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Hot Corsa majors on pace, purpose and performance value. Brash, boisterous and great fun – if a little lacking in finesse

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The VXR-badged Corsa has lurched in and out of our affections since Vauxhall introduced the model in 2007.

For a good while, it embodied the classic Vauxhall approach to hot hatches, being for the most part brash, overpowered, overpriced and a little under-talented to make a dent on a segment utterly dominated by the previous Renault Clio RS 200 and now passed on to the imperious Ford Fiesta ST.

The standard Corsa VXR is more powerful than the Ford Fiesta ST - a VXR trait that its customers tend to appreciate

Then, in 2011, Vauxhall – or more specifically the Opel Performance Centre – launched the Nürburgring Edition, which finally had us nodding along.

With its uprated engine, exhaust, brakes, stability management and, crucially, a standard limited-slip differential, the model suddenly had the sauce to threaten the Renault on the track.

Unfortunately, it also never made a real mark because it was several thousand pounds pricier than a Clio.

Now the VXR is back as a fully fledged part of the latest Vauxhall Corsa line-up, and this time Vauxhall might have got it right. The standard VXR is £50 cheaper than the equivalent Ford Fiesta ST, the car that’s replaced the Clio RS 200 as our hot supermini benchmark.

It’s more powerful than the Ford, although there has been an attempt to redress this through the ST200 (and plenty of others in this price bracket), too, a VXR trait that its customers tend to appreciate.

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They’re an enthusiastic bunch, according to Vauxhall, so to better cater for their harder-core requirements from the start, many of the components from the Nürburgring Edition have been swept into a £2400 Performance Pack. That’s the version we put to the test here.

Of course, the VXR must prove not just quicker but also fundamentally better than the Fiesta ST to eclipse it in our estimations – which, for the past three years, Mini, Peugeot and Renault have all failed to do.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Vauxhall Corsa VXR rear
The first generation Vauxhall Corsa VXR was launched back in 2007

This was Vauxhall’s first chance to make a full lifecycle update to the Corsa VXR since the original’s launch in 2007. You wouldn’t know it.

The same feeling of familiarity we reported of the normal Vauxhall Corsa is reproduced, so that the car’s exterior styling and cabin appointments ostensibly serve as new clothes draped over the same old platform.

The turbocharged 1.6-litre engine from the previous car gets new intake and exhaust manifolds and a new ECU, but is otherwise carried over from the outgoing Corsa Clubsport

These aren’t universally admired clothes, either. Several testers expressed a dislike of the styling, which takes few hostages to subtlety in pursuit of added visual aggression.

More serious, with the long-time selling point of the VXR brand being bang for your buck, an opportunity has been missed to put the Vauxhall Corsa’s case beyond question. The turbocharged 1.6-litre engine from the previous car gets new intake and exhaust manifolds and a new ECU but is otherwise carried over from its state of tune in the outgoing Corsa Clubsport.

It produces the same 202bhp and ‘overboosted’ 207lb ft temporary hit of torque (over a slightly broader rev range). Neither figure is unsurpassed among hot superminis. And weighing in just shy of 1.3 tonnes on our scales, this isn’t one of the lighter hot hatches, either.

The Corsa VXR’s driveline has been more widely overhauled, with a new flywheel and clutch fitted and General Motors’ new MT6 manual gearbox being the only choice.

Suspension consists of new strut mountings and subframe up front, firmer bushings and an entirely new torsion beam arrangement at the rear, shortened and stiffened springs that take 10mm out of the Corsa’s normal ride height, uprated frequency-selective dampers from Koni and 17in alloy wheels, with 18s available as an option.

Braking is by Brembo performance discs and pads, driven by a new single-rate hydraulic servo in place of the old dual-rate one.

Those wanting a more hardcore mechanical set-up – and willing to pay an extra £2410 for it – can order Vauxhall’s Performance Pack. It includes those 18in alloy wheels wrapped with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, larger front brake discs and calipers, even stiffer springs and damper settings and VXR’s motorsport-derived Drexler mechanical limited-slip differential.

It’s a pricey option on an otherwise cheap-looking hot hatch, but Vauxhall expects half of VXR owners to stump up the cash for the Performance Pack. That’s why it was fitted to our test car.

