The VXR is a slightly manic but very capable way to cover ground, with an almost racecar way of doing things

What is it?

The return of the Vauxhall Astra VXR, with 276bhp putting it among the most powerful front-drive hot hatchbacks in history. That is, if you want to call it a hatchback: Vauxhall, like Renault with the Megane, sees the 3dr Astra as a coupe and sees the VW Scirocco R coupe as one of the VXR's main rivals. 

Either way, this new VXR is at the most serious end of front-drive performance, and it gets all the right mechanical hardware to go with it: a 2.0-litre, turbocharged engine, a mechanical limited-slip differential, Vauxhall's HiPer strut front suspension (meant to reduce torque steer) and a return to hydraulically-assisted power steering (instead of electrical assistance; with the intent to give more feel). At under £27,000 at launch it's decent value, too.

Unlike the previous Astra VXR, upon which the hand of Lotus performed some of the chassis development, this Astra is entirely the work of Opel’s team, led by Volker Strycek (former DTM champion and Nürburgring 24 hour winner). In fact, much of the development has been completed on the Nürburgring itself. Is that a good thing? We'll see.

What's it like?

Inside, it's not unlike other Astra GTCs: it feels solid, not overtly flamboyant or special, but there are a few flourishes like (at times) red backlit dials, the seats are fine and there's a sound driving position.

And, there's no denying, the Astra VXR is a fast car. Vauxhall reckons it's the quickest-accelerating hot hatch currently around, ducking under the six-second barrier in a sprint to 62mph, and with a fulsome 295lb ft at 2450-5000rpm to back up the power at the higher end.

In regular driving, I think you can feel its German influence; it steers positively, with good weight and much stability around straight ahead. You could imagine driving it at proper autobahn speeds for hours at a time. There’s a touch of turbo lag at low revs - it really gets going about 3000rpm or so. But it's pleasingly accomplished.

The VXR gets magnetorheological dampers with three settings. In standard form the ride is good, while there’s a halfway Sport setting too, which has slightly firmer dampers but leaves the throttle response in ‘ordinary’ mode. Then there's a VXR button that stiffens them further but also sharpens the throttle. All three are usable settings; to their great credit Vauxhall/Opel has resisted the temptation differentiate too much between. There's something for all occasions.

And so in faster driving? Well, it makes an extraordinary noise: lots of whooshing and sucking and a bizarre but compelling high-pitched whistle as the revs wind around. It’s quick, too, there’s no denying. It wouldn’t surprise me if, over a lap, it had the measure on all of its rivals over a lap. The steering is quick and the Astra fairly dives at a corner; there’s precious little roll but what there is comes fast, and from that point on the VXR is poised and capable. 

But its steering isn’t overtly talkative and neither is its chassis responsive to changes in throttle position. From the moment you run fast through a single corner or two, you begin to sense that there’s less interaction between man and machine allowed here than in the best in the class. There’s less finesse than, say, in a Renaultsport Megane with a Cup chassis. 

Up to a point (with VXR mode engaged to get the sharpest throttle response), you can use the accelerator to tuck the Astra’s VXR's nose towards a corner as you approach the limit. Give it just a touch too much though and it runs wide at the front and, even if given a lift, or what’s affectionately known as “the send” on the way in, it’s the front end that makes the rules. There's more throttle adjustability, and engagement and neutrality, in a Scirocco R or a Megane.

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Should I buy one?

Maybe. It’s good, the Astra VXR, make no mistake. A really, solid, rounded product that’s far more complete than the car it replaced. To an extent it's ultimate lack of engagement is forgiveable too, especially once you factor in respectable responses elsewhere (a brake that’s over-eager at the top of its travel excepted). The VXR is a slightly manic but very capable way to cover ground, with an almost racecar way of doing things: impeccably fast, but with little natural reward. It's just that, for us, it could just use a little more finesse.

Vauxhall Astra VXR

Power: 276bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2450-5000rpm; Economy: 34.9mpg; CO2: 189g/km; 0-62mph: 5.9sec; Top speed: 155mph

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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simonali 18 June 2012

I hope that daft looking

I hope that daft looking double spoiler is an optional extra...

Suzuki QT 12 June 2012

Very Nice ... BUT ...

Whilst it's good to read about cars for the super-rich (hyper cars), performance cars and 'hot hatches', let us not forget that we live on an island with an under-resourced road network that is fast approaching Third World quality levels and choking speed limits ... "You could imagine driving it at proper autobahn speeds for hours at a time", the reviewer says ... Indeed, I can imagine, but in the real world I will step into my Suzuki Ignis 4x4 and battle across the rutted roads to work, whilst not exceeding 70mph ...

Challenger440 12 June 2012

... not that much fun?

Yep - I bet you'd have more fun in a Swift Sport for half the money...  these things are no longer hot hatchbacks - they've grown into something else - somethings that's largely not much use on modern roads.  I've no absolutely no desire to have one.   Next. 

gazza5 12 June 2012

this car is already around

this car is already around for £24k - so wouldn't go too much by the list price - although I would expect discounts on the focus but wouldn't think you would get £4k straight away - vauxhall shoot themselves in the foot with the prices - but underneath is a more sophisticated car to the focus st.