The battle for the hot hatch crown just got interesting with the arrival of the Astra VXR Nurburgring. Duncan Chappell samples the newcomer
If you’re anything like me, these pictures will be giving you flashbacks of car tuning mags, 90s Brit pop and some misspent teenage hours whiling away hours pricing up performance upgrades. Ok, so not everyone was a wannabe boy racer like me, but I bet there aren’t many of you out there not turned on just a little bit by this white-bodied beauty.
Back in the 90s, when I was just getting my first whiffs of petrol, the fight for the best hot hatch title was one of the bloodiest battles on the roads. GTI, SRI, GTE, RS – those letters were a code that meant big time excitement for small time money.
Now, things are little different. Yes, the latest contenders might weigh more than a baby whale and have more gadgetry than a London bachelor pad, but the fight for the hot hatch crown is still one of the most hotly contested out there.
Which brings us to the new contender – the Astra VXR Nurburgring. Some would say a poor marketing attempt to cash in on the fact the hot hatch was ‘developed’ on the legendary German track; others, like me, say who cares, just give us the keys!
Packing the same engine as the standard VXR, the Astra pumps out 237bhp from its turbocharged 2.0-litre unit. And costing £21,295 it’s got some stiff competition from the likes of the Golf GTI, Honda Civic Type R and brilliant Ford Focus ST.
So what’s the Nurburgring got up its sleeve? Well, a shovel load of torque steer, unfortunately. Yes, it packs one almighty punch, but on a twisting A road it takes some fighting. This, depending on which side of the fence you sit, is a good/bad thing. I quite like it – it’s entertaining and certainly gives the car some soul.
Inside, you’re met with an abundance of carbon fibre, big leather sports seats and a chunky sports steering wheel. Climb inside and you don’t even have to take the key out of your pocket to fire it up – just hit the silver start button and you’re away.
On the road, the first thing you notice is the noise. To say the sports exhaust is loud is an understatement – it’s positively operatic. Keep below the power band in town and it’s easy and actually quite civilised. However, fortunately, I had the pleasure of putting the Astra through its paces at Millbrook proving ground on the challenging hill route – a mini-Nurburgring road-cum-track, which is quite fitting for the Astra.
Bury the throttle and it’s like someone has rear-ended you at 100mph. The turbo feels like it’s trying to detach the front of the car, lurching you forward at a pace no hot hatch has the right to. A bit like bullfighting – if you let this beast control you, you’re going to get skewered. Instead you need to tackle it with some force, let it know who’s boss, then you’ll start to enjoy yourself.
Hammering through the precise six-speed box as I thread corners together like conkers on a string, the exhaust lets out a bark on the over-run and I’m transported back to my teenage years, lusting not after Pamela Anderson, but an Astra!
Couple the driving experience with that so-the-darling-of-the-moment white paint scheme, equally pearly alloy wheels and chequered flag graphics and I’m smitten.
The VXR certainly demands respect – it’s not the easiest of hot hatches to drive quickly that’s for sure, but it is one of the most entertaining. So, who’ll be buying it (apart from me)? Well, let’s put it like this – if he comes in with gold chains, tattoos of his Rottweiler on his arms and missing teeth, you’ve got a sale. The VXR is mean with a capital M.