The Vauxhall VXR8 is an unsophisticated sledgehammer that is engaging, entertaining and very different from the German super-coupés that it rivals
What is it?
Vauxhall’s Oz-born super-saloon, the VXR8. This 425bhp brute is being reintroduced to UK showrooms after an eighteen-month absence, and suddenly has it all to prove. Not just because this latest version of the rebadged ‘HSV’ Holden is billed as the fastest and most focussed VXR8 yet, but because it’s now got a proper price tag to match.
When this magazine road-tested Vauxhall’s first officially imported Holden back in 2004, the 5.7-litre 329bhp Monaro, it cost a seriously tempting £28,600. At the time it delivered two additional cylinders, and had fifty horsepower more, than pretty much any other performance car for the money.
When the Monaro’s UK successor, the original 411bhp VXR8 saloon, came to the UK in 2007, Vauxhall’s price had gone up to a more considerable £35,105. The car still seemed compelling value.
But today, when a British pound buys you about 40 per cent less in Australian dollars than you got at the end of 2008, Vauxhall is asking fully £49,500 for the new range-topping, 425bhp VXR8 GTS. Which, we need hardly point out, looks dangerously close to what Mercedes charges for a 451bhp C63 AMG, let alone what BMW asks for its ever-popular M3.
This plucky Aussie import, it would seem, has had the rug pulled out from under its feet by the plunging value of the pound. Still, Vauxhall isn’t about to let it go down without a fight.
What’s it like?
This new VXR8 is based on Holden Special Vehicles’ ES GTS Commodore; the outgoing one, which you’ll still be able to buy in updated form for £45,000, was the more lowly ‘HSV’ Clubsport R8 in Vauxhall garb.
So this time around, in return for your fifty large, Luton will supply you with a VXR8 with full leather upholstery, a proper ‘HSV’ interior, bigger brakes (at 365mm up front, the biggest discs ever fitted to a production Vauxhall), a mechanical limited slip diff, a more focussed chassis featuring active magnetic ride control dampers and launch control. Our test car also came with a six-speed automatic gearbox, pushing its price beyond the £50k barrier.
With that tauter chassis, the new VXR8 GTS is certainly a more focussed, controlled car to drive quickly. The dampers continually adjust very effectively to rein in body movement, although they don’t dial it out completely. And they have two switchable control settings: ‘performance’ and ‘track’.
Even in the former of the two settings, there’s much less pitch and roll in the VXR8 GTS, when you really begin to deploy that considerable power on a cross-country road, than you would have found in the old model. Better grip, traction and steering precision too. In circumstances where the old car would have been a willing if slightly ragged entertainer, the new one’s got poise and purchase to spare, as well as power. And ‘track’ mode adds even greater damper control, bringing the car’s reserves almost up to BMW M5 level; but it also causes the VXR8 to crash a little through sharper-edged dips.
That 6.2-litre V8 is at once smooth and vocal. It’s got every bit as much aural interest-value as an AMG or M-Division lump, even though, measured by the high standards set by the very latest European performance engines, it lacks both a wicked-strength, force-fed mid-range and a banshee-like top-end.
The best news, however, is that the VXR8’s benign and wonderfully entertaining dynamic character is still here to be enjoyed – even in GTS form. The VXR8’s relatively long-travel suspension combines with its neutral chassis balance and well-weighted steering and allows you to take liberties with this car that you’d rarely contemplate in other cars of the size. In both automatic and manual forms the VXR8 is instantly throttle-steerable in 2nd and 3rd gear bends, and seldom fails to serve up wonderful driver engagement, as well as added speed and composure, from apex to apex.
By comparison to other fast rear-drivers, the VXR8 remains an armchair of a sports saloon: it’s comfortable and flattering, and yet game and responsive at the same time.
Should I buy one?
As fast, poised and entertaining as the new VXR8 GTS is, here we come back to the same stumbling block that we started on. Much as you love the way it drives, this is never a £50,000 car. It’s good: a more purposeful driver’s car, sure, as well as a slightly more expensive-feeling way to travel. And it’s as hilarious as ever on a quiet hairpin bend.
But it’s not significantly better than the £35k VXR8 of four years ago. And it’s not quite fast enough, special enough or sufficiently well-appointed to tempt people away from the German performance options.
You suspect Vauxhall knows that much, which is why Luton’s expecting to sell just twenty-five new VXR8s every year, exclusively to dyed-in-the-wool Holden enthusiasts. Thanks to the dollar-pound exchange rate, a car that was once a sensationally good buy in the UK has become a bit-part player.
With the financial climate being as it is, however, we should celebrate the fact that Vauxhall is offering the VXR8 at all; that a handful of people every year will get to take delivery of a car with such a uniquely engaging character. Pricey it may be, but this is still a fantastic and fast alternative.
Vauxhall VXR8 GTS auto
Price: £51,200; Top speed: 155mph; 0-62mph: 4.9sec; Economy: 20.6mpg; Co2: 324g/km; Kerbweight: 1831kg; Engine type, cc: V8, 6162cc, normally aspirated, petrol; Installation: Front, longitudinal, rear-wheel drivel; Power: 425bhp at 6000rpm; Torque: 406lb ft at 4600rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd automatic