Unless they possess a sporting, up-market image with an ‘umbrella’ model, brands like Vauxhall would cease to make a positive impact, highlights Iain Robertson, as he weighs into the hottest UK Astra of them all.


Just as the premium brands bandy around their RS (Audi), AMG (Mercedes-Benz) and M (BMW) sporting images, so, too, do the mainstreamers. Ford has relied on its Rally Sport (RS) label ever since the Mark One Escort of the late-1960s, although its long-time UK rival, Vauxhall, has a somewhat fresher VXR handle, with which to show off.


Of course, Vauxhall has its goals set by Opel, its Teutonic counterpart, which operates the OPC badge with equal sporting veracity. Yet, the use of hard-sounding consonants for the UK’s alternative model line possesses a wake-up-at-the-back resonance that complies with UK market demands, taking age and experiences into account. Naturally, with the Astra VXR carrying a price tag of £30,250 (as tested), the age bracket narrows to 45-60 years, probably professional, most likely male and definitely in the sporting-related scene, whether as a fan, or just working within the sector, can be material to this mention of it.


In some ways, it is sad, because the Astra’s compact packaging and semi-extreme road manners would make it the ideal wheels for countless 20 year old Corsa drivers (not just the age of their cars). Yet, that is what ‘umbrella branding’ is all about. The ideal consumer is the target but it is buyers outside of that ideal that end up with it. Mind you, whether they would be up to its ‘VXR’ attitude and might otherwise find themselves stuffed backwards through a hedgerow is certainly the avoidable remit of the more mature.


For the record, only 1,000 examples of the Astra VXR make it to our roads annually (2,500-ish examples sold in two-and-a-half years since its introduction). Put into perspective, Vauxhall’s ‘arch-enemy’, bolstered by the immense strength of the RS Owners Club, sells only around 1,600 of its Focus RS models annually and their production run is strictly limited (unlike Vauxhall’s). This situation makes the VXR a rare performance machine from a volume manufacturer.


Yet, being rare does not always equate to on-road excellence. Were you to compare the first generation Focus RS with an appropriate Vauxhall model, the Ford would lose out in almost every way, not the least in handling and dynamics terms, let alone sheer dependability. To be fair to Ford, the second generation model, despite its ‘chav-tastic’ aura, was a significantly better machine, even though the strictly limited RS500 model, of which just 101 were supplied to UK customers, was unquestioningly exquisite. Yet, did I covet one? Not a bit! Far too ‘Essex lad’ for my liking. The third generation, just announced recently, should do better for Ford but I fear that its up-market aspirations are just a tad too much. Still, time will tell.


On the other hand, I remain firmly in the Vauxhall performance camp. The VXR is not just painlessly stylish and exceptionally good looking, but it would still pass muster in a corporate car park and not make its owner/operator look like he should be wearing a backwards-facing baseball cap and closely trimmed facial topiary, while honking out on the latest banging sounds from Avicii (whom I understand to be some sort of hotshot in the field of modern, electronic musical mixes).


The manner in which light picks out the scallops on the flanks of the Astra three-door coupe outline is magical. The signature ‘hockey-stick’ that runs from the front of the cabin downwards to the rear wheel centre-line, now used across almost all Vauxhalls, is captivating. Yet, it is balanced by the sweeping line from taillights, through the door handles and back again, which reduces rear-end slabbiness and adds motivational pace to the car at standstill. The window area is small but, as the waistline is now hiked up, it factors in an overt sportiness that is framed by the chromed gutter that surrounds its upper edge. This is the look of a modern day supercar, which is only spoiled slightly by the rear aerofoil that juts into the airflow to improve the car’s high-speed stability.


It is an essential addendum, when you contemplate the performance potential of the VXR. It will blitz the 0-60mph benchmark in 5.8 seconds, while reaching for a limited V-max of 155mph. Needless to say, this is more than enough for the UK, even though the VXR will deliver most fruitfully on the few remaining stretches of unrestricted autobahn in the Fatherland. However, its most impressive aspect is the seamless manner by which it delivers its 276bhp to tarmac. Sitting on optional 20-inch alloys (£995 extra, including enhanced body-kit; 19-inch diameter is standard), which are among the best looking alloys fitted to any road car, the VXR is a beast.


