Those 20" wheels and the bodykit ensure theres no mistaking this as the hottest Astra to date

Those 20" wheels and the bodykit ensure there's no mistaking this as the hottest Astra to date

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It's not often that Vauxhall gets to launch a car before Opel but in the case of the new Astra VXR it makes sense: the UK will be the largest market for this fastest version yet of the brands' C-segment hatchback.

In mainland European markets, the new model will be the Opel Astra OPC (Opel Performance Center) but apart from the obvious changes to steering wheel location and imperial/metric speedo and odo, the cars are identical. Production of both plus an RHD Opel Astra OPC for the Irish Republic has just started at GM's Gliwice plant in Poland. All come down the same line as other Astras.

This being a three-door car, the model name really should be Astra GTC VXR but Vauxhall says it wanted to keep the badging simple. And besides, there's only the one bodystyle. The VXR, which is right now arriving in showrooms, sits at the top of the Astra price lists.

The strategy of making this high performance variant exclusively available with the GTC bodyshell is in contrast to some of GM Europe's major rivals. The Ford Focus ST is soon to be rolled out globally as a five-door hatchback, plus in the UK and selected other countries, as an estate too.

The Volkswagen Scirocco R and Mégane RenaultSport 265 Cup are acknowledged as other challengers but at £26,995, the VXR undercuts them by around £4,000 and £2,000 respectively according to Vauxhall. As ever with such claims, it pays to examine the facts and make up your own mind according to what sort of features you feel you want or need. This being an enthusiast's car, automatic transmission is not available - a six-speed manual is the sole transmission.

The car does come well equipped, but you can still choose to spend an extra £1,150 on leather upholstery (you also get seat heaters and electric adjustment), £995 on the Aero Pack (spoilers and side skirts), and £790 for adaptive headlights. Among the less pricey extras are electrically folding mirrors, dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors and embedded Bluetooth connectivity.

Standard equipment includes the usual remote locking, alarm, trip computer and six airbags, but you also get a DAB receiver, cruise control, automatic wipers and hill start assistance, plus VXR logos on the floor mats, instrumentation panel and gear knob. There's also a unique steering wheel (heating for its rim is available at extra cost), drilled pedals, and sports seats that place you lower in the car than in any other three-door Astra.

Suitably for this, the most powerful car in its class, Vauxhall chose to use Rockingham Raceway in Northamptonshire for the media launch. Claimed to be the fastest circuit in Europe, Rockingham has one other distinction: it remains the UK's first purpose-built motor racing track since the opening of Brooklands in 1907.

Journalists on the launch were invited to do some timed laps of the banked track plus additional sections of another, twistier course within the infield. The car's lack of bodyroll was a revelation as are the brilliant electronics which make wheelspin difficult to accidentally induce (in the interests of tyre and clutch preservation, we were allowed just the one standing start at full revs). This car has up to 400Nm being fed through the front tyres, so that should give you some perspective of just how impressive the grip is off the mark and in all conditions.

A 280PS turbocharged 2.0-litre engine offers not only a 40PS power boost over the Astra VXR from a few years back, but there has been a successful attempt to get weight out of the car. It's a tricky business this, especially when buyers seem to expect ever more luxury gear in every new model that hits the market.

To its credit, the engineering team found suppliers that could deliver bigger yet lighter wheels (the forging process is said to use less alumiunium), less weighty brake discs that are supplied by Brembo, and front seats which have a polyamide/fibreglass composite shell. The unsprung weight over the front axle from the special brakes and wheels is claimed to have been reduced by 14.5kg, with resultant benefits for handling.

Powertrain engineers in Rüsselsheim used the 1,998cc engine from the Insignia 2.0 T as the basis for the car's engine but the cylinder head and turbocharger are unique to the Astra VXR. The maximum charge pressure is 1.5 bar, 25% more than in the Insignia. A bespoke exhaust system was also added, and this has a larger diameter bore than other Astras.

