20 Aug 2013

2013 Vauxhall Astra VXR review

The Vauxhall Astra VXR, or Opel Astra OPC as it's known in some markets, is Vauxhall's hot hatch contender.  It's a fine car that's practical and fun to drive.
Vauxhall Astra VXR

The Astra VXR is based on the GTC body shell.  The GTC shape is pretty good looking to start with.  Add in some body coloured skirts, a sculpted front spoiler, twin tail-pipes and two rear mounted roof spoilers - one atop the other - and it's a fine looking beast.  Vauxhall have even made the chrome strip which runs across the grille body coloured, which is a good thing.

The wheels are 20 inch options.  They come as part of the £1k Aero Pack, which also includes that extra spoiler, and suit the car well.  Its overall proportions are muscular, lean, aggressive.  It has a forward stance - although on the inside this translates to the windscreen being a huge distance from the driver.

The two swage lines, one slashed down and across the bottom of the door and the other forming a hip over the rear wheel, are perfectly placed.  The Astra GTC is perhaps the best looking of the modern hatchbacks.  Mazda are lauded for their Kodo styling, but this just makes the new Mazda3 look droopy.  The Astra is anything but droopy.
Vauxhall Astra VXR

Its design doesn't hide rear doors though.  It is a 2 door and rear passengers have to clamber in to what is a spacious and well appointed rear seat.

The interior is also bang up to date.  The dash lay-out is slightly over-buttoned and quite confusing at first but once you work out what does what it becomes second nature.  The excess buttons are due to the info screen not being a touch-screen.  Again, its controls can be confusing at first but you get used to them pretty quickly.

The satnav is first class. No car manufacturer's inhouse software is as good as TomTom's but Vauxhall's comes close.  The sound system is excellent and it comes with DAB as standard - although channel selection is confusing at first.  Once you've saved your favourites it's not an issue any more.

Smart phone integration is also good.  As with most manufacturers it uses bluetooth to make calls but you have to plug your phone in to play music through it, which is daft.  In a Volvo the stereo connects with your phone and plays music via bluetooth.  All other manufacturers should do this too.

A bit of a complaint - as with Vauxhalls of old the dash contains some blanked off buttons in prominent locations atop the dash, if the customer hasn't selected every single option.  They really should stop this - it cheapens what is otherwise a pretty classy interior.

The materials used are generally of high quality.  The leather steering wheel feels chunky, although it comes out of the dash a little higher than I'd like.  Leather and aluminium abounds here and there and there is some piano black around the central dash binnacle.  Some of the plastics could be better.

The dials are pretty funky, and turn red when you press the VXR button.  Unless you opt to show the car's speed on the small screen between the rev-counter and speedo 30mph has to be guessed. It shows 20mph, then some lines, then 40mph and is hard to gauge 30 accurately.
Vauxhall Astra VXR interior

The seats are spectacularly adjustable and look the business.  They mainly have manual controls but also have electric bolster and lumbar adjust, and heating.  Despite all this I could never really get 100% comfortable.  I could never put my finger on what was wrong apart from, perhaps, that I am a fussy bugger.

As mentioned above the rear is pretty spacious, although not so much if the front seats are pulled back.  There are plenty of spaces and cubby holes to put your various accoutrements.

The ignition key really is a key (rather than a just being a remote) and is one of only 2 things in the entire car that feels cheap.  The other is the sound the doors and boot make when you shut them.  BMW have sound engineers who tune how the doors (and engine) sound.  Vauxhall obviously do not.

Insert the key in the not-very-great ignition barrel (which feels as though it might not last as long as the rest of the car) and fire up the 4-pot 2 litre turbocharged motor, and it doesn't make much noise.  Well at least that's what I thought from inside.  Someone randomly commented that it sounds good, so take their word for it.

As with any car you can drive the Astra VXR in myriad ways, but I'll sum it up in just two - normal and fast.

If you elect to drive the Astra normally you'll not press VXR or Sport and you will not press Eco (because it's in Eco as a default setting).  You will use the throttle with respect.

Driven normally the Astra is a lovely car.  The hydraulic steering is well tuned, the Brembo brakes strong and the engine has plenty of power, if a little turbo-lag under 2,000rpm.  In fact the engine has lots of power.  It feels just as strong as in the Megane 265 and just as civilised as the V40 T5.

The 6-speed manual gearbox isn't quite up to scratch with the rest of the driving experience.  It feels very Vauxhall, slightly imprecise and spongy.  If I'm honest the car would suit a semi-automatic, flappy paddle gearbox.
Vauxhall Astra VXR from the rear

The ride is pleasant.  The FlexRide suspension does a job good of treading the fine line between a comfortable drive and sharp handling.  Round a corner enthusiastically in normal driving mode and you'll feel just a tiny amount of body roll.

You won't feel any loss of grip though.  The mechanical limited slip differential provides a magically grippy drive.  The Astra rounds corners with more ability than you initially have confidence.  You soon learn that you can keep the power on and the front will refuse to run wide.

It's as if it has more gravity than other cars.

Through town and the gearbox doesn't show up its faults.  Drive it smoothly and you'll be rewarded with a satisfying experience.  And despite being a Vauxhall you will get people staring at the car.  On the motorway it's also pretty pleasant a cruiser.  It doesn't have cruise control though.

In fact it doesn't have many of the toys I've seen on a lot of modern cars.  No cruise control, no lane assist, no blindspot warning system, no reversing camera.  This isn't an issue right now but with the huge advances other manufacturers are making Vauxhall/Opel need to load up the next generation Astra with plenty of gadgets and gizmos or they'll be left behind.