The six-speed, relatively close-ratio manual gearbox could do with a slightly longer first gear, to avoid hitting the engine rev-limiter so frequently from rapid starts but, with all the taps open, the lever can be sliced sturdily through its gate and, while the driver realises that the pace is gathering quickly, the process is virtually effortless. If one is not being careful, three figure speeds can be breached rather too readily and it is amazing how quickly bends appear.


The 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine delivers around 295lbs ft of torque, which means that stirring the gearbox is not a preoccupation for maximum mile-eating potential. Its 34mpg Official Combined figure is attainable with a small amount of effort, although around 30mpg will be the manageable average. At 189g/km the CO2 rating equates to an annual VED cost of £475 in the first year and £260 thereafter.


Fortunately, armed with a full set of purpose-designed Brembo brakes, hauling up 1,475kgs of marauding VXR is a doddle. The alloy stoppers save around 7kgs per corner on a car where cornerweights are an important consideration. Suspension damping is another strongpoint of this car. ZF-Sachs reengineered the settings over the standard Astra model to result in a lower ride height, which also aids the aerodynamics, and a rebound rating enhanced by around 30 per cent.


There are three settings that are driver selectable. The standard provides a firm response but does not ruin the ride comfort of the car. The Sport setting enhances the road feel, while also increasing body roll resistance. The VXR setting is the most focussed of the lot and would work eminently well for the occasional ‘track day’ appearance, as several dynamic elements of the car are tautened and made to respond sharper. It is not the most compliant of settings but, on a smooth road surface, it allows the Drexler limited-slip differential to work efficiently at removing any signs of torque-steer and understeer, both of which can upset the inherent balance of the car.


Sadly, the pushbuttons, while placed stylishly on the centre console, perhaps should be placed within a ‘dial-able’ switch instead. There are one too many buttons on that stack, which demand a lot of familiarisation to avoid seeking out their functions with every trip. The same applies to the in-car entertainment, as locating a tuning button, or even trying to put the main functions on the screen can become utterly confusing and quite frustrating at times. A ‘touch-screen’ would be better. My Android mobile simply would not ‘sync-up’ with the Bluetooth function either.


There is no denying the amount of ‘toys’ within the car and a VXR will become a button-pusher’s delight. It is very well equipped, as you would expect of a top-of-the-shop model. Its lightweight, hide-clad sports seats (in the front) are bolstered stridently and can be adjusted electrically but not for fore and aft movement on the rails. The recline and tilt functions are also manual, as is the steering column and I did feel as though the driver’s seat were too reclined at times, with not enough upright range, which I prefer, as it places me closer to the steering wheel.


Access to the rear seats is okay for smaller passengers, as the front seats are so bulky, which compromises both entry and exit, although there is plenty of space back there for two adults, or up to three children. They will feel slightly claustrophobic, because of the rising waistline and lack of window area (a downside of the coupe styling). However, rearward vision for the driver is not tragic, even though the over-shoulder view is a touch compromised by the width of the C-pillars. The door mirrors provide a decent field of vision. Incidentally, at 380-litres, the boot is roomy, if not the largest in the class.


Conclusion:  Overall, I am hugely impressed by the Vauxhall Astra VXR. It is handsome. It handles well. It is potent and its cabin is a very comfortable place in which to reside. The VXR is fast, grippy, predictable and enticing to drive in a manly way. Its power steering is beautifully weighted but not over-assisted and its stopping power is prodigious. I would love a two-pedal, automated transmission model (not an automatic), complete with alloy shift paddles, as they would fit nicely with the car and where it needs to be. I would also like a less cluttered switch layout. However, as both of these items will not make it to this model, I reckon that the next generation Astra VXR will be the ‘keeper’.