Hot Hatch

Hot Hatches: Vauxhal Astra VXR

The Astra VXR may not be quite as fast as the Volkswagen Golf R, but it's certainly cheaper - something that's very important for buyers in this segment.

Hot hatches might be made in a number of different countries, but it is in the UK where they are the most popular. Brits love hatchbacks in general, and although Ford has pretty consistently had the top-selling model in the UK (either an Escort, a Focus or a Fiesta, but always a hatchback) for quite some time now, the Astra has almost always been Britain's second best-selling car. The hot version is the VXR, and we very much want one. But things aren't always that simple, and the Astra has a long and complicated history.

The very first Astra was made by Vauxhall in 1979 (as a 1980 model) as a rebadged and right-hand-drive version of the Opel Kadett. The nameplate made its way to Australia in 1984 for a Holden-badged version and then was applied to an Opel starting in 1991. A Chevrolet-badged Astra was exported to Brazil starting in 1994, and when the next generation debuted, GM started manufacturing the Brazilian version locally. Lastly, the car was imported to the US in 2007 as a Saturn, and for a brief period, there were five versions of the same car being sold at the same time. That lasted until 2009 when the US and Australian cars were killed off.

Hot versions of all but the US version were sold, although Australia only got one for a very brief period. The hot versions were all basically the same, but the real story of the Astra as a hot hatch is that of the UK's Vauxhall Astra. The first hot Astra was released in 1983, toward the end of the first generation of the car. This was the GTE, and as you might have guessed, it was built as a rival to the VW Golf GTI. It had a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft and fuel injection, both major improvements over the other engines offered with the Astra.

The Mark 2 Astra debuted in 1984, and GTE was built around an all-new and advanced for the day 2.0-liter DOHC fuel-injected engine. It made 148 horsepower, a number which was very competitive with hot hatches of the time. The debut of the Mark 3 in 1991 saw safety being emphasized above all else for the Astra, and it sadly goes almost without saying that this meant the GTE was dropped. The top trim was the GSi, and although this did have a suspension tuned by Lotus, it was also both heavier and less powerful than its predecessor. Fortunately, it would swing drastically back toward performance in 1998 with the debut of the Mark 4.

This would usher in the SRI Turbo, which produced 189 horsepower, and from this point until the present, all hot Astra models would use turbocharged engines. The top trim was renamed VXR in 2004 for the Mark 5 and would get even more power. At present, we have the Mark 6 Astra, and a VXR that produces 276 horsepower. An Opel version exists as well, known as the Astra OPC. When we hold it up to the yardstick that is the GTI, we see that it actually produces power to more closely rival the Golf R. And that's important when discussing the price. The VXR costs about £1,000 more than a GTI, but a good £5,000 less than a Golf R.

Its 6-second 0-60 time is half a second quicker than the GTI's and a couple tenths slower than a Golf R. The Golf R is, it has to be said, the more sophisticated vehicle, but that isn't everything. This is a segment where a car's bang-for-buck ratio is absolutely critical, probably the most important factor considered when buying a hot hatch, and the VXR just simply does this better than the Volkswagen products. Now, we'll soon have a new GTI, and a new R shortly after that, so this may no longer hold true in a year's time, but for now, these are the facts. That we never got a hot Astra in the US stings even worse than our lack of a Focus RS.

This is, after all, a GM product, and one which we actually did get in base form. Ford has given us some hot hatch models, even if they weren't its hottest, and GM gave the Australians a hot Astra (the HSV VXR), but we get nothing. Brazil would probably appreciate a hot hatch as well, and we beseech GM to consider hot hatches for the Americas.

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