Date: August 4th, 2005
By: Tom Ford
"Leg of lamb! Just clip one and we can have a bleedin' barbeque," shouts my eager passenger, as yet another dim-witted sheep wanders out in front of our alarmingly red Vauxhall Astra VXR. It's hard to cross the North Yorkshire moors at any kind of speed these days, unless you fancy the grille of your shiny new motor becoming an impromptu abattoir. And it's all because the sheep are playing chicken.
We're forced to rock gently over the rolling crests and dips of this James Herriot landscape, only going fast and really leaning into the custom Recaro bat-wing seats when we have plenty of sightlines - oh, and extra mint sauce on board.
I'm surprised the local ewes are quite so eager to wander about in front of the car, to be blunt. This new Astra VXR is the ultimate iteration of Vauxhall's cooking hatch - the first of the Vauxhall 'base' cars to get such a treatment - and it's not exactly subtle. It's got some serious hardware too.
A 238bhp four-cylinder turbo engine with 236lb ft of torque, a chassis set-up tuned for the godawfulness of British roads, and 18-inch alloys are standard. It even has a stonking bodykit, including a very lovely centre-exit exhaust - which is just the thing to get the 'modder' generation scratching at its collective baseball cap. Yes, it's certainly a dramatic-looking thing.
But of more interest is the fact the VXR is travelling at serious velocities without any kind of particular drama. Given these badly cambered and dreadfully wobbly moorland roads, that's no mean feat.
There's not too much torque steer, surprisingly; there's very little camber-chasing given our test car's 18-inch alloys; and it has a tendency to soak up bumps rather than bounce. Go faster and the power-assisted steering is pretty accurate, the turn-in is surprisingly deft and body roll is almost non-existent.
What this equates to is road-going confidence - and buckets of it. This hottest Astra really does feel playful and calm; there's not much that's going to suddenly bite you on the **** here, even if you go pretty stupid with the entry speed.
It's one of the benefits of using torsion-bar rear suspension when everyone else has moved on to (infinitely more complicated) multi-link. It may be old tech, but Vauxhall knows how to deploy it to best effect.
The spring and damper rates are all custom-designed by people seemingly knowing what's really important: reliability of vital information to the driver and the ability to keep the bloody wheels on the floor. And the tricks Vauxhall uses aren't exactly new. Damper and spring rates are increased, the car sits lower and the roll bars are thicker. Rebound springs were added to the dampers (like an engine spring inside the unit), which improve on-the-limit control without affecting the damper's ability to extend into potholes in the road surface.
So we're talking about turning an Astra into something you actually enjoy driving, without making it into an 1980s GTE that would give you the kind of lift-off oversteer last seen exiting stage left through a thick hedge.
There's a continual damping control (CDC) system available, but it's really not that necessary in this car. And you're really better off hitting the 'Sport' button for five seconds as soon as you get in; it switches off the traction control (ESP).
The car really doesn't need such heavy-handed interference - it copes admirably without - though you can never really knock it off totally because there's still an emergency 'crash' mode on permanently, for when the car senses impending doom. I never triggered it, so it's probably safe to assume it only really kicks in under serious, God-help-me duress.
It's not just a suspension overhall, either. The turboed two-litre from the SRi gets a bigger blower and a new injection system, as well as some tweaking to the inlet and exhaust manifolds to produce its 238bhp. It still takes a while to get the turbo-hit, but when it does, the shove is nicely linear and pretty thorough in every gear.
It should mince most current hot hatches, though it's not the most involving or emotional of engines. It doesn't sound very good on-boost, either, with induction noise resonating like a bag of gravel being dragged behind the car. It's amusing for the first five miles, irritating after that. But someone at Vauxhall obviously thinks the same: dealer-fit sports-exhaust packages are available too.
Inside it's pretty much standard Astra, but with excellent Recaro seats, a spattering of carbon-effect inserts and nice touch-point detailing. The steering wheel is extra thick and the gearknob is 'sporty' in a slightly affected way, but it all works in such a pugnacious little car.
As with the sport hatch, you'll lose small counties in the rear, gain blind spots, and get precious little reversing sight - but sacrificing that for such a lovely coupe roofline is a small hardship, don't you think?
Overall, it's a cracking little hot hatch. It's relatively cheap, carving out a shouty little niche below the too-grown-up Golf GTI, but above the Honda Civic Type-R. I reckon, though, the VXR brand has room for being more hardcore and still getting sales. Hmm... Is this Astra VXR, then, VXR enough?