Vauxhall Astra VXR
This hot hatch deserves all the attention it gets
Engine capacity: 2.0-litre turbo
Power output (BHP @ rpm): 276 @ 5,500
Top speed (mph): 155
0-62 mph (seconds): 5.9
Fuel economy (mpg): 34.9
CO2 emissions (g/km): 189
Everywhere I drove last week people stopped and stared, children pointed and baseball cap-wearing men pretended not to look. One young lady even took the time to roll the window down of her battered Renault and holler at me. "Is that car new? Looks mint," she screamed, oblivious to the red light at the junction in front of us. This is all very odd, because I wasn't bombing around in a bright red Ferrari or cruising along in a stately Bentley – I was pootling along in a Vauxhall Astra.
This is no ordinary Astra though, and you don't exactly pootle in it. The familiar Griffin badge (well made, affordable, family friendly) still sits on the front grille, but car buffs will also notice the letters VXR emblazoned across its bulging wings and aggressively styled interior. To most people this unsubtle branding will mean little, but to a sub-culture of hot-hatch-driving men and women who gather in shopping-centre car parks on a Friday evening, this means an awful lot.
They come together to strut and peacock around their modified hatchbacks and talk meaty sub-woofers and bling bodykits. And in hushed voices they ask, "who'll be the first to get hold of the new Vauxhall Astra VXR?" That's right, in the right circles, this car is seriously desirable.
It costs just under £27k – pricey but not totally unaffordable – but gets a 2.0-litre turbo direct-injection engine, enough tech bolt-ons to take flight and spoilers, sports seats and 20in alloys that would make a Nascar driver blush. It's incredibly fast too, packing 276 brake horsepower, which is enough to send it barrelling to 60mph in less than six seconds.
That's almost as quick as a Porsche, which is madness when you realise that the VXR is on sale for less than half the asking price of a 911. It would be easy to be snobbish about it – after all this is the sort of car that in the wrong hands is used to terrorise high streets with booming tunes and collects speeding tickets like a young footie fan collects Premiership stickers – but that wouldn't be fair.
It wouldn't be fair because the Astra VXR is a very good car indeed. Its aggressive wings, bright alloys and sharp spoiler may be an acquired taste but, for my money, it's one of sexiest looking hot hatches of the year. And on the road it's simply stupendous. It's the most powerful car in its class – it has 29 more horses under its bonnet than its arch rival, the Ford Focus ST – and all that grunt runs through the two front wheels (unlike most performance cars, it isn't rear or all-wheel drive).
The result should be an unmanageable mess, but Vauxhall has succeeded in adding enough technical wizardry to create a driver's dream, not a death trap. Yes, there's a fair amount of torque steer – the feeling that the wheel is tugging in your hands as you accelerate – but this, along with some body-shifting cornering attributes, is all part of the fun.
Of course, it isn't perfect; the suspension is too firm for everyday life, the fuel economy dire in the real world and there's an unforgivable amount of vibration through the steering wheel at sensible motorway speeds. None of these niggles really puts me off though. The Astra VXR, like the soon-to-be-launched Ford Focus ST, is a performance brawler for the masses, not a racing stallion for the global 1 per cent. For that alone it should be celebrated.
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