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Can the hottest Astra make for a thrilling and cost-effective used purchase, or is it just too unruly?

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Is the Vauxhall Astra GTC VXR the hot hatch bargain of the year?

Around £6000 will get you a 2012-reg car with a full service history and 95,000 miles on the clock. That’s around £4500 less than the equivalent Volkswagen Scirocco R and £2500 or so less than a Renault Mégane RS 250. So you can buy one and have money left for fuel, insurance and servicing – but should you?

In fact, far from being a one-trick pony in familiar Vauxhall VXR style, the front-wheel-drive GTC VXR is an impressively rounded performance coupé that’s as happy cruising the motorway as it is dispatching corners.

It’s well built, surprisingly roomy front and back and brimming with kit. It doesn’t look half bad outside either, while inside you could actually accuse it of being a little too classy. (A-pillar and rear visibility are poor, though.)

It was launched in 2012 as the range-topper in the three-door Astra GTC line-up and bowed out in 2018, long after the new, seventh-generation Astra had gone on sale. Its predecessor, the Astra VXR, had won many admirers and, with rivals jostling for position, the pressure was on Vauxhall to deliver something better still.

Accordingly, it gave the incoming model a new twin-scroll turbocharged all-alloy 2.0-litre engine from the Insignia but this time producing 276bhp and 295lb ft.

Then, to keep the front wheels pointing the right way, it fitted the General Motors HiPer Strut suspension system that improves grip and allows more power to be applied during cornering.

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To reduce torque steer further, it added a motorsport-derived mechanical limited-slip differential by Drexler. FlexRide adaptive dampers gave a choice of three suspension modes: VXR, Sport and Normal.

Our testers were impressed, praising the GTC VXR’s in-gear acceleration, sophisticated ride, smooth and accurate steering, composure and astonishing grip levels in fast corners, barely perceptible torque steer, strong Brembo brakes and cruising refinement.

We awarded it four out of five stars, deducting a star for the way the rear end didn’t seem quite as willing to join the party as the front.

“The VXR remains a touch inert,” we reported. “Its cornering all feels like it’s being done by the front end. The rear is faithful but lift off or turn in while trail-braking and there’s very little evidence, even with the stability control switched completely out, that the back end is willing to pitch in.”

At least there was plenty else to occupy the driver, including a VXR button, which, when pressed, called up heightened levels of damper, throttle and steering control.

Options for the car included VXR Performance seats with heat control and powered bolster adjustment (sports seats were fitted as standard), sat-nav (included with Navi 650 and 950 IntelliLink infotainment systems) and, most prized of all, the Aero pack, comprising 20in alloys, extended side sills and a bi-plane spoiler. It cost less than £1000 and most first owners chose it.

Today, there’s a reasonable number of used VXRs to choose from, and despite the model being discontinued in 2018, some are approved used examples offering a belt and braces purchase. So what are you waiting for?

RELIABILITY

Engine and gearbox: Regular oil changes are essential to preserve the timing chain and adjuster, so beware any car with a partial service history. A diesel-like noise at idle is one indicator of impending adjuster failure. Kangarooing from a start is likely to be a faulty cam position sensor.

Study the boost gauge to check the turbo is boosting at a steady 15-16psi. Feel for clutch slip and check gears engage without trouble. Any slight whining (common) can be resolved with a larger quantity of fresh gearbox oil.

Suspension: Feel for looseness and listen for clonks over rough surfaces. Check there are discernible differences between suspension modes.

Wheels, tyres, brakes: The optional diamond-cut 20in alloys fitted to most cars are vulnerable to kerbing and expensive to repair. Check for irregular tyre wear, indicating pressure or tracking issues. Fingers crossed it wears premium tyres such as Michelin Pilot Sports. Front Brembo discs are expensive, so check their remaining life and haggle as appropriate.

