. The Astra also boasts the biggest boot – its 380-litre carrying capacity is a healthy 36 litres up on the Mégane – plus the cabin is littered with useful storage. Yet for hot hatch owners, it’s pace that’s more important than space.
We expected the 276bhp Astra to show its rivals a clean pair of heels in a straight line, but at the track it wasn’t able to capitalise on its power advantage. The 2.0-litre engine suffers from a surprising amount of turbo lag, and the VXR feels a little lethargic below 3,000rpm. It trailed the Scirocco by nearly a second in the 0-60mph sprint, and struggled to match its rivals’ in-gear pace – it needed 4.9 seconds to race from 30-50mph in fourth gear, 1.3 seconds slower than the VW.
On the road, the Vauxhall needs to be worked harder than its rivals, which could go some way to explaining its disappointing 25.1mpg return at the pumps. Still, the Astra benefits from a reasonably precise gearshift, while at high revs the exhaust emits a whoosh that sounds like a low-flying jet aircraft.
Point the VXR down a twisting back road, and you’ll discover a staggering amount of grip in corners. Clever HiPerStrut front suspension, a limited-slip differential and adaptive dampers help the Astra cling on when even the Renault starts to slip. There’s also a choice of three driving settings. In Normal mode, the Vauxhall has a supple ride and light controls, but select Sport or VXR and the suspension gets stiffer, the throttle sharper and more weight is added to the steering.
On anything other than billiard table-smooth surfaces, the VXR setting should be avoided, as the car gets thrown around by even the smallest bumps, while there’s also a surprising amount of wayward torque steer. And while engineers have ditched the standard Astra’s electric power-steering in favour of a traditional hydraulic system, the set-up doesn’t feel as natural as the VW’s or Renault’s.
Ultimately, the Astra isn’t as fun and engaging as its rivals. And despite undercutting both cars here on price, the £26,995 VXR will cost significantly more to run in terms of fuel economy, insurance and servicing.
Chart position: 3
Why? If the Astra VXR goes as well as it looks, then Vauxhall is on to a winner. Muscular turbocharged engine and uprated chassis boost its chances of success.