Car Choice: Vauxhall VXR8

It's not for the eco-minded, but this saloon puts its European and Japanese rivals in the shade

All new Vauxhalls are really Opels, right? Not this one.

You won't find any left-hand drive, Opel-badged version of the Vauxhall VXR8 pictured here. You have to go to the far side of the world to see anything like it, and it will be a Holden Commodore E3 HSV. It's just as well that Vauxhall is absent from the Project Earth eco-initiative so proudly touted by its Opel associate, as the Australian-made VXR8 is one calamitous car to those of fuel-saving tendencies.

It could be worse. This VXR8's immediate predecessor scored a teeth-clenching 365g/km for its CO2 rating. This new one gets that down to 320, which is still beyond the pale by many people's notions. Read on, then, only if life on that other side is something you could contemplate, even if vicariously.

More figures. The GTS version here costs £49,500, its 6.2-litre V8 engine – borrowed from the Chevrolet Corvette, no less – makes 431bhp, and 62mph can be reached just 4.9 seconds after the needle last registered zero. These are not figures you would normally equate with a Vauxhall. Instead they seem more appropriate to some sort of crazy Mercedes-Benz saloon, except that the one relating to price seems low.

It's not as low as was its immediate predecessor, however. That was a car whose pace per pound was probably unbeaten in the marketplace. The new car's circa-£15,000 price rise, in GTS trim, might be a ploy to make the car seem more prestigious, and to maximise profits given that limited numbers will be sold through just five dealers (although many more will be able to maintain them), but it's also significantly improved over the old one.

The interior still has that cultural collision between European and United States design that marks an Australian car, but there's more leather and a higher feeling of quality. It's no Audi, but at least there's tangible evidence of where some of your money went. More of that comes when driving, because the suspension features Magnetic Ride Control and there's a new Tremec MM10 gearbox, still with six gears but with a lighter, more precise lever action. Discretion was never part of a VXR8's personality, and this GTS gains new "shockwave" frontal styling to ensure maximum rear-view mirror presence.

In some ways this is a fine throwback to the US muscle-car idea, with its rear-wheel drive and simple, albeit well-honed, V8 engine with just one camshaft, two valves per cylinder, and old-fashioned pushrods to open them. It's a direct descendant of the old "small-block" Chevy engine, first made in 1955, although nowadays the castings are aluminium and it's massively more efficient.

And, the VXR8 sounds fantastic. The test car came with an optional, freer-flowing exhaust system (£900) which makes the correct muscle-car throb and crackle without upsetting – too much – those who perceive it more as noise than music. The downside is that it generates a tiresome boom in the cabin at low revs, so you need to drop down a gear when ambling if a headache is to be averted.

Out on the open road, though, you won't want to amble. The engine generates a torrent of energy, and the new gearbox – there's also a six-speed automatic option – makes it easy to exploit with finesse. Then there's that Magnetic Ride suspension. Audi uses it in the R8, Ferrari in all its current cars, Chevrolet in the Corvette, and it works by changing the "thickness" of the fluid inside the suspension's dampers to make the car instantly more comfortable or responsive. The result is a suppleness over bumps remarkable in a car with such big wheels, this hefty machine moves with an easy agility. It's old-school with modern sophistication, and it's highly addictive.

I really enjoyed the VXR8. It's hardly a car for shrinking violets, but it's a take on the really quick saloon unlike anything from Europe or Japan. There's a more demure Clubsport version for £45,000 and a Sports Tourer estate at £47,000. Oh yes, and a Maloo pick-up. A 431bhp pick-up with right-hand drive. Thank you, Australia.

The rivals

Jaguar XFR: £64,400, 510bhp, 292g/km

Lovely machine with supercharged V8, huge pace, great ride and handling. Beautiful.

Lexus iS-F: £58,300, 423bhp, 270g/km

Slightly smaller, with intensely-engineered V8 engine. Good fun to drive, restless ride.

Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG: £54,600, 455bhp, 312g/km

Latest E-class in maddest guise, beautifully executed as ever and surprising value.

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