Look at the pictures and tell me you haven’t already formed at least an embryonic opinion of the VXR8, Vauxhall’s four-door replacement for the Monaro coupe. I’m guessing that you’re probably already nursing some prejudices against fast Vauxhalls, be they anecdotal or from some unwary brush with a mid-Eighties Astra GTE. The thing is, though, despite the somewhat carefree attitude to elegance, VXR product is pretty much on the button when it comes to delivering on the visual aggression, and the VXR8 is no exception.
First let’s discuss the way it looks. Personally (and this one is sure to divide opinion) I think it has an element of stumpiness despite it being quite a long car. It’s certainly not pretty – the rear lights look too small in the context of a fairly high-waisted bodyshell and there’s a fair bit of plastic filling in the gaps, especially around the front foglamps. It looks heavy too; this is a car that makes its standard 19-inch alloys seem like trolley wheels (20s are better) and I imagine it has the ride and handling engineers reaching for the Anadin. The rear wing size (massive) and position (slap bang in the centre of the rear windscreen) means that you look into the plane of the foil, robbing you of about a third of your rearward vision, and the rear pipes look a bit weedy despite the fact that there’s a gang of four of them. But it does look purposeful. Brutal even. If one steams up in your rearview mirror, I challenge you not to instinctively want to pull over and check there aren’t bite marks in your rear bumper. But enough about the subjective stuff, because this is a car with plenty of other gubbins to talk about if you’re not convinced of its chest-wig first impression.
The nice surprises are easy to spot; this is the fourth generation of the LS2 5967cc V8 that sees duty in the later Monaro VXR and the Corvette. That means just over 400bhp and a slab of blood-raw torque, all driving through a six-speed manual transmission (an auto is a £1,400 option) via a limited-slip diff to the rear wheels. We have four doors and a generous boot, as well as a much-improved and better-equipped interior. We have a 6.0-litre V8. We have more than 400bhp. I know, I mentioned them already, but the point was worth driving home. We have all this for a smidge over £35k, or very roughly half an M5. I’m not really going to compare the two in terms of quality and precision – I just wanted to make the point that here’s a four-door-with-boot that’s just as fast for 3-Series money.
The good news doesn’t stop there. The new car gets blessedly comfy seats, fat enough to spend time in, tight enough to hold you in place when you start to chuck the car around – though personally I can do without the embroidered logo. Barely acceptable in the Eighties, like Flock of Seagulls fringes and cocaine abuse, it’s way out of fashion now. The dash is much nicer, especially around the new Blaupunkt stereo/infotainment centre, crowned by a trio of white dials that match the ones facing the driver. There are better mouldings for the dash top – though some seriously shoddy bits of plastic in other places – and a big feeling of space you simply didn’t get in the more swoopy-roofed Monaro. Even the back seats swallow proper human adults without ritually crippling them first, and they’re damn comfy too, though any fifth passenger has to perch in the middle rather than getting a nice chair to themselves. It all shapes up well under the first bout of scrutiny. Grasp the overly-thick flat-bottomed wheel, fire up the V8 and you’ll be disappointed by the muted noise (of which we’ll discuss more later), but not by the initial impression.
The gearbox is unremarkable – better than the Monaro’s standard ’box, but still a bit rubbery. It locates well enough but can get slightly slack when you’re going for a fast change from, say, second to third. But that doesn’t matter so much when you have immense flexibility at your disposal from that massive motor. And it’s when you start to push the V8 that you realise just how fast this 1,831kg five-seated and booted saloon can be made to go. And it feels... effortless. Where us Europeans froth over high-output, small capacity forced induction turbo units, there’s much to be said for a ruddy great big motor trying to tear the rear wheels off. The VXR8 doesn’t disguise its mass as much as just ignore it. And it really only needs four gears. Trust me, use fifth and sixth as overdrives or prepare to meet and greet your local plod. You will not go unnoticed in a VXR8, and you can’t outrun a helicopter.
The best bit is that it really is a wonderfully dichotomous engine. One minute you’re scraping the belly of 100mph in third gear, bellowing around the roads like a supercharged elephant and trying to inflate Bridgestone’s profit margin, the next you’re cruising as comfortably as any medium-strength large saloon. Better, in many cases. In fact, there’s still a huge feeling that this engine is determinedly unstressed despite its ability to deliver the VXR8’s grin-stretching performance figures; this state of tune just doesn’t bother the LS2 at all. Some of the stats bear out the feeling you get from the seat of your pants – at 50mph in sixth the VXR8 tools along quite happily at 1,200rpm. At 80mph it pulls just 2,100rpm. On my first run out, driving slowly, I got 27.2mpg. That would make a Range Rover Sport owner cry.
Even the suspension feels more grown-up. Yes it’s firm, but it also manages to filter out bad vibes 90 per cent of the time. You lose slightly in body control terms; the VXR8 leans a bit when pressing on and it would actively wallow on a track, but the damping feels spot on for a mixture of normal and fast driving – any harder would lose the day-to-day usability you want from a four-door saloon. Similarly, the steering is too light and lifeless, and the clutch is so assisted it feels broken, but they’re not things you’re likely to complain about if you have this as your only car and are forced to battle the daily grind.
There’s plenty not to like, though it has to be said that some bits are more significant than others. First up there’s minor stuff like the handbrake. It’s a shoddy moulding for a start, but the top-mounted ratchet button (so that the ’brake sits as one of the centre-console ‘spars’ when disengaged) is just plain annoying to use. Similarly, some of the mouldings are cheap and sharp-edged and they tend to be ones you touch most. Then there’s the noise. The VXR8 is just too quiet in standard trim, losing 20mph in your head because it lacks the appropriate soundtrack.
More importantly, the current suspension set-up can generate an off-putting shudder on certain types of roads, especially under hard loads. It’s not a killer, but isn’t what you expect when the car rides so well under normal circumstances. Also, when you switch off the ESP, it isn’t really off. Get too sideways and the system will slap you around the face with a bong and a tap of the ABS. Which isn’t ideal in this most hooligan of Vauxhalls. You have to be seriously committed to get it to re-activate, but GM product liability being what it is, it’s still there, and it still annoys drivers who want full control. What I can say (as long as you promise not to tell anyone), is that it can be deactivated fairly easily if you know what you’re doing. Consult your local internet advisory service for further details.
What we end up with is a car that has loads to recommend it, but nevertheless has some niggling flaws that can’t be classed as ‘characterful’. The VXR8 delivers the same left-field thrill as the Monaro but with more usability – it just needs tweaking. Happily, Vauxhall seems to have realised what VXR buyers want; everything I got most niggled about can be uprated; exhaust (100 of the 105 already ordered in the UK have the bigger pipes optioned), gearbox (by adding a RipShifter), brakes and suspension (developed by Tom Walkinshaw Racing). In fact you can option what is effectively the ‘500’ pack from the outgoing Monaro, which includes all that kit as well as a supercharger (bringing power up to 500bhp) for about six grand. That would make a fully-kitted VXR8 about £41k. It wouldn’t change the crap handbrake lever, but it might make me think about sell