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.