A drive with the Devil aboard

The new Vauxhall Astra is such a hot hatch that it comes with a fiendish device to hyperactivate its accelerator. John Simister lights the blue touchpaper and tries to remain in control

Model: Vauxhall Astra VXR
Price: £18,995
Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 240bhp at 5,600rpm, 236lb ft at 2,400rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 152mph, 0-60 in 6.1sec, 30.4mpg official average
CO2: 223g/km

I could be driving a Ferrari, the way people are looking at me. Maybe it's this Vauxhall Astra VXR's bright red paintwork and the rush of air every time its turbocharger spins into life. It's not a very Ferrari-like sound, but it's still pretty noticeable.

This is unexpected. But then I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I first fired up this boiling hatchback charged with the task of making the Vauxhall brand cool, beyond the partisan pages of Total Vauxhall.

This car in its production reality is far more stylistically extreme than even the wildest concept sketch for an Astra a decade ago, what with all its ridges and spoilers and coupé-like side-window outlines and huge wheels with rubber-band tyres stuffed tightly into muscular arches.

Pause for breath? And glitzy lights and wedgy waistline and a styled central tailpipe of trapezoidal tubing. No need for the Total Vauxhall treatment here. The factory has done it all already.

It looks very fast, and the mechanical make-up suggests that it is. The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine delivers a spectacular 240bhp. That's 120bhp per litre, and enough to launch the VXR to 60mph in 6.1 seconds and on to 152mph, if you can find a suitable venue.

Vauxhall engaged Lotus to tailor the Astra's suspension and steering so all this energy can flow to the road, and in this the VXR differs from the mainland-Europe Opel Astra OPC. The engines are shared but our VXR is tailored to suit Britain's odd road topography and the tastes of our enthusiast drivers.

I start it up. For the first few seconds, the hype evaporates because the engine sounds just like any other 2.0-litre Vauxhall. Then into gear: the lever is short and unexpectedly precise in its action. And then out on to the road.

Squeeze accelerator. Whoosh-blam! The idea, apparently, is to give the engine a broad and controllable spread of power, but this feels bombastic so far. The road is a little uneven, with variable cambers, and there's all sorts of tugging at the steering wheel as the Astra's nose sniffs out kerbs like an inquisitive dog. I'm exhilarated but not impressed. We are experiencing that well-known problem of the fast front-wheel-drive car. There is only so much thrust one pair of front wheels can handle, given that they also have to steer and that the harder you accelerate, the less weight acts on those wheels.

But, hey, it's a super-hot hatchback and it's all part of the fun. Up to a point. Let's press the Sport button and see what happens now. The Astra VXR accelerates a little, for a start. That's because one result of pressing the button is to alter the accelerator response so that more happens at the top part of the pedal's movement. Thus hypersensitised, the Astra is difficult to drive smoothly out of junctions, because you can't avoid lighting the blue touchpaper. It's highly entertaining for nudging the VXR through bends, though - just a light prod and whoosh-blam into the next bit of snaking tarmacadam. My social conscience is taking a battering: one little nerve impulse through my right Achilles tendon and suddenly I'm going 20mph faster. I think I'll deactivate Sport mode.

A sort of calm returns. The steering becomes a bit lighter again; Sport mode decreases the power assistance. It also firms up the optional adaptive dampers, but this car lacks these because the Lotus people considered it fine with the standard items. It's also on the standard, but still enormous, 18in wheels.

UK-optimised it might be, but the VXR is still a smooth-roads car. If the road's substrate is suspect, it can get restless. That's the price you pay for its tight control of body movements, which makes it more focused and precise on smooth roads than any other normal-production Astra ever.

On such roads, the hyperactive nose calms down, unless there's a slippery white line to spook it, and that's when you realise that its grip is enormous and that you can play with the cornering line with your accelerator foot. Not hugely, though; grip trumps finesse. This is not a car with which you subtly flow, as the steering sends high-resolution images of the road surface to your hands. It's more point, squirt and hold on.

And then I press the Devil button again, holding it down for a few seconds to deactivate the electronic stability programme. (It doesn't disappear completely - it keeps a background watch in case you do something really daft.) Ah, such unreconstructed auto-thuggery now! Power hard out of a bend and there'll be wheelspin and powdered rubber. I'm not advocating this, you understand, because it's rather unseemly, but the odd thing is that, freed of its admittedly subtle ESP, the VXR feels a little more, well, natural. It makes you pay attention to the accelerator, forcing a more subtle and considered driving style. And it's not as if you're going to run out of grip, not with these magically sticky tyres.

To drive, the Astra VXR is a thrill . But it can trouble its driver through a lack of opportunity to use its abilities satisfyingly. It's a bit too bombastic for our roads, although if you like track days, the VXR would be an excellent companion.

And if you like the idea, you should know about its other attributes, such as its comfortable and supportive front seats, its surprising lack of an engine-temperature gauge, its infuriating radio which automatically turns on whenever you start the engine. You pay a penalty for those racy coupé looks, too, because reversing round a corner is akin to murder in the dark.

Full marks to Vauxhall for creating such a bold and focused hot hatchback. Extremes are needed to boost an image, and the VXR is certainly that. The fact is, though, that the latest Golf GTI is nearly as rapid, more fluid, and ultimately a more satisfying companion. The Golf matches your mood: sports car if needed, civilised cruiser if not. The Astra forces you to bend to its will. Hot Astra versus hot Golf. It was ever thus.

The rivals

ALFA ROMEO 147 GTA, £23,205

Even more power than the Astra at 250bhp, and a V6 engine to provide it. The handsome but pricey Alfa feels more disciplined to drive, too, but lacks the Astra's impressive agility.

RENAULT MEGANE CUP, £18,600

This is the regular turbo- charged Mégane 225 with the revised, more focused suspension from the limited-edition Trophy. Very fast, but a bit short on sensorial subtlety.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI, £19,995

Another 2.0-litre turbo, whose (relatively) modest 200bhp doesn't exact a pace penalty. Looks great, is fabulously rewarding to drive, and places the Golf GTI breed back on top.

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