Body: Check panel fit, especially at the corners, and for disturbance of the front wing securing nuts under the bonnet. Also check that the bonnet slam panel hasn’t been replaced, repaired or repainted, indicating previous front-end damage.

Lift the boot carpet, feeling for damp (the tailgate rain channels can become blocked), and check the floor for buckling, which, if present, is a straight write-off. Lift window rubbers looking for overspray. Check the condition of the doors’ edges.

Interior: Ensure the front seats flip forward on the release lever as the cable can fail expensively. If they’re Performance seats, check they heat too, because they do fail and repairs are expensive.

DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall GTC VXR air intake

What we’re led to understand about Vauxhall VXR buyers is that they don’t mind one iota if the cars they buy get noticed in a crowd. In fact, we’re told that it’s a disappointment to them if they don’t. 

This GTC VXR, then, is one they should like. It builds on the already taut and athletic shape of the previous car (which Vauxhall wanted you to think of as a coupé).

VXR's hardware looks sufficient to back up the promise of its appearance

Louder colours entered the fray, as did beefed-up bumpers at each end and side skirts down the middle, added to which were 19-inch alloy wheels. 

The hardware looks sufficient to back up the promise of the appearance. Those wheels are not just about looks and being wilfully easy to kerb - they weigh just 1.86kg each and are backed by sizeable cross-drilled and ventilated Brembo discs. Across the front axle alone, this set-up saves 14.5kg of unsprung mass over the equivalent wheel size on the regular Astra of the time.

The engine is a turbocharged 2.0-litre four, derived from that used in the Vauxhall Insignia 2.0T but considerably beefed up for this application to provide its power and torque. 

That it drives the front wheels only is not the cause for concern that it once was. The VXR gets a mechanical limited-slip differential and Vauxhall’s HiPerStrut front suspension, which, like a similar system used on the then Ford Focus RS and the Renault Mégane 265, acts to reduce torque steer. At the rear, the VXR retains the torsion beam with Watt’s linkage fitted to other Astras.

The steering itself is hydraulically assisted rather than electrically, and there are magnetorheological adaptive dampers with three modes: Normal, Sport (in which they’re tighter) and VXR (in which they’re tighter again, and coupled to enhanced throttle response). 

INTERIOR

Vauxhall GTC VXR dashboard

It may look very different from its lesser brethren on the outside, but the cabin continues a more familiar theme. There’s nothing much wrong with that, mind: this generation of Astra's cabin is accommodating and feels well built from mostly good-quality materials. 

The front is generously roomy and, given the rakishness of the roof, the rear cabin is surprisingly easy to slip into; there is 940mm of rear headroom and typical rear legroom is a decent 800mm. The boot opening is a touch narrow, but there’s 380 litres of space back there. All told, this is a functional interior. The doors are also huge, and to open them with a car parked on either side can be a struggle. 

However, look for sparkles of VXR-ness and, superbly supportive seats aside, you’ll find little beyond the gearlever knob, steering wheel and the diddy Sport and VXR buttons on the dashboard. When you press that VXR button, by the way, the dials turn red.

The raked A-pillars and low-swept roofline do not compromise visibility and the high beltline is liable to make drivers feel like they’re sitting lower than they actually are.

The exterior of the GTC VXR is fitted with all sorts of sporting paraphernalia including a rear diffuser, side sills and a lairy rear spoiler, while inside is greeted with sports seats, alloy details and Vauxhall’s infotainment system complete with Bluetooth and DAB radio.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall GTC VXR rear quarter

At the time, Vauxhall claimed that the GTC VXR was the fastest car in its class, and that it will duck under the 6.0sec barrier in a sprint to 60mph. To which we say: that may well have been true, but you’ll have to have left any semblance of mechanical sympathy behind when you signed on to the circuit.

When we tested it, we coaxed the VXR to 60mph in 6.4sec. We did manage a one-way best of 6.2sec – with two people on board and a near-full tank – but if you make any serious attempt to go quicker than that, you will have to ignore both the smell of a suffering clutch and the nagging feeling that you won’t be able to drive it home afterwards. 