That's normal driving out of the way.  It's basically a great car, and a fine hot hatch.  It's worthy of the term and falls midway between the refinement and tech wizardry of the Volvo V40 T5 and the nuttiness of the Megane 265.

But when you drive it enthusiastically everything changes.  When you 'drive it like you hate it' the Astra VXR becomes a crazed, slavering, batshit-insane monster of a car.

You don't have to engage VXR or Sport modes.  Eco makes no difference other than politely switching off the engine temporarily in traffic jams.

Just press the throttle, hold on to the wheel and have fun.  By god it's fast.  In a straight line...scratch that.  It won't go in a straight line.  276bhp is a lot for the front wheels to handle.  The LSD makes no difference to 1st and 2nd (and even 3rd) gear torque steer.
Vauxhall Astra VXR

In fact it shoots through the revs so quickly in 1st, and the wheel bucks so much that you have to quickly grab at the gearlever to change up in a flash.  A semi-automatic gearbox would make more sense.  Into 2nd and the wheel still tugs in your hands.  Into 3rd and it settles down somewhat and just shoots towards the horizon.

Just driving it in a straight line is a fun, involving experience.

Find a corner and you think it has less grip than it actually does.  The LSD gives us glue to stick to the road.  No chirrup as the inside wheel slips.  Turn in, hold power, hang on, keep steering steady, fly out of corner.  Carry on.  Enjoy.

Find a series of corners and the Astra flings itself around them with merry abandon, like a race car.  Specifically a BTCC car.  You get the feeling in standard trim this thing would do well in a touring car race - it's that fast in all conditions.

Amazingly it's less serene than the Megane 265.  It's involving and tiring.  It demands your attention.  You come out of a fast blat with sweat on your brow, clammy palms and a huge smile on your phizog.

Take it for a spin on a fast A-road with sweeping bends and you risk losing sight of the speedo, and your licence.  Your eyes are fixed on the horizon, the apex.  Speed becomes a mere part of the mix of emotions you're feeling.  You have to tell yourself to hold back.  The VXR outgrows public roads very easily.  It would make a great track car.

Take it for a spin on back roads and it stays stuck to the road but bounces you around in the cabin.  Flip right, left, throttle, brakes.  Slam on the anchors, stamp on the accelerator.  It's a fizzy, fun ride.

Press the VXR button in any condition and the dials turn red, the suspension hardens and the whole experience gets even more intense. Apparently the steering weights-up too but I didn't notice.  Corners can be taken faster, the condition of the road surface becomes agonisingly apparent.  When you speak it sounds as though your voice has been channeled through a tremelo pedal.

Fillings will be lost.

The steering is sharp, not as smooth as a Jaguar's but gives reassuring amounts of feedback.  The engine has some turbo-lag and you have to work the 'box to stay above 2,000rpm.  It is frustrating to cruise into a roundabout with no down-change, apply throttle and have to wait for power.

The brakes are pretty phenomenal.  They are big, beefy Brembo affairs with decent feel and great stopping power.  After lots of enthusiastic miles I didn't experience any brake fade, although the discs were radiating so much heat I thought the tyres might melt.

It lets you access 90% of its performance without any trouble.  This is normal driving mode.  It's in getting that extra 10% where the car turns from practical hatchback cruiser into the mentalmobile.

On to more practical matters.

We've established the interior is quite spacious with lots of storage space and cubby holes.  There's a decent sized space above the gearstick which is angled at such a degree that phones will not fly out, however hard you try.  This is a good thing.

The boot is pretty big, although the lip is high and not very wide.  Access to the back seats is OK but once you've pulled the front seat forwards it loses track of where it was and, if you're like me, you then spend ages getting it just right again.

The A-pillar is split into two, presumably to aid structural stability.  The trouble is this tends to invade a decent proportion of the road.  Roundabouts, kerbs and apexes have to be anticipated because they won't be seen when you are upon them.
Vauxhall Astra VXR A-pillar

The turning circle is also pretty dire.  Well, actually, I thought it was dire but I just looked it up and it's 11 metres, which is exactly the same as its competitors.  Maybe the 20 inch wheels make it seem dire.  Whatever, I retract my previous statement.  The turning circle is average.

Economy is quoted as being 34.9mpg.  Through most of my week with the VXR I achieved much below that.  I specifically tested the economy on a run, to see if I could achieve 30mpg - and nearly succeeded.  Take a look at this video I shot for more details.


I've been hugely impressed with the Astra VXR.  It's a practical hatchback that's also a hot hatch hooner.  It's the best looking hatch on the market, the interior is great and it feels well built.  It feels like a car that's built to last, apart from the ignition barrel.

If you can't get your head around the Vauxhall badge and you are in the market for a hot hatch then you need to test drive one.  You may well find that your prejudice against the marque is ill-founded.  It draws admiring glances from Joe Public and it feels good to be in and drive.

The economy isn't great, and I never did find a truly comfortable driving position, but I would thoroughly recommend the Astra VXR as a rival to the established hot hatches - and just as a decent car.


Price - £26,995
Engine - 2.0 petrol, 4-cylinder, turbocharger
Transmission - 6-speed manual
0-60mph - 5.9 seconds
Top speed - 155 mph
Power - 276 bhp
Torque - 295 lb ft
Economy - 34.9 mpg
CO2 - 189 g/km
Kerb weight - 1,475 kg

Vauxhall Astra VXR engine

Vauxhall Astra VXR brakes