The Astra VXR is powered by a 2.0 turboed four-cylinder engine, producing around 277bhp, which is funnelled exclusively through the front wheels. Under full acceleration, the VXR makes a sound like a tornado trying to squeeze its way under a barn door. A Tornado jet.
This could be a challenge, I think, as I point the car down that most hallowed of things, the great British B-road. This could be a disaster. Fiscal austerity means that manicuring the country's hedgerows is hardly a top priority, and, a generation ago, the fastest Astra and its rivals would have obliged by doing the local council's job for it and ploughing straight into the green stuff at the first sign of an apex. You can give a front-drive car as much power as you like, but don't expect it to turn and steer at the same time. It just won't work.
Or maybe it will. The VXR isn't totally immune to torque steer, and its fat, flat-bottomed wheel writhes a bit in my hands as the road opens up ahead. There's 295lb ft of torque, from 2,500rpm to 4,500rpm, so some resistance is inevitable. But it also gives you very juicy overtaking potential, not to mention a perceptible and very satisfying shove in the back. This is the sort of real-world usefulness a generation of modern diesels has acclimatised us to, minus the front-end inertia and dead throttle response. There's that turbine whoosh again. It really is an unusual sound, spooky Scooby-Doo rather than, er, turbocharged Subaru.
The real revelation comes when you start stringing corners together. The VXR's electro-hydraulic power steering isn't the last word in feel, finesse or feedback, but it's linear and accurate. Feather the throttle the first couple of times, to get an idea of the car's parameters, and it's clear that it can take more. Much more. It doesn't seem to understeer very much at all, although, to be fair, your senses are primed more with a sense of available grip than the full-spectrum handling kaleidoscope. But we're talking a lot of grip here, the sort you get from a saloon racer on slick rubber rather than a warmed family hatchback. It's heady stuff.
So how have GM's engineers done it? Well, the Astra GTC is an exceptionally able platform from which to start. Like the GTC, the VXR uses the clever HiPerStrut suspension, which reduces camber change and torque steer under cornering no matter how hefty the lateral load, and improves grip and steering precision. I've done a fair few miles in Top Gear's GTC long-termer, so I can tell you straight up that it genuinely works. So much so, in fact, that I rate it as the most able hatchback on sale, and much more fleet-footed than the more grown-up but less focused current Focus or occasionally lumpen Golf.
That's with 187bhp to cope with. The VXR has 90 more horses to corral, and Vauxhall is taking no chances. So the new car uses a Drexler-developed mechanical limited-slip diff, which locks up primarily under full acceleration to maximise traction, but is less vigorous off-throttle. The Astra's traction and stability control systems have also been recalibrated accordingly.
As well as motorsport outfit Drexler, the Astra taps into competition specialists in other key areas. ZF Sachs helped develop bespoke damper settings for the VXR, using bigger pistons, and the Watt's linkage rear suspension that underpins the GTC has been stiffened too. An enlarged front anti-roll bar also helps here, while the car's springs have been beefed up by 30 per cent all round. The front sub-frame rests on special mounts, which improves steering feel and cornering. Finally, the VXR sits 10mm lower.
The wheels and brakes merit particular attention. Yet another motorsport name sorted them - this time, Brembo. And they are mighty for a car of this size, cross-drilled and ventilated 355mm diameter cast-iron discs up front, mounted on an aluminium housing and grabbed by four-piston calipers. The standard wheel is a 19in item, but the (£829) optional forged 20in alloys look terrific and, in tandem with the Brembo discs, reduce unsprung weight over the front axle by an impressive 14.5kg. The rubberwear is by Pirelli. This car is definitely not messing about.
It's pretty too. Credit to Briton Mark Adams, one of the guys who has rescued Vauxhall/Opel from the well of terminal visual tedium it seemed to have fallen head-first into. In fact, the VXR is the work of another Brit, Andrew Dyson, and, like the GTC, it has cleverly consequent lines, as car designers like to call them. In other words, the three signature lines that demarcate its basic silhouette all have a start, middle and an end, rather than faffing about serving no meaningful purpose. The line that wraps round the doorhandle, for example, is genius. The VXR gains some mean air vents and a bigger chin spoiler.
That said, I wouldn't bother with the Aero Pack, which adds side skirts, a body-coloured bar on the grille rather than a chrome effect one and a bi-plane rear spoiler. Mind you, the 20in alloys are part of the Aero deal (something to haggle over with your Vauxhall dealer). The VXR comes in red, blue, black and white to begin with, eschewing the retina-searing range of colours that Ford used on the last-gen Focus RS. I think the VXR could handle something a bit lairier.
Inside, you get a new steering wheel, with a more tactile leather-covered rim and a flat bottom. There's a new gearlever, and VXR logos are sprinkled liberally about the cabin. Much more importantly, the VXR gets bespoke seats, made of a lightweight polyamide/fibreglass composite. They look and feel terrific, but though they're mounted 17mm lower than in the GTC, the driving position is still a little too high. For £495, you can upgrade to an electrically adjustable Performance seat; weigh in to the tune of £1,150, and you get the full leather job, with embossed logos and matching door panels.
The rest of the interior is standard Astra GTC, and feels pretty good as a result. Satnav/mp3/USB is a £712 option; another £437 upgrades the sound system. It's all a bit ‘none-more-black' on this test car, and the graphics inside aren't as smart as the ones outside. Those doors are bloody heavy too, and you have to reach a long way back for the seatbelts.
Right, back on the road. Rather than the wilds of southern Spain or France, this first drive is brought to you from Luton and Bedford, about as real-world as it gets. Around town, the VXR is perfectly well-mannered - you simply wouldn't know it had 277bhp. It doesn't chunter or grump, although its four-pot engine sounds anodyne. I'd feared the worst upon seeing those huge 20in alloys, but the Astra's ride is superb over decaying urban tarmac. The VXR has an active damping system called FlexRide, which adds Sport and VXR modes to the standard set-up, beefing up the dampers further and sharpening up throttle response. On the road, the standard configuration is easily the best compromise, as is usually the way. VXR mode is for track days only.
The chunky gearlever is another one of those faddy items, and the action beyond that is fine, if not as satisfyingly mechanical as, say, a fast Honda's. The rest of the controls are in the same vein, nicely weighted without being fantastically detailed. The VXR is far from being a blunt tool, but it's not surgically precise, either.
There's no arguing with its pace, cornering ability or the crushing competence of its chassis, though. In a class populated with some genuine giant-killers, this might be the best all-rounder of all. At £26,995 - closer to £29k with the right options - it splits the less powerful Golf GTI and harder Scirocco R, and costs more than an optioned MeganeSport. It's way pricier than Ford's upcoming 250bhp, £21,995 Focus ST. All of which suggests real confidence on Vauxhall's part. Luckily, it's not misplaced.
1998cc, 4cyl, FWD, 277bhp, 295lb ft, 34.9mpg, 189g/km CO2, 0-62 in 6.0secs, 155mph, 1475kg
The promise that the Astra GTC always showed has been fulfilled. Stunning chassis and storming performance, if a bit pricey.