Performance is impressive and accessible
Vauxhall's Astra VXR has been designed to combine dramatic looks with exceptional performance and handling. This has been motivated by demanding buyers who want to combine day-to-day usability with a hot hatch performance that's also accessible in everyday environments.
Based on the Astra GTC coupe, this Astra VXR comes in three-door form only. And while this might be viewed as a disadvantage compared to rivals available with five doors, the benefit comes in the Astra's appearance. A subtle bodykit (a more obvious one is a cost option) and distinctive alloy wheels as standard add to the car's visual appeal.
Inside, the VXR version benefits from further improvements over the standard Astra. Chunky sports seats, a purposeful-looking leather steering wheel and different instrument graphics are all standard, while contrasting trim materials gives a more upmarket and sporty feel. Otherwise the interior is carried over from the mainstream hatchback, which from an ergonomic perspective is a good thing.
Mechanically the VXR uses Vauxhall's familiar 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. In the VXR it has been sympathetically modified to increase power and torque output - 276bhp is the standout figure here. It is also matched to a six-speed manual transmission, designed to maximise the engine output. Further mechanical changes include uprated brakes, exhaust system and front suspension plus the welcome inclusion of a mechanical limited slip front differential to help the car put all its power down efficiently.
On paper the Astra VXR certainly has all the right ingredients to make an excellent hot hatch, and when the driver is in the mood it can deliver a great deal of excitement. The flipside to the car's wild streak is that it can be a demanding car to drive quickly, simply due to the vast amount of power on tap. Keen drivers will relish this aspect of the Astra's personality, while some may prefer the more measured and less frenetic power delivery of some of the Astra's rivals.
There's no question that this Astra VXR manages to surprise and delight with its array of trick updates and generous power reserves. Pitched at the sharp end of a growing hot hatch market it's no longer enough to simply look the part, and the Astra VXR's mature styling even with the optional bodykit - does much to disguise the car's potential. If you prefer to let your car do the talking on the road rather than attract unwarranted attention for its looks, the Astra is an attractive and potent package.
Over the generations the hottest Astra's price steadily crept up to rival that of more premium alternatives. Opt for a few choice extras and you're firmly in German car territory. Fuel, tyres and insurance will likely be the main regular outlays, which won't be a surprise for anyone familiar with the hot hatch market.
Being a three-door car, the interior of the Astra VXR feels less spacious than the five-door, although this is mostly due to the reduced rear glass area. Accommodation for front seat passengers is more than acceptable for a car of this size, and the boot also provides reasonable luggage space. It also retains the folding rear seats of the regular models, therefore it's a practical option. Rear seat access and space isn't great, which isn't surprising and is unlikely to be a concern for most owners.
Standard specification on the VXR includes a chunky three-spoke steering wheel, and the VXR also gains special instrument graphics which are pleasing to the eye as well as informative. The steering wheel controls are intuitive, and can be used to navigate through the car's various menu systems. Not so intuitive are the main display screen's menus and the various buttons surrounding the screen.
The sports front seats provide excellent support, and prove comfortable even on long journeys. Driven with restraint the Astra VXR provides acceptable comfort levels, with road and wind noise remaining well contained. On rougher roads the stiff suspension can cause disturbance in the cabin, but otherwise the Astra is comfortable enough to use every day.
A car as desirable as the VXR can easily attract the wrong kind of attention, but features such as remote central locking and an alarm should deter potential thieves. Adding a visible deterrent - steering lock - would increase peace of mind against the actions of opportunist thieves.
Boasting an improved braking system over the standard car, stopping distances should match the car's performance. ESP and a host of passive features and airbags complete a package that's similar to that of the car's main rivals.
The suspension is clearly biased towards sporty handling, with very little roll in corners. The downside is a firm ride, which is perfectly acceptable on smoother roads, but when the road surface deteriorates it can become uncomfortable. The other result of the Astra's powerful engine is torque steer when accelerating hard. The ESP system is good but isn't infallible in the face of surface water or mid-corner bumps. Weighty steering helps matters, but the engine's induction sound isn't the most appealing.
With the VXR lacking the rear doors of its five-door hatch relative, Vauxhall's hot hatch is never going to be a family-friendly option. Access to the rear for child seats is tricky and the boot is never going to rival a conventional car for load carrying capacity.
With so much power available it's unlikely that a novice driver would secure a sensible-money insurance quote. Practicalities aside, the Astra is an easy car to drive but also requires a lot of restraint.
When chosen with the optional bodykit and large alloy wheels, the Astra VXR projects a bold, sporty image. This continues on the inside, and it has enough impact to challenge established rivals in the hot hatch sector. In absolute terms the quality of the Astra is good, with materials of a respectable quality, although it does not feel as high quality as some of its rivals.
Predictably, the three-door only bodyshape makes access difficult for rear seat passengers, particularly as the front seats are quite bulky. The big doors help access to the front, although the steeply-raked front pillar and low suspension does require passengers to bend down on entry.
Standard fitment to the Astra VXR is a combined CD and radio tuner, with the useful addition of MP3 compatibility and DAB. The screen display is informative and the steering wheel controls make it easy to operate. The sound quality is also good but the various menus and main controls could be more intuitive.
The cabin trim is mostly identical to that found in the regular Astra, however the sporty elements blend well with the rest of the VXR's interior and is pleasingly low key. Bright exterior colours provide the necessary contrast, along with the detailed design of the car's alloy wheels.
While the Astra VXR is a relatively easy car to drive, the restricted rear view can make it a little difficult to park. This is compounded by the low profile tyres and the lack of protection given to the alloy wheels, which makes it easy to damage the wheels on the kerb.
Emergency inflation kit supplied.
Petrol engines range - 1.4-litre (120bhp, 140bhp); 1.6-litre (180bhp); 2.0-litre (280bhp). Diesel engine range - 1.7-litre (110bhp, 130bhp); 2.0-litre (160bhp). Transmission options: six-speed manual gearboxes standard across the range with six-speed auto for selected models (not VXR).