INTERIOR

Vauxhall Corsa VXR dashboard
Good-looking, spacious and subtly stylish, there's little wrong up front in the Corsa VXR

There is a reliable set menu for success when it comes to hotting up your bog-standard hatchback’s interior. New seats, gearknob, steering wheel, dials and pedals are all on it – and the VXR honours it in conventional type.

Mostly, the additional cabin confetti is fine. The seats are by Recaro and get the compromise between comfort and clasp just about right.

This is my third attempt at making Vauxhall's IntelliLink BringGo sat-nav app work with my iPhone. Still no joy, via Bluetooth or USB

The VXR-specific gearknob isn’t quite so nice, having been made the size of a cricket ball and with the seams to match. Hand-filling heft is pleasant, but this is still a supermini, not a Lotus Carlton.

Elsewhere – on the pedals, steering wheel and dials – there’s only the lightest dressing in place to differentiate the model from its lesser siblings. But that’s just about fine, too; the current generation Vauxhall Corsa is generally a nice enough place to be, and so it remains here.

The car is also mercifully free of silly performance-related buttons. The traction control switch is the only one you’ll ever need to push – once for Competitive mode, longer for nothing at all – and that is as it should be.

Without driving anywhere, the only complaint that really sticks to the VXR we tested is that its inflated Performance Pack price tends to make Vauxhall’s occasional meanness with the trim materials stand out more so than they otherwise might.

The upper portion of the dashboard is fine, but by the time you get down to the level of the heating and ventilation controls, it does rather feel like the engineers ran out of money, which may feel galling when you’ve ponied up sufficient funds to buy, say, a decently equipped Mini Cooper S.

However, most hot hatch buyers will think the cabin acceptable, given that what you’re chiefly paying for is found elsewhere. Equally, this isn’t the sort of cabin that’s likely to win friends for the VXR by being theatrical or expressive.

The standard Corsa VXR comes with Recaro front seats, a sporty bodykit including a lairy dual Remus exhaust system, bi-xenon headlights, air conditioning, cruise control and Vauxhall’s Intellink infotainment system.

But if you are after leather seats, climate control or numerous city smart safety features then be prepared to dig a little deeper into your rapidly emptying pockets.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Vauxhall Corsa VXR cornering
The Corsa VXR was outpaced by the Ford Fiesta ST to 60mph

If Corsa VXR buyers really are the diehard crowd that Vauxhall portrays them to be, the acceleration times that we extracted for the latest version, after multiple attempts in near-perfect conditions at MIRA, will be something of a disappointment.

Two up, the Corsa VXR failed to crack 7.0sec to 60mph and also failed by a slender margin to outpace the Ford Fiesta ST2 we tested. At 7.2sec, it was also more than half a second slower than the Peugeot 208 GTi 30th we benchmarked a couple of months ago.

Vauxhall has given the Corsa VXR the kind of surging throttle response that makes it feel impatient to get going at low speeds

Although the value of such figures is widely overstated, their importance to the hot hatch buyer is not – and for some, mediocrity may devalue the VXR’s appeal.

The reason for its tardiness is clearly not lack of power but rather its application; the car suffers from a predictable lack of traction off the line.

It is also not helped by Vauxhall’s preference for short gearing, which prevents you from achieving 60mph in second gear. The upshift to third gear is the main reason for the no more powerful 208’s surprising advantage.

That the Peugeot retains the same superiority from 30mph to 70mph – a better real-world measure of acceleration – is more damning and suggests that the Vauxhall isn’t quite as propulsive as it might be expected to be.

That said, the subjective impression away from the stopwatch is not of a car lacking in performance. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Vauxhall has given the VXR the kind of surging throttle response that makes it feel impatient to get going at low speeds.

Oblige it and the power feels plentiful, if a little slavishly linear. This is predominantly the work of the torque delivery, which, for its five seconds of overboost, comfortably aligns the engine’s enthusiasm with your own.

If only it had the hard-working, evocative voice to match. Sadly, the Remus exhaust system does precious little to enhance a fairly loud but bland four-cylinder whine.

RIDE & HANDLING

Vauxhall Corsa VXR side profile
Optional Performance Pack makes the ride feel compromised in road use

A quick note to Vauxhall’s marketing department: you could, and should, do an important service to Corsa VXR buyers by renaming this car’s optional ‘Performance Pack’.

