Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Astra VXR - Driven

I grew up in the nineties. In my formative car years, 276bhp was a very significant and evocative figure; the unspoken power-cap agreed by the major Japanese manufacturers, if you saw an Impreza, Skyline or RX-7 in the Gran Turismo showroom next to the magic 2-7-6, you knew that it was probably packing 300bhp+.
So it's an unusual feeling for someone of my age to see this ethereal figure applied to a Vauxhall Astra. That's, er... that's a sensible hatchback, isn't it?
Well, no - Vauxhall won't let you get away with that. The Astra VXR is a coupé, placed in competition with other hatchbacks that have morphed into sporty coupés; VW Scirocco et al.
It's actually a very impressive proposition: the spec reads like a car of twice the list price - 20" wheels, a turbo as big as your face, a top speed of 155mph, Brembo brakes, an LSD, everything a good boy could wish for.

So I was rather looking forward to seeing how absurdly quick this new VXR would be; that much power in a front wheel-drive hatchback, offering 0-62mph in 5.9s, is madness. Actual madness.
And yes, it does feel pretty rapid. Perhaps not as immediately fast as you might expect, but pretty damn quick all the same. It feels as if the superior, cosseting levels of refinement and fit-and-finish insulate you somewhat from the manic power - and this may well not be a bad thing. The seats are a great place to be, the brakes are devastatingly effective, and it does look extraordinarily cool - particularly those boisterously oversized alloys. So all the pieces fit together pretty nicely. And to drive? Well, it's something else...
Sitting inside a Vauxhall Astra, you feel secure, familiar, sensible. But this isn't an Astra, not really - it's a brutal, tubthumping lunatic that just happens to look like an Astra. And with every further millimetre that you push that throttle pedal toward the carpet, a whole bucket of fresh fireworks is ignited. That mechanical LSD has a game stab at quelling the torque steer (you have to be very silly indeed to find yourself wrestling the wheel like a Focus RS), and the ingenious concatenation of Vauxhall's unique HiPerStrut suspension at the front and a Watt's linkage at the rear means that it forces you into the horrible cliché of saying 'oh, it handles like it's on rails'. But there's more to it than that - bizarrely, it's quite easy to coax the VXR into neat, controllable oversteer, the active rear end wagging on demand. In a front-wheel drive car. Most peculiar, and utterly brilliant.

This car has a lot of positives, and does many amazing things. Its acceleration alone would be enough to worry the top-flight supercars of just a couple of decades ago - when you play this as a numbers game, the Astra VXR would comfortably rub shoulders with, say, a Ferrari 308. That's a weird thought, no? What a brilliantly Jekyll-and-Hyde contraption.

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