The 0-100mph time of 16.5sec, meanwhile, looks – and is – impressive in isolation. However, VXR owners are, we’re told, a fairly extravagant bunch who like their cars to be fast – and to that extent, we have a little bad news. This GTC is no quicker to 100mph than its predecessor was.

For all that, it remains one of the most powerful hot hatchbacks of the period. And its in-gear acceleration is certainly noteworthy. Any car that can dispatch 50-70mph in fourth gear in less than four seconds is at the sharper end of the scale. It makes an extraordinary whistling noise while doing it, too; from the outside, it leaves you thinking you’ve just been buzzed by a jet fighter.

However, the throttle response – unless you push the VXR button on the dash – isn’t so sharp. At low revs in Normal or Sport modes, there’s some lag. Engaging the VXR mode sorts that and brings with it a welcome crispness we’d rather wasn’t confined to the firmest damper setting.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall GTC VXR cornering

Trundle away from rest in this car and perhaps the most striking thing about its dynamics is how deftly it rides. Okay, it can't rival a Mercedes S-Class or anything, but you would be pushed to criticise a car rolling on 245/35 ZR20 rubber for riding in such a compliant manner. 

The VXR steers smoothly and accurately, too, with good stability around the straight-ahead. Coupled to good refinement, that leaves it feeling like a mature, grown-up kind of hot hatchback.

Is it? Of course not. It’s a VXR, for heaven’s sake, so when you wind up the motor, on poor surfaces there’s a little tug at the steering wheel as the limited-slip differential apportions traction, and you’re off.

Pushing the GTC VXR down a well sighted, twisty road is a fast and enjoyable but slightly curious experience. Body control in all suspension modes, but particularly the firmer two, is very tight. There’s a little lean and it rolls quickly, just not very far. And from then onwards in a corner, you can really lean on the VXR. 

Our maximum lateral grip figure on the test track of 0.99g mid-corner doesn’t seem to quite do justice to how much mid-corner roadholding the GTC seems to find. There are very few cars, it feels to us, that would keep up with it down a given road. Certainly, it’s fast on a test track; the 1min 16.7sec time we posted around our dry handling circuit was as fast as the last Ford Focus RS.

With that, though, the VXR remains a touch inert. Its cornering all feels like it’s being done by the front end. The rear is faithful, but lift off or turn in while trail braking and there’s very little evidence, even with the stability control switched completely out, that the back end is willing to pitch in.

The VXR’s brakes, while over-servoed at the top of the pedal’s travel, resisted fade indomitably on our test tracks, so you’ll have no bother at all on the road. Whe we tested it on a green and recently dried surface, they hauled the VXR from 70mph to rest in a competitive 45.3m.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall GTC VXR

Vauxhall claims that the GTC VXR is cheaper than its main rivals on the used market. Certainly, it is seemingly well equipped. The Volkswagen Scirocco R is more expensive, though holds its value better.

In our hands, the VXR returned a steady 26.5mpg overall, which is acceptable. On a touring run, we’d expect you to see 33mpg easily.

VERDICT

4 star Vauxhall GTC VXR

Outrageous amounts of power? Check. Slightly rowdy power delivery? Check. Attention-seeking looks and a noise like an industrial vacuum cleaner at full chat? Check and check.

Yep, say what you like about the Vauxhall GTC VXR, but it does what a hot hatch should do best: let you know that it is here and interested in going fast.

What’s different is that this raucousness comes with an everyday usability. This VXR really is a fine motorway companion, pliant and refined.

It’s fast on a good road or a circuit, too, finding exceptional grip and tremendous traction. And that, said Vauxhall, is what VXR buyers expected at the time. And quite enjoyable it is, too.

For the rest of us, though, we’d want just a little something else to complete those star ratings – more engaging handling and a true feeling of agility being chief among them. Still, this is a very likeable car.