11 August 2015
Designed in Germany, built in Poland and migrated to Australia, the Astra VXR is a bucket of exhaust growl, corner grip and sweat. Is this an ill fated consolation prize or a proper response to the cries of detractors that Holden is the one trick pony Commodore company?
The automobile, AKA horseless carriage, and occasionally AKA perambulator, was originally put on this earth to transport goods and people from one place to another. At some point, the urge to transport packages and pax was influenced by the need to arrive with great haste. It was somewhere here that someone realised that going fast has more benefits than just efficient logistics. Finally someone recognised that going really fast is a shed load of fun!
Enter the sportscar.
I'm not going to pretend that I have the knowledge necessary to point to the first car designed for sport, but it's a pretty safe bet that once drivers got over the fear that they would burst into flames above 60mph, the sportscar has been as essential to a company portfolio as the family sedan. This is the very spirit of a vehicle like the Astra VXR. It is built for fun. Speed. Excitement. Every other capability strives for relevance.
The intent is apparent from every point. Behind the massive supersport rubber (245/35 ZR 20s) sits cross drilled rotors and Brembo calipers. Inside the black on black cabin are a pair of slick multi adjustable Recaro pews, alloy pedals and a 6 speed manual shifter (no auto option sorry...not sorry).
Even the assault of buttons is punctuated by the VXR and Sport buttons which select the aggression of the electromagnetic suspension, steering weight and throttle response. Yes, access to MyLink is hindered by the lack of touch screen, but who cares when the entertainment is where it's supposed to be: between you and the road.
There is still the standard minimum requirement of heated seats, climate control, Nav and some weird button called "ECO". I wasn't sure what that was about but it could have been a "Extra Carbon Omissions" so I didn't press it just in case.
There is a little bit of tech hiding about the place with DAB+ digital radio (which was useless outside of Brisbane), a surprise appearance of stop-start and the aforementioned active suspension setup but again, the focus is on lifting your heart rate.
Turn the key and the immediate response from the exhaust is gritty and promising. A few blips of the right foot are compulsory and give a good sense of throttle response.
I noticed a longer than expected throw merely pushing the ergonomic knob into first. Rolling off is painful because the front appears kind of low so caution is required in any driveway. It scrapes often but fortunately is only a black plastic skirt hiding out of sight. Nonetheless it places unnecessary time between you and wide open throttle. When the opportunity finally presents itself, just fang it!
The 245 at each front corner is so wide you can unleash everything it's got. There is some tugging at the wheel, as 206kw and 400nm try to peel the tyres from the front LSD equipped axle, but it's easy to keep straight ahead. Attention bounces between the aural ferocity post 3000rpm, the forces shoving you back into the black leather pews, and, the need to grab second as you rocket toward the horizon. The throw is positive but a bit on the long side, however, it delivers on the promise of excitement and is eminently manageable at the same time.
As second gear will take you past the designated speed limit though, it's important to pay attention to the speedo as well....I guess.
Have no fear. More fun is just around the corner. Any corner. The Astra changes direction like a staffordshire bull terrier chasing a rabbit. Even in "normal" active suspension mode you can slingshot from one bend to the next with supreme confidence. Hit Sport or VXR to progressively apply greater control at the expense of comfort. Again and again the front end points true and works in perfect alliance with the physics defying brakes.
If you miss the apex, it's not the VXRs fault.
However, let's not pretend this is a new piece of gear. The OPC Astra was here previously and is basically one and the same. Some of the plastics are cheap, with the worst perpetrator being the silver inserts in the steering wheel which you grab every time you get in the car. Other scattered parts of the interior are hard but are hidden by the drama of strategically placed red LEDs. Ooooh squirrel!
Also the silver inserts in the brake vent slots in the front didn't quite sit right. There's a black spoiler on the roof which probably doesn't do a real lot below 200kph, but I guess it looks cool.
I could have done without these touches but none of it diminishes the ridiculous amounts of fun you can have in this car. Although Holden have the SRi Cruze for budget sportsters and the the big bopping V8 SS/SSV/Redline, the Astra sits right in the middle of the traditional Holden fans without stepping on the toes of either.
At 40k it's also priced right against competition like the Renault RS250 which it is in constant battle against in Europe. Other choices in the Australian market include the Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo+, Golf GTI and a whole bunch of warmed over family transporters (such as Mazda SP25 etc). Park the Astra next to any one of them and (aside from the Veloster which is constantly screaming for attention) most others will fade into ambiguity: "is that a Comfortline or a GTI?"
Only the Renault provides the same balance of lunacy, capability and overt sex appeal as the Astra.
So that really answers our question.
The Astra has the potential to bring European fans into show rooms. This is a product that mixes it with the Europeans and even leads its segment. When was the last time you could say that about a Holden? Back when they had the TS Astra and it won every comparo for as long as it was on the market.
This is no consolation prize. This is no attempt to placate an angry mob.
This is a home coming.