8

Can the hottest Astra thrill in the right ways, or is it too unruly - and have other hot hatchbacks got the edge in terms of handling and sheer driving enjoyment?

The car you see here, the Vauxhall GTC VXR, is fairly typical fare for the unusual VXR performance sub-brand. It is identifiable not by its common theme of focused, high-revving pace, startlingly sharp handling or race-derived engineering nous.

It is rather more straightforward: if you can stick a Vauxhall badge on it, and it’s a little bit bonkers, it could just make the grade.

On paper it is sufficiently pokey to qualify as a true VXR

Outwardly, it looks wild. It also seems like quite good value for money. And on paper it is sufficiently pokey to qualify as a true VXR, because it makes 276bhp. And if you think that’s quite a lot to be pushing through its front wheels, you wouldn’t be alone, which is why the VXR has a mechanical specification to back up the power and not inconsiderable 295lb ft of torque. Still, it sounds, to us, quite raucous.

The truth is that fast Vauxhalls in general, and fast Astras in particular, have always been a slightly unruly bunch. Not necessarily in a bad way, either. Traditionally they’re loud, quick and capable of entertaining on a shallow but enjoyable level. Is this VXR more of the same?

Save you money 192

Advertisement

DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall GTC VXR air intake

What we’re led to understand about Vauxhall VXR buyers is that they don’t mind one iota if the cars they buy get noticed in a crowd. In fact, we’re told that it’s a disappointment to them if they don’t. How much life is left in this GTC VXR remains to be seen as Vauxhall has teased that the seventh-generation Vauxhall Astra is set to spawn a GSi and new VXR derivatives in the near future.

This latest GTC VXR, then, is one they should like. It builds on the already taut and athletic shape of the three-door GTC hatch (which Vauxhall wants you to think of as a coupé). Louder colours enter the fray, as do beefed-up bumpers at each end and side skirts down the middle, added to which are 19-inch alloy wheels. For a touch over £1000, the alloys get bigger, the skirts become deeper and a prominent roof spoiler is fitted; Vauxhall expects some 85 per cent of buyers to take it up.

VXR's hardware looks sufficient to back up the promise of its appearance

The hardware looks sufficient to back up the promise of the appearance. Those wheels – as striking as any we’ve seen – are not just about looks and being wilfully easy to kerb. They weigh just 1.86kg each and are backed by sizeable cross-drilled and ventilated Brembo discs. Across the front axle alone, this set-up saves 14.5kg of unsprung mass over the equivalent wheel size on the regular GTC.

The engine is a turbocharged 2.0-litre four, derived from that used in the Vauxhall Insignia 2.0T but considerably beefed up for this application to provide its power and torque. 

That it drives the front wheels only is no longer the cause for concern that it once might have been. The VXR gets a mechanical limited-slip differential and Vauxhall’s HiPerStrut front suspension, which, like a similar system used on the last Ford Focus RS and the Renault Mégane 265, acts to reduce torque steer. At the rear, the VXR retains the torsion beam with Watt’s linkage fitted to other Astras.

The steering itself is hydraulically assisted rather than electrically as in other Astras, and there are magnetorheological adaptive dampers with three modes: Normal, Sport (in which they’re tighter) and VXR (in which they’re tighter again, and coupled to enhanced throttle response). 

INTERIOR

Vauxhall GTC VXR dashboard

It may look very different from its lesser brethren on the outside, but the cabin continues a more familiar theme. There’s nothing much wrong with that, mind: the latest Vauxhall Astra’s cabin is accommodating and feels well built from mostly good-quality materials. 

The front is generously roomy and, given the rakishness of the roof, the rear cabin is surprisingly easy to slip into; there is 940mm of rear headroom and typical rear legroom is a decent 800mm. The boot opening is a touch narrow, but there’s 380 litres of space back there. All told, this is a functional interior. The doors are also huge, and to open them with a car parked on either side can be a struggle. 

The navigation system is accurate and intelligent enough

However, look for sparkles of VXR-ness and, superbly supportive seats aside, you’ll find little beyond the gearlever knob, steering wheel and the diddy Sport and VXR buttons on the dashboard. When you press that VXR button, by the way, the dials turn red.

The raked A-pillars and low-swept roofline do not compromise visibility and the high beltline is liable to make drivers feel like they’re sitting lower than they actually are.

As for the equipment levels, being the range-topper you would expect nothing less than the kitchen sink included in such a car, however you may be in for a disappointment.

The exterior of the GTC VXR is fitted with all sorts of sporting paraphernalia including a rear diffuser, side sills and a lairy rear spoiler, while inside is greeted with sports seats, alloy details and Vauxhall’s infotainment system complete with Bluetooth and DAB radio – however sat nav is optional.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall GTC VXR rear quarter

Vauxhall claims not only that the GTC VXR is the fastest car in the class, but also that it will duck under the 6.0sec barrier in a sprint to 60mph. To which we say: that may well be true, but you’ll have to have left any semblance of mechanical sympathy behind when you signed on to the circuit.

