NOT so long ago the hot hatch scene was less fashionable than flared trousers. Sky-high insurance premiums thanks to inflated theft and accident risks plus competition from other sectors of the market pushed hot hatches close to extinction.
What a difference a few years have made. Now you can't move for beefed-up family hatchbacks boasting 200-plus horsepower. With the help of a more enlightened insurance industry and a new generation of older, wiser and more affluent buyers, Volkswagen's Golf GTI is once again staring to feel some heat.
The current hot hatch line-up reads like an 1980s school reunion: Ford, Renault, Volkswagen and Vauxhall. And it's the latter maker that hopes to give an on form Renault something to worry about with its 276bhp VXR-badged Astra.
Occupying the upper end of the hot hatch market in the horsepower stakes, this Astra VXR builds on the efforts of the previous model. Along with the rising horsepower count, this more streamlined-looking Astra boasts a mechanical limited slip front differential, a trick exhaust system and a choice of driver-controlled modes to alter suspension, throttle and steering feel to match the prevailing conditions.
While Ford is taking the softly-softly approach with its Focus ST – low-key looks, family-friendly ride quality and lower asking price – Vauxhall is making no excuses for its hardcore Astra. Like the Renaultsport community, the VXR fan base is an enthusiastic one and Vauxhall is keen to ensure the Astra slots seamlessly alongside the fire-breathing VXR8 and the feisty Corsa ‘Ring Edition.
And it only takes a quick glance at the Astra’s specification to convince you that Vauxhall means business. From the 2.0-litre turbo motor’s trick induction system to detailed changes to the brakes, suspension and cabin, it’s a car that’s begging to be driven. The raw figures are particularly revealing, with the zero to 62mph time of 5.9 seconds tallying with the engine’s 295lb ft torque figure. Fortunately there’s also a green side to the Astra, as it emits a respectable 189g/km of CO2 alongside 34.9mpg on the official combined cycle.
With lots of torque available from low down the rev range and an eager to spin turbocharger, the Astra’s engine is capable of assisting the car in delivering a devastating turn of speed. The deep-throated whoosh from the exhaust is the most obvious clue as to your progress as there’s little fuss from the suspension as you blast along country roads. Via the Sport and VXR modes you can increase the suspension’s stiffness and add weight to the steering and throttle responses, with the latter offering a combination that will likely appeal to trackday fans.
Although rapid to the point of indecently quick, the Astra remains well-mannered at all times. Sure, you can turn off all the electronic aids and drive it like you stole it, but for the vast majority the alphabet soup of safety kit will be viewed as a help not a hindrance to making progress.
Like any hot hatch, there’s a good chance that an Astra VXR will head to the track. Vauxhall’s support for the enthusiast community is considerable, and it’s in this environment where the car demonstrates a considerable talent for corners, thanks in part to its limited slip differential. Although the steering could do with a touch more weight, there’s no denying that the Astra’s combination of ample torque and thoroughly sorted chassis help deliver a confidence-inspiring performance at all speeds.
Throw in an electronic traction and stability system that helps rather than frustrates when the going is wet, and the Astra is as potent in the real world as Renault’s hot Megane, which is high praise indeed considering the French car’s smile-inducing reputation.
At first glance the Astra VXR visually doesn’t look capable of giving the likes of Renault’s quick Megane a sleepless night. However, behind its slick and streamlined exterior lies a highly developed engine and chassis capable of delivering Porsche Boxster-rivaling acceleration and an assured and entertaining ride respectively.
This Astra is no bare-knuckle hooligan, however, as its upmarket cabin and generous level of standard equipment shows. And that’s a testament to Vauxhall’s ever-improving ability to blend refinement with sizeable levels of accessible performance across the VXR range. That said, it’s a genuine Megane-bothering machine, which is high praise indeed in this once again crowded hot hatch market.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Vauxhall Astra VXR, from £26,995 on the road.
Engine: 2.0-litre petrol unit developing 276bhp.
Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 154mph, 0-62mph 5.9 seconds.
CO2 Rating: 189g/km.
- Power4 (higher than average performance)
- 0-60 mph
- Economy3 (average fuel economy)
- Insurance groups3 (average costs)
Motors.co.uk value verdict: