It’s the little details that count. Well, they count for people like us. It’s the little details that can make a car more than the sum of its parts, that can inject some magic. I mean, who didn’t revel in the M Division’s very public decision to ditch runflat tyres just when BMW was insisting on lead boots for the rest of the range? Or smile when Porsche Motorsport stuck a six-speed manual gearbox in its GT3 and GT2 models on the grounds that it was lighter and because PDK simply wasn’t good enough yet?
The new Astra VXR has a killer detail of its own. God knows how, but the engineering team persuaded the GM bosses that they needed to re-engineer the steering system, swapping electric assistance for hydraulic. It’s enough to make a grown man weep. Well, at least let out a little cheer. That’s commitment to the hot hatch cause.
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The bigger details are that the new Astra VXR has a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 276bhp at 5500rpm and a forearm-snapping (perhaps) 295lb ft between 2500 and 4500rpm. Vauxhall claims this 1475kg machine will hit 60mph in 5.9sec and go on to 155mph, the launch helped by a Drexler mechanical limited-slip differential. The VXR also features HiPerStrut front suspension, so the MacPherson strut doesn’t turn but instead a separate hub carrier does, helping reduce torque-steer.
This is state-of-the-hot-hatch-art stuff, and last month we were blown away by the VXR’s performance on the Nürburgring, where it displayed deeply impressive speed and stability. It now has to repeat that on UK roads, and to justify its steep £26,995 asking price it has to hold its own against the very best.
And here they are. The Focus RS is no longer on sale but it’s the top predator around these parts. With a turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder motor, 300bhp and 324lb ft, the RS has character and power in abundance. The VXR has a similar spirit, and if it can combine the Ford’s fire with the breathtaking ability of our other contender, the Mégane 265 Cup, then it will truly be something special. Forget Golfs, Sciroccos, Cupras and even the RS3. The Mégane is the real beating heart of the hot hatch segment for those who prize dynamics over the satisfying action of an electric window switch or a cabin’s ambient lighting.
The VXR looks the part, especially with the optional Aero Pack (£995), which includes 20in wheels. It’s a bit bland when viewed dead head-on but from every other angle the VXR is taut, sculpted and looks like a quality item. Hop into the stylised seats and try not to stare for too long at the million buttons on the centre console for fear of getting a migraine. Nope, still not a VW in here. Still, the seat is supportive, ahead there’s a big pair of hooded dials, one red-lined at 6500rpm, the other reading up to 180mph, and you can pull the steering wheel in tight and wind the seat base down low. Better still, the pedals – usually floppy and inconsequential in VXR products – are well weighted and positioned. These are good signs.
The engine starts with the sort of flat, tuneless energy of an old Mitsubishi Evo. It’s not pretty, but it sounds urgent. The gearshifter is a big, slightly awkward oblong shape (although nowhere near as bad as the old Astra VXR’s) and the shift doesn’t require much strength but still manages to feel stodgy. However, the ride and steering-feel have a lighter touch. Sachs adjustable dampers ratchet from Normal (the default) to Sport and then VXR mode, steering weight and throttle map ramping up in unison. There’s plenty of supple response in the standard mode and nothing in the way of float, and that hydraulic steering has a light fluidity if little gritty feedback.
We’re near Great Shefford in Berkshire and the roads here are wickedly tight; lined by high hedgerows, they roll and plunge with the landscape. You can’t carry speed around here. Instead you point, shoot, brake hard and give it everything again out of the next corner. In damp conditions the VXR shows remarkable traction despite its spikier-than-expected delivery. Below about 3500rpm the engine feels a little flat, revs picking up slowly, throttle response characterised by a sort of gluey viscosity. Thereafter it gets into its stride and hits hard and long, just fading past 6000rpm. Even so there’s no hint of wheelspin, most of the force directed down to the road and a bit escaping as fairly severe torque-steer.