At our test track, we coaxed the VXR to 60mph in 6.4sec. We did manage a one-way best of 6.2sec – with two people on board and a near-full tank, remember – but if you make any serious attempt to go quicker than that, you will have to ignore both the smell of a suffering clutch and the nagging feeling that you won’t be able to drive it home afterwards. 

Standing quarter mile takes 15.1sec at 95.3mph

The 0-100mph time of 16.5sec, meanwhile, looks – and is – impressive in isolation. However, VXR owners are, we’re told, a fairly extravagant bunch who like their cars to be fast – and to that extent, we have a little bad news. This GTC is no quicker to 100mph than its predecessor was.

For all that, it remains the most powerful hot hatchback in its class. And its in-gear acceleration is certainly noteworthy. Any car that can dispatch 50-70mph in fourth gear in less than four seconds is at the sharper end of the scale. It makes an extraordinary whistling noise while doing it, too; from the outside, it leaves you thinking you’ve just been buzzed by a jet fighter.

However, the throttle response – unless you push the VXR button on the dash – isn’t so sharp. At low revs in Normal or Sport modes, there’s some lag. Engaging the VXR mode sorts that and brings with it a welcome crispness we’d rather wasn’t confined to the firmest damper setting.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall GTC VXR cornering

Trundle away from rest in the Vauxhall GTC VXR and perhaps the most striking thing about its dynamics is how deftly it rides. Okay, it’s not a Mercedes S-Class worrier or anything, but you would be pushed to criticise a car rolling on 245/35 ZR20 rubber for riding in such a compliant manner. 

The VXR steers smoothly and accurately, too, with good stability around the straight-ahead. Coupled to good refinement, that leaves it feeling like a mature, grown-up kind of hot hatchback. Is it? Of course not. It’s a VXR, for heaven’s sake, so when you wind up the motor, on poor surfaces there’s a little tug at the steering wheel as the limited-slip differential apportions traction, and you’re off.

Unleash the VXR's full power only once you're through a corner

Pushing the GTC VXR down a well sighted, twisty road is a fast and enjoyable but slightly curious experience. Body control in all suspension modes, but particularly the firmer two, is very tight. There’s a little lean and it rolls quickly, just not very far. And from then onwards in a corner, you can really lean on the VXR. 

Our maximum lateral grip figure on the test track of 0.99g mid-corner doesn’t seem to quite do justice to how much mid-corner roadholding the GTC seems to find. There are very few cars, it feels to us, that would keep up with it down a given road. Certainly, it’s fast on a test track; the 1min 16.7sec time we posted around our dry handling circuit was as fast as the last Ford Focus RS.

With that, though, the VXR remains a touch inert. Its cornering all feels like it’s being done by the front end. The rear is faithful, but lift off or turn in while trail braking and there’s very little evidence, even with the stability control switched completely out, that the back end is willing to pitch in.

The VXR’s brakes, while over-servoed at the top of the pedal’s travel, resisted fade indomitably on our test tracks, so you’ll have no bother at all on the road. On a green, recently dried surface, they hauled the VXR from 70mph to rest in a competitive 45.3m, actually slightly longer than on our grippy wet asphalt.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall GTC VXR

Vauxhall claims that the GTC VXR is cheaper than its main rivals once adjusted for specification. Certainly, it is seemingly well equipped.

The Volkswagen Scirocco R is more expensive, though will hold its value better.

We managed a steady 26.5mpg overall

In our hands, the VXR returned a steady 26.5mpg overall, which is acceptable. On a touring run, we’d expect you to see 33mpg easily.

Looking ahead, despite the five-door and estate Vauxhall Astras having been replaced in 2015, the GTC is set to continue for the foreseeable future, according to Vauxhall, with the VXR maintaining its place in that line-up. There is reportedly a new GTC on the drawing board, including a VXR that would get another 20bhp to take it to just shy of 300bhp. Again coming as a three-door, Vauxhall isn’t set to stray far from the winning formula of overt sporty styling, uprated brakes and suspension and a limited-slip diff. 

Save you money 192

VERDICT

4 star Vauxhall GTC VXR

Class-leading amounts of power? Check. Slightly rowdy power delivery? Check. Attention-seeking looks and a noise like an industrial vacuum cleaner at full chat? Check and check.

Yep, say what you like about the Vauxhall GTC VXR, but it does what its stablemates and predecessors do best: let you know that it is here and interested in going fast.

Mature but with a raucous side, this fast Astra is still a VXR at heart

What’s different this time – for an Vauxhall Astra, at least – is that this raucousness comes with an everyday usability. This VXR really is a fine motorway companion, pliant and refined.

It’s fast on a good road or a circuit, too, finding exceptional grip and tremendous traction. And that, says Vauxhall, is what VXR buyers expect, and quite enjoyable it is, too.

For the rest of us, though, we’d want just a little something else to complete those star ratings – more engaging handling and a true feeling of agility being chief among them.

Still, this is a very likeable car.

Save you money 192