TO put your foot down in the Vauxhall Astra VXR is to wake a sleeping monster. There’s nearly 280bhp on tap, with 400nm to shove it all along and those kind of numbers make for a blistering pace when the revs rise and the huge turbo does its work.
What’s most impressive, however, is the way the VXR composes itself during every addictive burst of acceleration. In a badly sorted front-wheel drive car, too much power really does spell disaster.
Stepping hard on the loud pedal, even in a straight line, can cause the front wheels to start fighting for grip and torque steer could even cause the steering to wander under really hard acceleration.
But the VXR, like many of the modern high-powered hot hatches of today, does a brilliant job of reigning itself in.
There’s a clever mechanical differential up-front that divides the power up properly between each of the front wheels to ensure they’re both doing a proper job of propelling you forward.
It sounds simple, but it’s really not and Vauxhall has pulled off this trick very well. Giving the VXR a bootful out of a corner should end in tyre smoke and torn body work but, miraculously, the technology works and it remains composed.
Its grip is astounding. There’s a slight scrabble from the front wheels as the computers cut in to keep everything tidy and then the inevitable twitches from the steering as it sorts its own torque steer out - but there’s little to bother the enthusiastic driver as he blasts from corner to corner.
There are three basic driving modes to choose from. The VXR starts in a normal mode, which sets its suspension on firm but tolerable bench mark, which is ideal for most conditions and, even with 20” wheels, surprisingly useable on UK roads.
There’s also a sport button, which sharpens everything up a bit, but for the full on lunacy available from this car, you’ll need to prod the ‘VXR’ button. Do that and everything changes.
The instruments on the dash glow red, the steering sharpens up, as does the throttle response and the amazing brakes. Then, the suspension takes on a whole new form. It’s as if the car is hunkering down and getting ready for punishment.
In VXR mode it feels like a racing car. There are few other ways to describe it. In real life driving conditions, the suspension feels to crashy on a public road and its desperate urgency can quickly become as tiresome as watching your fuel gauge plummet. It’s best in standard mode - but there’s fun to be had.
In any of these three modes, one of the most interesting aspects of driving hard in a VXR is the unusal exhaust note. It idles with a low growl that does nothing other than wind up your neighbours and, once the turbo starts spinning as the revs rise, it takes on a whole new character that I’ve not heard before in any car.
The noise, which is very evident from the cabin, can only be described as a ‘sucking’. If you partially hold your hand over the nozzle of a hoover, you’d probably be close to replicating it.
Considering the exhaust sound is engineered in, it’s a strange thing, but it does set it apart and doesn’t detract from the sheer madness of it all.
It’s just as mad from the outside, too. Vauxhall’s basic Astra is a surprisingly good looking car, but with all the VXR goodies tacked on it’s as if the popular family hatch has gone a little too far with its steroids.
It’s eye catching rather than ugly. The swoopy detailing in the bodywork stands out more in the sports flagship than it does in lesser models and, if you choose the ‘aero pack’, there’s some stunning 20” wheels and a ‘biplane’ rear spoiler.
Inside, at first glance at least, there’s less to set the VXR apart as a £27,000 race-bred car. There’s some VXR badges and some more upmarket trim but aside from some red mood lighting and alloy pedals there’s not much to give away just what you’re climbing into.
The two front seats, however, leave no such suspicions. They’re among the best in the business. Comfortable and supportive, with side bolsters that electronically adjust to hold you in. They’re a costly option, but worth every penny.
Those huge seats do restrict rear space a bit, but adults will fit in comfortably enough. There’s also plenty of visibility and storage space, and a decent boot.
Of course, this isn’t designed to be a practical car and it doesn’t pretend to be. What the VXR does well is exactly what it sets out to do. It excites its occupants in ways few hot hatches manage.
It might be a little mad, and a little over the top, but some people love that sort of thing.
I know I do.