8

The Vauxhall Corsa VXR is accomplished, refined and quick, but it can’t match the Clio’s sheer panache

Vauxhall’s VXR brand has missed the bullseye as much as it has hit it. Since it launched in 2003, Luton’s answer to the Ford ST and RS ranges has produced a series of very fast cars which are often flawed. Although recent efforts appear to be changing that, so where will the Corsa register?

Still, it is about time that Vauxhall nailed a VXR and knocked its rivals Ford and Renault clean off their perches.

The Corsa has been a long time coming

It’s not a question of simply upping performance; for all its faults, no one could ever complain about the way the old Astra VXR or the current Insignia goes.

What Vauxhall needs is a more rounded, more real world VXR. One that handles and steers as well as it goes and one which doesn’t require the touch of genius to keep it out of the undergrowth.

Can the Corsa VXR be the car Vauxhall needs?

Advertisement

DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Corsa VXR rear

Vauxhall's key claim about the hot Corsa VXR was that, unlike any other VXR to date, it was planned into the design stage right from the beginning. So when the template was being cast for the standard Corsa models, the design for the VXR was also conceived.

As a result, the Corsa VXR should feel much more all-of-a-piece than the bolt-on-and-watch-it-go-wild Astra.

The exterior addenda works better than the interior badging

On paper, the Corsa VXR would appear to deliver on Vauxhall’s promise. Visually it looks like it was conceived to compliment the sharp-looking Corsa models from the start.

At the front there’s a deep and purposeful-looking new splitter that incorporates the obligatory pair of driving lamps, but the look is neat and integrated.

Along the flanks, the styling is similarly enhanced by a pair of meaningful-looking side skirts and there’s a pair of somewhat OTT aerodynamic door mirrors.

At the back, Vauxhall has torn a page right out of the booked marked ‘Clio Renaultsport’ and then added some frills to impress the target audience. Not only is there a Clio RS-like diffuser (it has a dynamic function, says Vauxhall) but there’s also a big, triangular centre exhaust pipe, a Junior WRC roof spoiler and a pair of faux air vents, supposedly designed to bleed heat away from the rear brakes.

The overall effect is without doubt impressive to look at, especially when riding on 18-inch alloys. But the Corsa VXR is not a hot hatch for the terminally shy. You will get noticed in this car whether you like it or not.

Surprisingly, despite extensive modifications underneath, the Corsa VXR Nurburgring doesn't add to the aggressive exterior styling of the standard car. It has new wheels and two exhaust pipes rather than one, but the overall effect is quite subdued for the VXR brand.

Under the skin, Vauxhall has gone to great lengths to make the Corsa Nurburgring live up to its name. So there's a 20mm ride height reduction, Bilstein springs and dampers, uprated Brembo brakes and those new wheels (which are forged, ergo lighter), Moreover, it has also been fitted with a mechanical limited-slip differential, the first Vauxhall to be fitted with one since the Omega. The changes under the bonnet are outlined in the performance section. 

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Corsa dashboard

No truly great hot hatch can be referred to as such without sporting a suitably tasty interior. With the Corsa VXR, Vauxhall has constructed a cabin as good in some areas as it is bad in others.

We like the clarity of the dashboard, think the standard-fit Recaro seats (complete with side airbags) are superb, and appreciate the strong basic packaging of the three-door bodyshell, including its rear seats and boot.

Side airbags in the front seats is a pleasing sight

But some of the minor details, most of which have been applied in the same VXR branding, are less successful. Such as the deeply naff VXR-logoed gear lever and the gimmicky flat-bottomed steering wheel, which neither looks nor feels anything like the steering wheel of a Golf GTI.

The Recaros are excellent and the basic driving position is sound, but some testers found the seats don't adjust low enough. The rest of the ergonomics are very good: the instruments are clear to read day and night and the controls are sensibly positioned. The gearlever however, is truly awful.

Then again, you can’t really argue against the VXR’s showroom appeal. But incremental price rises means that, despite the decent level of standard equipment it provides it is becoming a pricey alternative.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Corsa VXR front quarter

At the heart of the Vauxhall Corsa VXR is a 1598cc turbocharged engine that produces 192bhp at 5850rpm and much more significantly for taking care of other small hot hatches, a maximum of 192lb ft from 1980-5800rpm for five second bursts.

This arrives with an overboost facility that kicks in under full throttle in the top four of the six gears. But even without this, the engine still has 170lb ft.

A strong engine performance is marred by a soft throttle response

All this is enough to propel the 1255kg Corsa to 60mph in 6.8sec (we recorded 6.7sec), to 100mph in 16.8sec and on to a top speed of 140mph.

On paper, that puts the Vauxhall on par with its rivals from Renault and Volkswagen. But in reality the VXR has so much more mid-range torque to deliver that, in most give-and-take situations, but blows the Clio Renaultsport into the undergrowth.

In the higher gears at middling revs, it has more urgency than the Clio, and you only need to look at the 50-70mph time in top for the proof. The Corsa is around 0.5sec quicker, and that’s despite the Corsa being the slightly longer geared of the pair.

