REVIEW DATE: 15 Feb 2008
Vauxhall's VXR products have a reputation for being real tearaways but the Corsa VXR has some sophistication to go with its brutal performance. Steve Walker reports
The hot hatch arms race has escalated once more and Vauxhall's Corsa VXR has the arsenal to win it. 189bhp and 0-60 in 6.8s was the stuff of lottery winners' performance saloons until recently. Now you can get it all in a souped-up supermini along with a well-judged handling package and some superb detailing. The Corsa VXR is an engaging drive with real quality and depth to back it up.
Purists might still shed an occasional tear for the passing of the original hot hatch heyday back in the 1980s but the current clutch of fiery small cars is arguably just as remarkable, if for different reasons. Vauxhall's smallest VXR-badged rocketship generates nearly 190bhp, requires less than seven seconds to punch a Corsa-shaped hole the 60mph barrier and will eventually hit the wall at 140mph. While the appeal of old classics like the Mk1 Golf GTI and Peugeot's 205 GTi remains strongly felt, the capabilities of the Corsa VXR and its rivals demand respect.
This Vauxhall takes the turbocharged route to achieving its formidable performance, the 1.6-litre engine fitted with a BorgWarner turbo unit to help it achieve a 189bhp maximum power output. Like the best modern turbocharged engines, power and torque are served up in a progressive fashion from low in the rev range with no discernable lag. The 230Nm maximum torque output is available from 1,980rpm to 5,850rpm but a clever overboost facility actually gives the driver 266Nm for a period of five seconds when full throttle is deployed. It all helps the VXR generate searing pace with rapid responses to throttle inputs. The engine doesn't reward excursions into the upper rev range vocally in the way that the normally-aspirated powerplants of some rivals do but it's got serious shove down low where you want it and there's the added bonus of strong refinement on the open road.
The standard Corsa serves up class-leading ride quality but the VXR takes a firmer line with springs that are 12mm lower at the front and 19mm lower at the rear as well as specially-tuned gas-pressure shock absorbers. Information about the road surface is transmitted to the driver more effectively with the VXR staying flat and planted in corners but the ride remains highly compliant, making the VXR a perfect companion for blasts down Britain's poorly-surfaced B-roads.
"VXR products don't tend to be shrinking violets and true to form, there's very little that's low key about this one."
The ESP stability control system has its work cut out reining the VXR in under hard acceleration and wheelspin is never far away when you switch it off. The variable-progressive steering system increases the level of assistance the more you turn, giving a reassuringly weighty feel around the straight ahead and faster response with more assistance as the steering angle increases. This helps with parking and urban driving but the level of feedback at speed is a lacking a little.
VXR products don't tend to be shrinking violets and true to form, there's very little that's low key about the Corsa VXR. The bodywork is riddled with scoops and vents with much of the styling addenda taking triangular form. There's triangular mesh in the grille with its body-coloured V-bar and under bumper, while each of the fog lights is housed at the end of its own vaguely triangular chrome funnel. The fetching wing mirrors (that Vauxhall will be selling as an accessory so all Corsa buyers can get in on the VXR act) have a triangle hole beneath and at the back of the car. Plus there's a triangular exhaust finisher as a final retort to those left in the VXR's wake.
Some of the detailing both inside and out is exquisite and Vauxhall has certainly pulled out the stops to differentiate the VXR from humbler Corsa offerings. The cabin is dominated by the specially-designed shell-backed Recaro seats which offer outstanding support and comfort. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is another upmarket feature that will set the enthusiast's heart aflutter and you have the general build quality of the standard Corsa which is as good as anything in the segment.
The Corsa is priced competitively against key rivals like the Clio Renaultsport 197 and the MINI Cooper S. You'll pay around £16,000 for the privilege which looks expensive for a bespoilered supermini but a bit of a bargain for a 189bhp, 140mph performance hatch - a lot depends on your point of view. Standard equipment includes ESP stability control, air-conditioning, remote central locking, electric front windows and door mirrors, a CD stereo and 17" alloy wheels. Vauxhall is offering massive 18" alloy wheels as an option, the biggest ever offered on a supermini, and they really add something to the exterior with little detrimental effect to the ride quality.
As well as the 18" rims, buyers can dip into a wide range of further options to personalise their car with the manufacturer confident that very few VXR Corsas will be sold in standard guise. Tick the boxes marked climate control, leather, halogen head lights, Bluetooth and metallic paint and you'll be shelling out nigh-on £18,000 for your Corsa. The available paint colours are Flame Red, Arden Blue, Star Silver and Black Sapphire with the blue looking particularly swish as it matches the brake callipers.
While it might be a shade extreme for some, both in looks and personality, there seems little doubt that the VXR's target market will lap it up. They'll have to be quick though because production capacity constraints mean just 2,500 will be available in the UK each year. This promises to make the Corsa VXR a relatively exclusive sight on the road and help protect its residual value. Once you've got your hands on one, running costs should be agreeable for a car in this class with a combined average of 35.8mpg and 190g/km CO2 emissions.
Vauxhall has done a thorough job of making the Corsa VXR feel special. Whichever way you look at it, it's obviously no ordinary Corsa and at the wheel, its power and poise never fail to entertain. It's the car's ability to deliver indecent pace when roused but still remain comparatively mild-mannered in everyday circumstances that marks the Corsa VXR out. It's not the absolute head-case that its styling suggests and beneath that snarling bodywork is a comfortable, beautifully-detailed interior that you'll rarely tire of sitting in.
There's no real comparison between the Corsa VXR and the 1980s shopping rockets that started the whole hot hatchback thing off, the Vauxhall's size and sophistication see to that. The whole genre has evolved, bringing more power and performance but also adding comfort, practicality and safety. In Vauxhall's hands, the hot hatchback has become more of a performance all-rounder that's adept in a range of driving conditions but just like the old masters, it's still at its best when shown a winding lane and given its head.
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