Aside from the sometimes pinballing progress, the VXR is a picture of control. It has excellent brakes with solid feel, resists understeer beautifully and remains steadfastly on line no matter how optimistic your entry speed or clumsy your mid-corner throttle-work. On these severe roads you’ll need to select Sport to stop the body floating away from the dampers, but VXR mode is just a shade too crashy and seems to reduce wheel travel, so you trouble the bump-stops all too frequently. Nevertheless, you can make storming progress, front weaving but driving hard, engine right in its sweet spot between 4500 and 5500rpm, suspension parrying most of the bumps and only occasionally thumping at the bottom of a compression. It’s effective, it’s fast… but you do feel the VXR’s 1475kg in rapid direction changes and you sense that despite its edgy spec and aggressive aero kit, the Astra is so busy getting 276bhp to the road that absolute agility has been sacrificed.
The Mégane looks dinky when it’s parked beside the Astra, which is odd because it looked huge in the mirrors. With 261bhp and 265lb ft in this recently updated ‘265’ form (£24,825), it’s mildly outgunned by the Vauxhall, but it’s a useful 88kg lighter and so has a 1bhp per ton advantage at 191bhp per ton. These are fine margins but somehow the driving experiences are poles apart. The sheer fizz that seeps out of every pore of the Cup starts with an engine that revs much more cleanly, as though its flywheel is running in a vacuum compared with the inertia-filled VXR. The six-speed ’box snicks where the Astra’s slops, the brakes respond instantly but without the Vauxhall’s snatchy initial bite. Even the steering feel – the electric steering feel – is more consistent and has more natural weighting. And it directs a front end of amazing precision that finds even better traction without any of the torque-steer.
Unfortunately the VXR’s challenge deflates with every corner that the Cup scythes through on three wheels, grip bleeding away and oozing back into focus, chassis demonstrating incredible agility and an almost hypnotic fluidity. The 2-litre turbo engine is fierce, the brakes match it, and the grip is enough to push you into the side bolsters of the slim Recaros with real force, and yet the Renault also seems to round off every edge of those harsh sensations. The Cup is a quite astonishing car to drive quickly. Get into a rhythm with it and it feels 200kg lighter than the VXR. And this is an Astra transformed from the last and a pretty damn good hot hatch itself.
A cresting left into a steep down-then-up rollercoaster right hairpin shows up where the Mégane scores over the Astra in absolute terms. The Astra hurtles into the left, inside wheels with clear air underneath, then thumps down hard on its outside suspension, sending a shudder through the structure and a kick through the steering. It settles quickly and stays rock-solid into the right, driving hard on the way out with just a flare of wheelspin and a big left-to-right weave as the torque deflects the front wheels.
The Cup mimics the VXR on the way in but there’s no crash as the weight settles, no shimmy or crack through the steering, and you can drive deeper into the next right-hander as the chassis is so poised. The rear of the Mégane is also keener to edge wide and help the front tyres out, so you need less steering lock and can be more aggressive with the throttle on the way out without overloading the tyres. On nip-and-tuck roads it just gives you more tools to use the performance but, more importantly, it feels so much more exuberant and willing to entertain and flatter. It’s getting slightly dull heaping praise on the Mégane Cup, but this test once again shows just how complete a drivers’ car it is. As Stephen Dobie says after another breathless drive: ‘There can’t be many better all-rounders on sale. It feels unbeatable at the minute.’
You can’t wander into a Ford showroom and buy a new Focus RS, but with residuals holding firm at around £22,000 it looks like a smart buy, and if you want aggression and excitement there’s little to touch the wild gills, flares and spoilers of the Ford. Andrew James’s Ultimate Green baby looks hilariously pumped-up even beside the VXR, but it’s one of those cars you really, really want to drive. The Alcantara and leather seats are mounted way too high but are terrifically comfortable. The rest of the interior is, frankly, awful. The plastic used for the door cards is Happy Meal toy spec, the carbon-look surround for the centre console is clumsy… The Renault feels like a Phantom compared with the RS.
