27 September 2004

The new Vauxhall Astra VXR will become Britain’s fastest-ever hot hatch when it goes on sale next June. It is expected to cost under £20,000. Powered by a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine pumping out 240bhp, the hottest-ever Astra will beat its hot-hatch opposition with a 155mph top speed: the sort of figure usually associated with high-performance saloons from BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar.

The current crop of hot hatches, such as the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA, Renault Mégane Renaultsport 225 and Honda Civic Type-R have top speeds below 147mph, and even a high-output saloon like the Subaru Impreza WRX could only record 141mph in an Autocar road test. VW’s scorching new Golf GTi claims a 145mph top speed.

The VXR will be previewed at the Paris Motor Show this week as the Opel Astra High Performance Concept – as seen in these photographs – and will be revealed at the same time as the other Astra three-door models. The production VXR will follow the aggressive look of the concept car, but differ in some essential details.

‘This is the first of the volume VXR models and we really want to get this car right,’ said a Vauxhall spokesperson. ‘We’re pushing to get every detail just as we want.’

In the concept, the swooping three-door Astra’s coupé-like profile has been beefed-up with 19in wheels, a purposeful bodykit with new front and rear bumpers, wheelarch extensions, sill mouldings and a new body-coloured grille. Unusually-shaped trapezoidal exhausts complete the package.

However, Vauxhall’s version will differ from the concept. Most obvious will be a vee-shaped grille in either body-colour or black, but the VXR will also have more aggressive bumpers, tipped to be even more sculpted with wider air inlets and outlets. Vauxhall is even looking at bigger and re-shaped exhausts for the production version.

The concept’s wheels won’t make production, either. Instead, a five-spoke design like that on the new Vectra CDTi twin-turbo diesel concept is expected to feature.

Technical details for the engine and chassis are closer to sign-off. The turbocharged powerplant is related to the VXR220 unit with its ‘hybrid’ turbo, incorporating a profiled turbine to provide even boost at low and high engine speeds. Peak power is 240bhp with maximum torque of 221lb ft. The power delivery is said to be quite peaky, with the engine delivering a rush of boost as the engine revs rise.

Acceleration to 60mph from rest is officially rated at ‘sub-7.0sec’, but the target is said to be closer to 6.1sec – which would match the class-leading Alfa 147 GTA’s and Renault Mégane 225’s, while easily beating the Honda Civic Type-R’s and Mini Cooper S Works’.

Fundamental to the Astra VXR’s success will be its ability to put down its 240bhp effectively – a major challenge for the front-wheel-drive chassis and the strut front/torsion beam rear suspension. But the VXR won’t be equipped with a limited-slip differential – as used on the Ford Focus RS – because Vauxhall believes the technology is too unruly for the road.

Instead it will rely on sticky 235/35 rubber allied to a stiffer chassis with computer-controlled variable-rate dampers and electronic traction and stability control systems.Lowered by 15mm, the chassis is being tuned by Lotus, whose engineers are pounding around the Nürburgring circuit in Germany in a VXR disguised as a five-door Astra.

Much of Lotus’s skill will come in re-programming the IDS-Plus variable damping system and its Sport setting, operated via a dashboard-mounted switch. The Sport button selects new suspension settings that improve roll control, increase steering and throttle response and ease the stability control programme to allow more tyre slip for sportier dynamics.

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