Those big tailpipes are but one part of the exterior changes over other Astra three-doors. As well as a lower ride-height, the VXR also comes with its own honeycomb pattern grille, new bumpers, side skirts and a roof spoiler, but as stated earlier, you can pay extra for deeper air dams and a bi-plane wing that sits atop the rear window. The Aero Pack also includes 20" wheels.

Inside, there are more changes than you might expect. The seats I've already mentioned but they really are superb at holding you in place. It gets better: with the optional Leather Seat Pack, gadget lovers such as me can thrill to pumping up the electric side bolsters for the full locked-in-place-like-a-rally-driver feel. If you're buying this car for the occasional track day, you'll definitely want this option.

Other things a typical Astra VXR buyers might love telling his mates about are the FlexRide adaptive damping, HiPerStrut from suspension ('high performance' MacPherson struts that have been designed to reduce camber change during cornering), and specially tuned springs and dampers from ZF Sachs.

Possibly the most impressive chassis component is a Drexler mechanical LSD (limited-slip differential). This is based on the unit developed by the motorsport firm for the Corsa Nürburgring edition. In the Astra, it creates a locking effect with a ramp angle of 45 degrees under acceleration and 90 degrees when the driver backs off the throttle or brakes.

As well as preventing wheelspin, the Drexler LSD has another touch of brilliance: you only get high levels of feedback through the steering when you're really pressing on. So this is one hot hatch that doesn't irritate by making you feel every camber change in the road when you might just want a relaxed trip home after a long day.

If you want to stiffen up the suspension, that's easy enough: just press the VXR button (the car defaults to Standard, plus there's an intermediate Sport setting). The most extreme of the three choices not only quickens the throttle response, but it alters the dampers. Incidentally, pressing the VXR button also flips the instrumentation from white to red.

Even if you love the idea of this car, you might need to justify it to your other half or if you're an emotion-led type, to the other half of your brain so here follows a selection of relevant facts: it runs on 98 RON fuel, the CO2 emissions are a Combined 189g/km and the EC fuel consumption cycle ratings convert to 26.0, 34.9 and 46mpg. On the track I saw around 22mpg from the trip computer which was better than I had thought it would be. So I'd say 25-35mpg is likely real world average economy.

The sensibility squad wants more info before you're allowed you to sign away part of your monthly salary? No problem. The insurance group is 35 E T1, while your annual VED bill is £460. Ouch. Well, ouch-ish. But then just smile sweetly at She Or He Who Must be Swayed (and Obeyed) and deliver this fact: the boot's capacity is 380 cubic litres or up to 1,165 with the seats folded. Be sure to have a convincing excuse ready for that day soon when you're asked to come good on your promise to drive to where flat-packed things with names such as Sküm can be bought and ferried home for assembly.

I might not be a big fan of trying to squeeze big boxes into modestly sized hatchbacks (can you tell?) but I DO enjoy fast cars and I really enjoyed driving this one on both a racing track as well as on some nearby A-roads and a section of motorway. Nonetheless I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't present a neutral forecast of what I believe the facts say about the success or otherwise of this car.

This then, gentlemen and ladies, is a Vauxhall hot hatchback that costs a minimum of £27,000. It's also an engineered-in-Germany autobahn missile, if you think about it. Have the sniffy thoughts that may include the word Essex if you must, but may I point out that thinking of the mid-1980s and new money also places your opinion a quarter century behind the times? My point is that the Vauxhall Astra VXR is a German sports car, if you think about it. Yes, I do get that it's not a 3 Series coupe rival to many people, but so what?

Now, consider this: the UK's new car market has expanded (YoY) in each of the last four months. I looked at the SMMT's data and the 3 Series was the fifth best seller in June, while the C-Class ended the first half of 2012 in the top ten. My point? It's also my conclusion: lots and lots of people with the means to pay for £25,000+ cars, whatever their brand preferences, are back in the market despite whatever the fear-inducing media tries to make us believe. In that context, I'd say Vauxhall's estimate of 1,100 Astra VXR sales in calendar 2013 might even be slightly conservative.

Author: Glenn Brooks