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Future Classic Friday: Vauxhall Astra VXR

Published 08 December 2017

High performance models have always been a mainstay of the Vauxhall Astra line-up, ever since the Mk1 GTE made its debut in 1983. 

They've always been properly honed performance cars, too. That first GTE was rapid for its time and incredibly agile - much more so than the equivalent Ford Escort XR3 of the same era - while the Mk2 Astra GTE took things one step further, especially in 150bhp 'red top' 16v form, where it was borderline lethal.

Of course, 150bhp doesn't sound much by today's hot hatch standards, but back then cars were much lighter and far less encumbered by electronics and safety equipment. It was plenty enough, thank you.

By the time the Mk5 Astra appeared in 2004, though, the Astra was starting to get a bit soft around the edges. It was far more refined and better built than ever before, but the once-hallowed SRi badge was now nothing more than a sporty-ish trim level, and although there was a 197bhp turbocharged model in the line-up, it was actually quite a refined and mature car. Likeable, rapid and surprising, but nevertheless subdued.

Vauxhall Astra VXR (3)

All of that changed, though, when Vauxhall launched the Astra Sportshatch later that year. The three-door Astra recalled a name from Vauxhall's past (as opposed to in mainland Europe, where Opel referred to it as the GTC). There was a distinct difference in the way the three- and five-door Astras were marketed, with the three-door aimed at a much more youthful market. That meant it got leaner, edgier styling and a different front end, while it was also only offered in Design and SRi trim levels, which were very much the higher end specifications.

To set the bar more definitely, though, a full-on performance model was called for, and that car was the Astra VXR (or OPC in Opel parlance). It was previewed in late 2004, and went on sale in 2005.

The VXR differed externally from the SRi by virtue of its trapezoidal chrome exhaust, 18-inch alloys, side skirts, front splitter and distinctive roof spoiler, while inside it got leather VXR-branded bucket seats, some fairly indiscreet badging and a starter button - a common feature today, but back in the mid-noughties such a feature was reserved as part of the sensory experience of driving a performance car, rather than turning on an electric one. How times have changed...

Under the bonnet, the VXR got a 236bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, which added to that sensory experience. It wasn't at all refined, nor was it particularly sophisticated, with torque steer akin to a 1980s Saab and all-or-nothing power delivery, but in many respects that was part of the VXR's appeal. As a point-to-point hot hatch, there wasn't anything much quicker. The VXR was also significantly cheaper than a Focus RS, more engaging than a Honda Civic Type R and brasher than a VW Golf GTi, which was very much the hot hatch star of the era.

Vauxhall Astra VXR (2)

Contemporary road tests favoured the VXR's more sophisticated rivals back in the day, but today the full-on Astra has something of an anachronistic charm. It was part of the VXR brand launch strategy, which focused very much on compromise-free performance, and there's no denying that the Astra delivered. And it was quick. Blisteringly so. 

Indeed, in 2008, an Opel OPC in standard tune, and driven by Opel's then PR boss, Frank Klaas, completed the famous 'Green Hell' at the Nurburgring in a time of 8:35 - the quickest time ever achieved by a hot hatch. 

To celebrate, a special edition VXR 'Nurbrgring Edition' appeared, in white with white alloys and a chequered flag graphics. It was outwardly a bit tacky, but its race-tuned Remus sports exhaust made up for it, with its characteristic fizz-pop-bang on the overrun.

The VXR disappeared in 2009, its replacement a much more cultured and refined performance car. But in many ways, the loss of the old-school VXR was a shame. There were other hot hatches of the era that handled better, there were other hot hatches that were nicer to sit in, smoother, and technologically more advanced. These are facts that cannot be ignored, and if a pure driver's car is what you're after, then you're probably looking in the wrong place.

Vauxhall Astra VXR (4)

If, however, you're looking for something that will reward your inner hooligan and put a bloody great smile on your face every time you get behind the wheel, even though you know it's flawed, you've found it. Yours from £3500 - they probably won't ever get much cheaper.

Comments

   on 9 December 2017

The current GTC Vxr is probably the best hot hatch since the GTE. The gtcis a better car in evey way, offing a fantastic drivers car and cruiser . However the GTE was a special car at a special time for hot hatches. (a bit like now actually) .

Mum had an xr3i her mate, our neighbour the GTE. . I have the lesser 200bhp gtc (vs the Vxr 280iirc),and the chassis and set up is just brilliant. The last gen 3 door astra Vxr is not a patch on the current GTC Vxr, (either is the old normal astea3 door vs the gtc, it's grown up alot)

Side point, what was the point of the whole gtc development process object, I was quite excited when I seen the look of the new 5 door astra, even more so when I heard the press talk of it's "dynamic drive". Well being given one by the insurance when my gtc went in. It was clear, the hyperlink suspension and broadly the watts multilink rear suspension is not been brought over. It had poor dynamics. I did like the 1.4 smaller output engine in the new astra, quite pokey, and enough for a car with so so handling. Decent to 40, and ok on the motorway. I really did think the gtc set up would have the new 5 door body and updated interior. That would make a good focus competitor and even in estate form be an option for the Octavia lot. Maynee

Maybe there is no way profit / demand for a great handling astra. Maybe the majority of buyers, don't want to pay the extra for dynamics. They just want a 90-130bhp A to b box that's adequate. Which is the astra to a tea.

Side side note, who is the boring 5 door entry corsa aimed at? If it's ops, then who is the viva aimed at. The 3 doors Sri trim with 1l 3cy is aimed at your 17yo wannabe boy racer, the Adam the teenage/youngvman/lady hipster. None are getting the entry 5 door. When either up grade (staying in the Vx bubble) the corsa with Sri body gets the gtc, the hipster will go normal astra with leather, then life dictates where after that.

I see the viva and the entry 5 corsa to be two terrible cars aimed at the same buyer. I'd tell BT he to get the skoda city go, fiesta ghia or i10/20 over the top of cheap Vx cars.

Chris Gordon    on 9 December 2017

I bought a silver Astra GTC SRi 1.4 turbo automatic from our local Vauxhall dealer 2 years ago with only 1400 yes that's right 1400 miles on the clock and they threw in mudflaps (a must for me) and fitted carpets for £11.000 and they treated the body with a special coating to protect the paintwork so you need never to polish the car again just wash and go! and I must say it goes like a bomb and is very economical if you're a sensible driver, my wife & I both love it best car we've ever owned

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