Press the Power button on the transmission tunnel and the 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine instantly sets it apart from the VXR and Cup. It sounds bigger, like it’s been shoehorned into the mid-sized hatchback, and that timeless, deep, mellow warble makes a few crappy bits of trim seem inconsequential. It makes you smile.
Weighing 8kg less than the Astra, and with 300bhp and a bulging 324lb ft, the RS wins the power-to-weight battle with 208bhp per ton and should murder the other two in the mid range. But forget the numbers and feel the noise. If the paintwork didn’t give the game away, here’s a car with a sense of humour.
We’ve burst out of the hedgerows and on to wider plains but the heavens have opened again. The RS is a hoot but a surprise, too. Firstly, despite having its own limited-slip differential, it can’t summon anything like the traction of the other two and wheelspins all the way to the top of third gear. Of course the engine’s thick torque-curve doesn’t help, but that’s surprise number two: the RS doesn’t feel that quick. Okay, it gets up and running a little quicker than the Renault, but for all the low- and mid-range strength it lacks the frenzied rush to the red line of the smaller-capacity engine and hence its delivery feels more leisurely but also a bit less exciting. Wow. When the RS was launched it felt like a rocket- ship. It’s amazing to think how quickly the others have caught and perhaps surpassed the benchmark.
What the RS hasn’t lost is any of its fantastic balance. In fact, as the benchmark Renault has become more and more stable and its adjustability more about fine margins than big angles, the RS’s determination to oversteer is startling. It has very, very quick steering and in combination with that oversteery balance the RS always feels on edge, keen to provide maximum agility but demanding the driver understands they have a serious role to play. On this road and in these conditions it’s heart-thumpingly (sometimes heart-stoppingly) exciting as long straights are interrupted by fast third-gear chicanes. Well, I doubt the Highways Agency would call them chicanes, but you know what I mean. Anyway, you brake, downchange and then roll into the corner. Lift – even a bit – and the rear skips wide. Take the decision to carry lots of speed in and have a big lift on entry and it slides like a front-wheel-drive rally car, waiting for you to pick up the throttle and drive cleanly away. Yee-haa…
I retrace my steps on to the evilly jagged roads from this morning and that adjustability and the speed of the steering remain unique and enticing ingredients. However, the obvious lack of traction compared with the others – although way better than a front-driver without an LSD – and the relative looseness of the damping ultimately dial back the pace and also the enjoyment. On a really testing road, the RS’s body control just can’t live with the VXR’s nor the sublime Renault’s. The Focus also seems to lack some structural rigidity, buzzing and shaking and finding bumps that the Mégane in particular didn’t even notice. Even so, it is positively brimming with character and an infectious enthusiasm to get stuck in. The RS is simple, uncomplicated fun.
So where does that leave the VXR? The short and cruel answer is in no-man’s-land. It hasn’t quite got the control or dazzling handling of the Mégane, nor the ability to entertain, the sheer feel-good factor of the RS. However, I don’t want to give the impression that the VXR is a bad car. It has strong performance, great traction and stability, and finds amazing grip in the wet. On faster, smoother roads it’s an effective and extremely competent car. I even like the torque-steer, which at least gives it some dynamic edge to make you appreciate that 276bhp through two front wheels is still a challenge. And we’re not talking original Focus RS pull-you-into-oncoming-traffic stuff here.
Sadly the VXR finds itself in the presence of greatness. Think of the 265 Cup as the Porsche GT3 of hatches, or the Ferrari 458. A product of obsessive attention to detail, relentlessly honed and tweaked, every last bit of performance and precision eked out of every single component. The VXR might have hydraulic steering, it might have a limited-slip diff, it might call the Nürburgring home. All the sorts of little details that we love. But today it took on the best, and on any road we threw at them, the best just got better. One day somebody will make a better hot hatch than Renaultsport. We can’t wait to drive it.