Road Test: Vauxhall Corsa VXR

The first hot Corsas were too stable for their own good. Happily, the VXR understands the joys of tail-drift - and pushes all the boy-racer buttons for John Simister


Specifications

Price: £15,595
Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 192bhp at 3,800rpm, 192lb ft on overboost at 1,980-5,800rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 140mph, 0-60 in 6.8sec, 35.8mpg official average
CO2: 190g/km

This is not a subtle car. The Vauxhall Corsa VXR, whose turbocharged engine generates an extraordinary 192bhp from its 1.6 litres, is so hot that it set fire to its press information pack, whose edges are printed with facsimile charring. Some small hot hatchbacks have been accused of looking meek and hard to tell from gentler siblings, but there's no such problem here.

Triangles. That's the motif. They surround the front foglights, they support the door mirrors, they form the mesh of the front grilles, and one takes centre stage in the rear valance to form the exhaust pipe. Then there are the racy front and rear valances, with louvres on their outer edges and, at the back, a Ferrari-like aerodynamic diffuser. The sills and top of the tailgate bear pieces of plastic with further aerodynamic functions, and the wheels - with triangular spaces between the spokes - are enormous. That's if you go for the optional 18-inch ones, anyway, which I suggest you don't. Explanation soon.

Form follows function in all of this, Vauxhall will tell you, but the form looks disturbingly Max Power. And that's a look which is turning a bit passé.

It's the same inside. The steering wheel is crazily over-designed, with all the must-have raciness of steering wheels from right across car-dom. We have the flat-bottomed rim of a racecar helm, but adorned with a VXR badge. There's a rally-car line at top dead centre, so you know which way is straight ahead when you're on the tail-sliding limit, yet the spokes turn all sophisticated with a shiny black finish and a fine collection of stereo controls.

It's all a bit embarrassing. That mindset is the more readily achieved for the remembrance of past souped-up Corsas, which were hopeless things. There were only two, and the first was called Nova in the UK (Corsa everywhere else). Both the Nova GTE and the pretty but stodgy Corsa GSi were annihilated by the French opposition (Peugeot 205 GTI, Renault 5 GT Turbo and Clio 16V), and for the next-generation Corsa (the 1999-to-2006 one) Vauxhall didn't even bother with a driver-pleasing version.

The history lesson is especially relevant given Vauxhall's claims for the new car. Back in 1994, Vauxhall was feeling stung by comments that its " sporty" cars were dull, and hired the tortuous, torturous Nürburgring circuit in Germany to prove that the cars were not dull. Trouble is, Vauxhall brought along examples of the opposition that were even less dull, if less forgiving of inept drivers. And that was the point: Vauxhall was so obsessed with stability, and so keen not to allow a car's tail to drift when the driver lifted off the accelerator in a fast bend, that the cars felt inert. Where was the fun in that?

Too much tail-drift could be a problem if the driver lacked the instinct to detect and correct it, but the right amount makes for a more "pointy", more enjoyable car and helps the driver get round a bend that turns out tighter than expected. And nowadays we have the miracle of finely calibrated ESP stability systems, which work so well that Vauxhall now proclaims the joys of a subtle tail-drift. Fun without the fear, that's the message, and the possibility of Vauxhall's first fun-to-drive supermini looms. You can switch the ESP off for track use.

Sounds good, so far. And I'm optimistic the reality will match the stage-setting, because I was impressed with the unlikely Meriva VXR mini-MPV which uses a 180bhp version of the Corsa's engine, and I've also driven a Corsa VXR prototype on GM Europe's test track in Germany. So, fingers crossed.

My regular transport at the moment is a Peugeot 207 GT THP 150, a hatchback that's warm rather than hot, but which has a good, muscular engine - a 1.6 turbo like the Corsa's. It also has a tiresomely abrupt and fidgety ride on broken road surfaces on its 17in wheels. My road-test Corsa VXR is also on 17in wheels, the standard issue, but with a tyre size one step up from the 207's. So I'm expecting some crashes and bangs when I turn on to my regular test route.

But no. It's extraordinary. The ride is firm but it rounds off edges that thud through into the Peugeot. There's real under-tyre suppleness here, and I'm liking the Corsa already. In fact, this is such a welcome surprise that I'd hate you to spoil it by specifying the 18in wheels.

The next good bit is the way the engine delivers its remarkable power, a flow of increasing energy almost as if the VXR is being wound up like a big spring whose pent-up force is released just when you need it most. There's almost none of the response lag found in some turbo cars, and so much thrust at gentle engine speeds that there's no need to use high revs. The exhaust makes a subtly crisp-edged burble, too.

The engine's nominal pulling power is rated at 170lb ft, but you can have 192lb ft for up to five seconds in moments of need thanks to an overboost facility. That's when you feel the big spring. Pundits like to quote a 0-60mph time for fast cars, and by today's heady standards the VXR's 6.8 seconds is very swift rather than exceptional. But it's irrelevant to how the Corsa feels, because its effortless energy is more akin to that of a good turbodiesel, but with added smoothness and a much broader range of engine speed.

There's a precise six-speed gearshift, but you can often overtake without even changing down a gear. And a CO2 rating of 190g/km isn't bad for a hot hatchback.

But what about steering and cornering, so hyped by the Corsa's creators? Extremely supportive seats, made with rigid shells like racing seats, clamp you in, the better to feel at one with your car, although their high-back design impedes your view when looking over your shoulder. Steering is designed for a softish response around the straight-ahead, a speedier effect when the wheel is turned past 90 degrees, and a return to a gentler effect after more movement.

It's too languid before that 90-degree build-up, actually, a feeling at odds with the energetic tugs and grip-fights that can happen under the front wheels when you're pressing on. These never get unruly; they just remind you you're in a powerful front-wheel drive car. Once the Corsa is into a bend, its cornering attitude responds willingly to variations in power just as Vauxhall promises, and a fine time can be had.

If only the steering felt a little less loose it would be brilliant, and even as it is, the Corsa VXR is a revelation, given its ancestry. I'm not a fan of its boy-racer look but there's substance behind the posturing.

The rivals

Mini Cooper S £15,995

Another 1.6 turbo, 175bhp here, but that's plenty to make the new-look Mini fabulous fun to drive. Best small hot hatchback of the moment, but avoid the too-firm Sport option.

RenaultSport Clio 197 £15,995

No turbo here, but a manically revving 2.0-litre engine instead. Frantic power delivery can wear you down, but steering and handling are entertaining, ride reasonable.

Peugeot 207 GTI £15,500 approx

Uses the same engine as the Cooper S, but with five instead of six gears. Early reports suggest strong pace but not enough of a keen edge to recreate the 205 GTI glory years.

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