So although the Corsa’s throttle response fails to match that of the Renault at high revs (such is the inevitable blight of the turbocharged engine, unfortunately), the VXR’s extra go overall is hard to deny. In the key areas its advantage is considerable.

The real-world advantage is extended with the Corsa VXR Nurburgring. A revised ECU, uprated turbo and new exhaust liberate another 13bhp from the 1.6-litre engine, taking the total to 202bhp. The overboosted torque figure is 207lb ft, a significant 56lb ft up on the Renault Clio Cup. Combined with the Nurburgring's suspensions modifications, it makes the flagship VXR fractionally quicker than the Clio round a track, and on the road.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Corsa VXR cornering

All that performance wouldn’t mean much if the Corsa VXR didn’t handle, ride, stop and steer as well, especially since these are the areas in which previous hot Vauxhalls have faded beside their key rivals.

Which is why Vauxhall’s engineers have, in their own words, gone to town on the VXR’s underpinnings.

Grip is monstrous but it's safe and predictable on the limit

It’s hard to know quite where to start when describing the various upgrades administered to the VXR’s chassis and suspension. The ride height, for example, is 19mm lower at the back and 12mm lower at the front thanks to the fitment of stiffer springs and uprated dampers. The anti-roll bar is 25 percent stiffer than a regular Corsa’s; the brakes are enormous by comparison (300mm ventilated discs at the front, 264mm discs at the back).

Even the ESP system has been completely recalibrated to allow a small amount of slip when pressing on before it intervenes.

And if you turn it off completely, says Vauxhall, the chassis has been set up to allow a degree of “controllable” lift-off oversteer that should please the wannabes Seb Loebs. Which is fine so long as it doesn’t also make the VXR edgy to drive at the same time.

In the event, the Corsa isn’t remotely edgey on the road. In fact, it could do with being a bit more responsive relative to its opposition.

The main area of disappointment is the steering. Vauxhall has attempted to make a steering system that’s light and easy at low speeds but which gets faster and more precise at higher speeds. The official technical description of the system is variable progressive steering, and what happens is the speed of the rack (and its level of power assistance) varies between 11 and 13:1 depending on how fast you’re travelling, and how rapidly you turn the wheel.

The VXR may well have super-light steering at parking speeds, but on the move it’s neither as precise nor as well weighted as it could be. And on occasions, on rough surfaces especially, it can feel a bit vague and rubbery. Quite the opposite of the way the Clio Renaultsport steers, in other words.

On the other hand, the VXR does have a very natural, well-judged sense of balance mid-corner when you’re going for it. Plus a comfortable grown-up ride quality over just about any surface. It is a far better motorway cruiser than the Clio.

We can’t help thinking that in its attempt to liberate the Corsa VXR of some of the old Astra VXR’s less desirable traits, Vauxhall has gone a little too far. Other than a small amount of torque steer that’s inevitable with such a car, the Corsa is almost too well behaved for its own good. As a result it doesn’t raise your pulse in the way the more nimble, sharp and feisty Clio does.

The Corsa Nurburgring, on the other hand, most certainly does. The key change is the addition of the limited-slip differential to the VXR's front axle. It provides the Corsa with the balance and poise that it lacks in its standard guise. Moreover, it greatly boosts traction and corner speed, making the Corsa VXR Nurburgring a complete hoot on the track, more than a match for its Renault adversary.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Corsa VXR

Vauxhall has succeeded with the Corsa VXR in building a small hot hatch that oozes showroom appeal like nothing it has ever created. It’s styling might not be to all tastes, but a level of exuberance is what cars like this are all about.

Since its introduction, the Corsa VXR has risen from £15,500 to almost £19,000. It might feel better built than a Clio and have more equipment but that’s an awfully large amount of money.

Special editions are very expensive

The VXR Blue adds another £700, while the Nurburgring edition is a staggering £22,500.

And don’t think the increased cost will make it a safer place to store your money. After three years, it’ll be worth about the same as a Clio Renaultsport.

It certainly feels better built than the Clio though, and the interior, although chintzy, is has more pizzazz than its French rival.

With one of the largest dealer networks in the land, they will be no shortage of takers for your servicing business.

Fuel economy – officially rated at 35.8mpg combined – is likely to be figure in around 28mpg for all but the most lead-footed drivers. That’s not a bad figure considering the performance offered.

VERDICT

4 star Vauxhall Corsa VXR

The Vauxhall Corsa VXR is still not the complete package, but it makes several key advances over its various VXR predecessors.

With a fraction more finesse it would be right up there with the Clio.

Safety levels are among the best

But in terms of performance and showroom appeal, it is a deeply impressive megamini.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the price, which has climbed by £3000 over five years. Whether that’s a problem largely depends on the badge – brand loyalty is rarely stronger than in this market.

But what the price tag fails to factor is that the Corsa is a great all-rounder. It will be as competent on a hot lap of Castle Combe as it will be on the motorway there and back. That the hot model was conceived alongside cooking versions shines brightly.

So irrespective of price, the Corsa VXR is an excellent fast and practical car.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Vauxhall Corsa VXR 2007-2014 First drives