Diesels rarely make the pages of evo. Not because we don’t see the merits of high torque and low fuel consumption, but because they rarely equate to much in the way of genuine driving thrills. A welcome exception is the Thurlby 888 Astra CDTi, the product of a close partnership between imaginative Lincolnshire Vauxhall dealership Thurlby Motors and Triple Eight Race Engineering, Vauxhall’s official BTCC works team.
Based on the standard 150bhp Astra Sport Hatch SRi diesel, the 888 has new suspension, brakes, wheels, tyres and, of course, a significantly gruntier engine. The result is a hatchback every bit as hot as the usual petrol-powered suspects, together with the added benefits of huge mid-range performance and miraculous 40+mpg fuel economy.
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As is the modern way, the extra power comes from re-mapping the electronics. Amusingly, the mapping has been applied in two stages: a standard base level of 165bhp and 275lb ft and the full-on 200bhp/330lb ft, which is unleashed by engaging ‘Sport’ mode via a dashboard-mounted switch. It’s the torque figure that makes the most compelling reading, with that strapping 330lb ft arriving at just 2750rpm. That’s almost 50 per cent more torque than a Focus ST or Astra VXR.
First impressions are mixed. The 888 looks great, with just enough attitude to signal something out of the ordinary. The stance is spot-on, thanks to a 30mm drop in ride height, while the lightweight 18in Dynamics rims, wearing Toyo Proxes T1-R rubber and hiding 335mm discs and four-pot callipers (engineered for Triple Eight by Alcon) complete the quasi-BTCC racer image. Inside isn’t so enticing – it’s just the standard Astra Sport Hatch – but if you’re feeling flush, Recaro seats are available as an option.
On start-up there’s the expected chunter and clatter, but once you’re on the move the engine smoothes out nicely, and noise levels subside. In the 888’s default mode fireworks are in short supply, but press the Sport button and the 888 is transformed, the merest squeeze of the throttle delivering a genuinely surprising and impressive surge of torque. First and second gears come and go rapidly as the revvy (for a diesel) engine punches through to 5000rpm. The real fun is reserved for the taller gears, for they allow you to savour the sensation of the Astra riding a delicious, accessible tide of prolonged mid-range acceleration. As a result, fast, sweeping A- and B-roads can be attacked without dropping below fifth gear, while fourth is seemingly all you need to devour country lanes.
While it’s hard to see anyone disliking the engine performance, it’s easy to imagine some people finding the chassis too focused. With the emphasis on outright pace, the 888 is punishing on bumpy surfaces. What you lose in ride comfort you gain in grip, traction (much needed with that much torque) and feel. Yes, it does torque-steer on bad surfaces in second gear, but it also has a more connected, positive feel than the VXR.
With great brakes (again, an improvement over the VXR, if a little noisier thanks to grooved discs) and an infectious character, you can’t help but drive the 888 Astra hard, everywhere, constantly. In fact, if Subaru built an oil-burning Impreza STi, it would surely be a lot like this. While that’s undoubtedly bad news for your driving license, you escape punishment at the pumps, thanks to the 888’s seeming inability to return much less than 40mpg, with closer to 50mpg on light duties.
Thurlby Motors commissioned a limited run of 100 888 Astras, and it’s a mark of the model’s rapidly acquired cult status that, at the time of writing, all but six have been sold. There are now plans to offer the 888’s engine and chassis upgrades as aftermarket conversions, which is good news for those who’ve missed the boat. Better still, there are plans for further hot oil-burners. Looks like we’ll be featuring a few more diesels, then.
|Engine||In-line 4-cyl, 1910cc, 16v turbo|
|Max power||200bhp @ 3550rpm|
|Max torque||330Ib ft @ 2750rpm|
|Top speed||140mph+ (claimed)|
|On sale||Now (www.thurlbymotors.net)|