Vauxhall Meriva VXR

Who said that family cars can't be fast? Not Vauxhall, that's for sure. The Luton firm has added a 178bhp turbocharged engine and a VXR badge to its facelifted Meriva and created a supermini-MPV that's one of the most unlikely hot hatches of the year.

You can't argue with how quick the Meriva is. For such a practical car, the 178bhp comes as a pleasant surprise, but it doesn't feel too manic, unlike the Astra VXR. However, we do have some misgivings, chief of which is the price - it's simply too expensive. We've no doubt Vauxhall will sell enough to justify building it, but lower-spec Merivas are a better option.

Who said that family cars can't be fast? Not Vauxhall, that's for sure. The Luton firm has added a 178bhp turbocharged engine and a VXR badge to its facelifted Meriva and created a supermini-MPV that's one of the most unlikely hot hatches of the year.

Coming hot on the heels of VXR versions of the Monaro, Astra, Vectra and Zafira, the British firm is convinced there is a niche for a high-performance Meriva, and it hasn't gone about the conversion half-heartedly.

As a result, the Meriva VXR gets a deeper front spoiler and body-coloured V-shaped grille, along with bigger 17-inch alloy wheels. The rear has also received some treatment, including a new spoiler and sporty exhaust, both of which are VXR trademarks. Inside, racy touches include a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearlever, part-leather Recaro seats and blue-lit dials.

There have been minor trim modifications elsewhere as part of the facelift, but you will struggle to spot them. As such, it's still a neat, well designed cabin with logically placed switches, although it could do with more storage space up front.

The clever rear seats remain unaltered, which can only be a good thing. Dubbed FlexSpace, the folding mechanism is good, but lacks the simplicity of the Honda Jazz's system. You have to lower the middle rear chair first, before working two levers to get the outer seats to fold flat. You can also slide them backwards to provide more legroom. The engine is all-new, though. The turbocharged unit is based on the 1.6-litre Twinport motor that debuts in the standard Meriva, but here it produces 178bhp and 230Nm of torque, which can be increased for short periods to 266Nm thanks to an overboost facility.

This provides enough in-gear acceleration to ensure that overtaking is very easy. The motor is punchy and responsive at speed, but the revs need to be kept above 2,500rpm to get the turbo working properly.

Fortunately, the boost comes in much more gradually than in other VXR models, so the Meriva doesn't suffer from as much torque steer as the Astra version, for example. This makes driving quickly easier, although not as much fun as its more powerful siblings.

Unfortunately, the car we tried was fitted with winter tyres, so we'll have to reserve our final judgement on the handling for a later date. But our initial impressions are that the steering could do with more precision when turning in, and that it's lacking in feel.

Body roll has been well contained though, and the ride seems reasonable, despite the fact the suspension has been lowered by 10mm at the front and 15mm at the rear. The springs have also been stiffened, while the VXR gets bigger ventilated brakes. These feel pretty good, but again the tyres skew a definitive judgement.

The Vauxhall comes loaded with the usual standard equipment you would expect from a flagship model. Air-conditioning, ESP and a CD player are all included - but at a cost. The £16,495 asking price is a lot to pay for a small car. The Meriva VXR is certainly a niche product, but whether customers will be tempted to part with that sort of cash remains to be seen.

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