It needs something that better communicates just how uncompromising it’ll make their new hot hatchback. ‘Track Day Pack’ would be entirely appropriate – as would a strongly worded warning for anyone who expects to do the vast majority of their driving on the road.

With the optional Performance Pack, the Corsa VXR is capable of humbling plenty of more powerful front-drivers on high days at Brands Hatch

With the Performance Pack, the Corsa VXR is easily the most hardcore car of its type since the last Mini GP. It’s a compelling circuit machine, capable of humbling plenty of more powerful front-drivers on high days at Brands Hatch – and it’s very likeable in that mode.

But it’s also sufficiently coarse and hard-riding on the road that it would most likely test your commitment and enthusiasm for its highly strung temperament over every rough bit of asphalt and raised bit of ironwork.

Needless to say, the car’s ride is firm. It’s easily excited into some high-frequency pitching and vertical pogoing on its springs but also quite unyielding in its damping.

Those Koni shocks aren’t clever enough to avoid maxing out over sharper intrusions, making the car feel skittish at times. Neither will they respond quickly or delicately enough to smooth out the low-level fidgeting that those firm springs cause.

Add into that mix the effect of the limited-slip differential on the way the Vauxhall Corsa handles and steers and – over an uneven surface – you have a recipe for waywardness and unpredictability not unlike that of a cub scout armed with a gattling gun.

Steering weight fluctuates markedly as that slippy diff sends traction-related forces back through the rack, making this a car to guide with two steady hands on the wheel at all times. There is also notable torque steer to account for, the suspension deforming as you open the throttle mid-corner.

On a smooth circuit, such things can be managed and mitigated – and the traction and directional impetus granted makes them worth the trade. But on the road, characteristics like that are harder to tolerate.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Vauxhall Corsa VXR
Vauxhall's Corsa VXR costs from £17,995

Maximising the apparent bang-for-buck ratio is no bad way of selling a hot hatch.

At £18,895, the entry-level VXR undercuts the Mini Cooper S, Volkswagen Polo GTI, Peugeot 208 GTi, Renault Clio RS 200 and mid-spec Ford Fiesta ST2 though all are within the same £1000 net, while (even if by only a small margin) developing more power than any of them.

The VXR’s 37.7mpg combined economy (worsened to 29.9mpg during True MPG testing) belongs, frankly, in the decade prior to this one

A crude equation, perhaps – and one ruined by the addition of the Performance Pack – but that won’t make it sound any less persuasive coming from a dealer. Our advice would be to avoid the Performance Pack, but do stump up £500 on its 18in alloy wheels separately. Also, the £150 Carbon Pack is a wise buy with resale in mind.

Expect the decent kit list to get a plug from the dealer, too. The bodykit and Remus exhaust are both standard, as are bi-xenon headlights, a heated windscreen, manual air conditioning, cruise control and the infotainment system, which includes Bluetooth and a DAB tuner. All of which makes the model better equipped than the Fiesta ST1, a cheaper prospect by about £1000.

Nevertheless, the Ford can claim a huge running cost advantage. In fact, every single rival mentioned at the start of this section wipes the floor with the Vauxhall Corsa when it comes to efficiency.

The VXR’s 37.7mpg combined economy (worsened to 29.9mpg during True MPG testing) belongs, frankly, in the decade prior to this one. The same is true of its 174g/km CO2 emissions, which, incredibly, are 9g/km higher than those of a Volkswagen Golf R.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Vauxhall Corsa VXR
Heavy-handed, route-one attempt at a hardcore supermini

The new Corsa VXR emerges from this appraisal in a position of reasonable strength.

In this specification, its appeal is certainly niche – and yet with its compelling circuit handling manners and value for money, the Corsa VXR addresses a need that has been neglected since the demise of the Clio Cup. But it doesn’t have enough subtlety or natural handling poise for our liking.

The Corsa VXR's uncompromising chassis makes for a niche track-day appeal. It's well-priced, if a little short on poke

Even accounting for its remarkable traction, handling agility and involvement, it delivers little more fun or pace on track than a Fiesta ST – and it’s far more demanding to drive.

Furthermore, as a road car for broader tastes, the Performance Pack Corsa VXR is dynamically too highly strung.

However, we won’t penalise the car too heavily for that, because wider test experience suggests that the standard VXR is much easier-going.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Vauxhall Corsa VXR 2015-2018 First drives