The hot hatch is the preserve of young, enthusiastic petrolheads the country over. No doubt seen as a blight by some, these cars offer staggering performance at an incredibly reasonable price. Well, it's reasonable before your insurance company tells you how much you're going to have to cough up each year in premiums.
The new Astra VXR promises a lot. First, it's supposed to be a lot more refined than the previous model, which some claimed was just too aggressive when placed into the eponymous VXR mode. Suffice to say, money has been spent and research carried out to make this car a lot more attractive.
So, how does it drive, and is it worth the £27,000 asking price?
You could take a snobbish view of the Astra. It's not German, and GM cars have at times, struggled to gain respect with those who think its cars aren't as well built as their German cousins. But, whatever your view on construction quality, we don't think you can argue that this car is anything but stunning to look at.
Indeed, we think it's a more stylish than anything VW has produced. It's a little more garish, perhaps, so where the Golf is a bit more understated, the VXR looks like a sports car. You can argue your preference, but we honestly don't think you can argue that this is a very pretty car.
It's also quite aggressive though, so it probably won't appeal to everyone, but at least this is more than just a bodykit. This impressive external style is just the icing on what is a technologically advanced cake, with plenty of magical ingredients to keep you on the road.
Oh, and those bi-colour, 20-inch alloy wheels are some of the nicest we've seen on a car. Especally a sub-£30,000 car. They're a £1,000 option, but they make the whole car look even more impressive, and are probably worth the cash, if you want something that out-classes everything else in its price range.
Inside, the design remains impressive, but the Astra distances itself from German cars a little here too. For one thing, there are almost endless buttons festooning the dashboard and steering wheel. One of the most striking things we noticed about the VW and Audi cars we've driven is how uncluttered the centre colum feels from controls. The same can't be said here. The Astra might not even have more buttons, but their size and placement make the console feel cluttered. It's not enough to put us off, but we think the interior could be improved.
As you'd expect of the steering wheel, there are controls for cruise control and the music system. These are fine, but there are rather a lot of them and they're a little bit fiddly and not that positive in their action. They're good to have, but this is done better in other cars. And, as a result, for music controls, we always found ourselves reaching for the dash unit instead.
For those who need to ferry family or passengers around, there's good news. The boot is huge. The bad news, however, is that this is really a two-seater car. There are rear seats, but legroom is so ridiculously absent, that adults won't want to sit back here at all, and children will find it a bit of a pain - although the noise the engine and exhaust system make should keep the little ones amused. In this area, VW has the lead, because there is bags of room in the back of the Golf.
There are two other minor problems. The first is the electronic handbrake. This works well, and not having to manually disengage it when you pull off is nice, but frankly we prefer a lever. And secondly, there's an armrest in the front. It gets in the way in either of its two positions, and like the hateful lump of nonsense in the Audi A3, we'd be tempted to rip the thing out with our teeth if we thought we could. Armrests in the front a for lazy drivers, and have no place in performance cars. That's our opinion anyway.
Too much power?
Vauxhall is defying the conventional wisdom here, and has put around 280bhp through the two front wheels of the Astra. What this means is that you have a car with potential to do you quite a bit of damage, as it flings you off the road under heavy acceleration. But, fortunately, not wanting the lawsuits, Vauxhall has included some clever electronics here that should keep the car on the road, safe and sound.
That's not to say you can't feel the car pulling under acceleration, because you can, and if the road surface is less than stellar, you'll more than likely notice it a lot more. Hit a decent sized hump, and things can get a little tense for a while. But for the most part, Vauxhall has done a terrific job in giving a car more power than it should rightly have, but still making it fun to drive.
One thing we really did enjoy, was the near-lack of turbo lag. Pressing the accelerator delivered power very quickly indeed. This is because of the way Vauxhall has engineered the Turbo, which starts to make itself known at around 1400rpm. The car isn't totally without a pause while you wait for the power, but it's nothing like as bad as other cars we've driven in the past.
What's more, the VXR seems to have got almost everything else right too. The tyres and stiff body mean that it feels incredibly well planted on the road. It makes for a fun driving experience, and one that genuinely inspires confidence in the machine you're in.
And, a word on the engine sound. Thanks to some engineer tinkering, the sound this car produces is a lot of fun. There's a sort of whooshing sound that appears very high up the range: Vauxhall describes it as sounding like a jet, and we suppose it does. It's certainly a noise that we rather enjoyed. On the downside though, at around 3000rpm, there's a droning that appears until about 4000rpm that isn't entirely great and drowns out any conversations you might be having.
The good news is that at lower speeds the Astra drives beautifully. The ride is always going to be firm, but the high-tech seats seem to make it a comfortable kind of firm. We drove almost all day, and would have happily stayed in the driving seat longer, if time hadn't run out. The dashboard reminds you to change up, so encourages economy, and the engine is peaceful at low revs.
Vauxhall has done a great job adding some useful stuff in to the VXR. Sat nav is an option at £855, but comes with enhanced speakers. We really, genuinely liked the way the sat nav worked though, and it's probably worth considering.
We'd also strongly suggest you get the rear parking sensors too. They're only £200, and the view out of the rear window isn't brilliant. You could probably get by without them, but it's a risk we think you probably won't want to take, for the sake of a few tanks of petrol money.
You get a DAB radio too, which is something many car firms have dragged their heels over. Sound quality is good, but not spectacular - we had the upgraded system fitted in our test car. You also get the usual USB socket, SD card slot and iPod control. All very handy, and so nice to see included in the price - yes, we're scowling at you, VW/Audi.
But, put simply, the standard car, at £27,000 has more than enough technology to keep most drivers happy. Spend a grand more though, and you'll have a car that has more driving aids than any German car, especially at this price.
The polar bears will not thank you
The Astra might be a laugh-and-a-half to drive, but its green credentials aren't perfect. That said, Vauxhall has done some sensible things to keep the car as eco-friendly as possible. For example, you can turn off all the VXR modes, keep it in Eco and enjoy the benefits of slightly improved fuel economy.
The company has also included start/stop, although this is disabled in sport and VXR modes. What that means is that for normal driving you won't use petrol when you're stuck in traffic. We tested this, and it's slick and works well. Certainly, when you're going about your day-to-day driving, this is worth having.
Vauxhall reckons you'll see 34.9mpg, which you may well do under just the right circumstances. We drove the car hard, and pushed it all the way up the rev range, and we saw between 21and 26mpg out of it. But this was not a test based on normal driving, so you should consider it worst case.
For company car types, bear in mind that the VXR produces 189g of CO2 per km, so prepare yourself for a large tax bill, and one that's going to get steeper over the next few years.
The VXR offers incredible value for fun. At little bit less than £30,000, no one is going to acuse it of being cheap, but what you get is a car that offers more than its rivals at a better price.
Vauxhall has also listened to the critics. Many of whom claimed that the last model was just too aggressive in the VXR mode, and that the car wasn't refined enough to compete with hot hatches from France and Germany. Now, the sporty Astra is the best looking hot hatch on the road, and has more power than almost any of its competition
Of course, there are some who will prefer the Golf and Focus. And we can see that too, but the Astra made us smile, laugh and hoot with joy as we flew around tiny country roads with a feeling of control and sensation of great speed and acceleration. If you're in any doubt, book a test drive, but be prepared to want one after you do.