► Vauxhall's red-hot Corsa, in green
► 202bhp, 140mph, Max Power styling
► It's fast, no question. But is it fun?
Month 7 running a Vauxhall Corsa VXR: the end of the long-term test
If you’ve read any of the reports on our Corsa VXR, you’ll know that there won’t be any bowed heads and damp eyes as it heads back to Luton. With so much on-paper promise, the fast Corsa was the perfect example of how a box-ticking exercise can go horribly wrong because it misses out on those intangibles like charisma and charm.
Arguably the weakest link in the VXR’s chain is its engine. That blown 1598cc, an uprated version of the same engine that powered the outgoing Corsa VXR, generates 202bhp at a relaxed 5800rpm and a chunky 181lb ft of torque that steps in at 1900rpm and usefully hangs around until 5800rpm. There’s even an extra 26lb ft to transform we’re-not-going-to-make-it into breathe-easy overtaking manoeuvres.
That’s enough bicep to sweep aside the VXR’s hefty 1293kg kerbweight and skedaddle it to 62mph in 6.8sec and onto 143mph. And the VXR never feels anything other than very brisk indeed. The problem is that instead of an effervescent and rev-happy four-pot that zings its way to the redline with a fart-in-the-bath soundtrack, the VXR’s lump sounds coarse and dull, with nothing to inspire you to drop it from fourth to third and redline it just for the hell of it. Politely put, it moves the VXR along at a brisk clip, no more, no less.
We opted for the euphemistically named £2400 Performance Pack, which added a Drexler front differential, larger 300mm diameter Brembo front discs, gooey Michelin Pilot Supersport boots and uprated Koni dampers. I say euphemistically, because Get Your Osteopath On Speed Dial might be a more apt name. It’s seriously hardcore. Great if every road you drive is glass smooth, but in the real world out on our crummy roads the ride is punishingly hard and abrupt.
Boot it through corners and that Drexler diff hauls you into the apex as if the word understeer had never been invented. But mid-bend ruts and crags mean it can also spit you out in all sorts of ummm… entertaining directions, tugging and twerking the mute steering wheel this way and that. Good job standing on the excellent Brembos was like hitting the pause button.
Perhaps much of this could be swept under the carpet if the VXR had pinballed its way up the road as if it were filled with intent, but it didn’t. Dynamically the Corsa never displayed any tail-up friskiness – it felt disappointingly inert and leaden, with little in the way of nuance or subtlety. It’s as if it had never heard of words like fun, exhilaration or pleasure.
Perhaps the most telling moment came when I pitched it against it the Fiesta ST, and its rival trounced it back-to-back over roads I drive every day. The ST made you want to take the long way home every time. The VXR gave you too many excuses to take a shortcut. Vauxhall’s VXR department has, in my opinion, created some seriously engaging driver’s cars, as my last report highlighted. But, hard as it is to say, the Corsa isn’t one of them. Not by a Luton mile.
Counting the cost
- Cost new £22,135 (including £4140 of options)
- Dealer sale price £14,350
- Private sale price £13,530
- Part-exchange price £12,705
- Cost per mile 16.79p
- Cost per mile including depreciation £1.05
By Ben Whitworth
Month 6 running a Corsa hot hatch: meet the family
This month, rather than focus on the stubby Corsa VXR itself, I thought I’d take a step back and take a look at the VXR brand as a whole. And the best place to immerse yourself in brisk Vauxhalls is the company’s Heritage Centre. Understandably, Luton may not be on your must-visit list of automotive destinations, but this historic museum is a proper Aladdin’s cave of affordable speed, from the 1911 Prince Henry, arguably the world’s first sports car, via the E-type 30-98, the Droopsnoot Firenza HP, and the Astra GSi.
I’m arguing the point that the tearaway genes of the VXR brand were inherited from the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Yes, the VXR moniker made its debut at the 1966 Geneva motor show on David Jones’ voluptuous gullwinged concept car, but it was the audacious Lotus Carlton that arrived 23 years later which irretrievably linked the words fast and Vauxhall in the public conscience.
And the Lotus Carlton was fast with a big F. Based on the hardly tardy Carlton GSi, the Norfolk-modified Carlton was powered by a 3.6-litre straight-six with twin Garretts that dished up 377bhp and 419lb ft. If its £48k price tag didn’t raise eyebrows – it was dearer than an M5, remember – then its middle-finger 180mph top speed effectively incensed middle-class Daily Mail readers. Good job.
Today the Carlton feels small, slim of hip and upright. It’s squidgy ruched leather upholstery, clip-on wood and slabby dash betrays its age. But waiting for the angry-sounding engine to warm up, dipping the incredibly heavy clutch, slotting the Corvette ZR1 six-speed ’box into second and hoofing the Vauxhall is like Chewie hooking up the hyperdrive. The Carlton spears ahead with a relentlessness that even its intergalactically-long gearing cannot disguise. The acceleration isn’t explosive, but it simply piles on speed like an anvil off a cliff.
The ride and handling is unexpectedly soft – there’s plenty of roll through corners and it takes Luton’s craggy roads in its stride – but on fast runs it feels stable and secure, hooking into fast sweepers with a balanced and relaxed stance. Lovely.
The VX220 that kick-started the VXR brand in 2004, and also a Hethel tie-up, couldn’t be more different if it tried. Hardcore, angry and violent, it was the perfect brand ambassador for the fledgling performance arm. The nat-asp 145bhp 2.2-litre models that came before it made us completely re-evaluate the Griffin. They were unfeasibly quick and incredibly rewarding to drive – and their edgy wedgy looks made their Elise relatives look twee and effete.
The rabid and raw 217bhp VX220 that followed was a revelation. I dug out my notes from when I first drove it 12 years ago, and what I said then still holds true today. ‘The blown VX still looks and feels electrifying. Acceleration is devastating, the chassis balance is just gorgeous and the steering feels like it was engineered by God. It’s that damned good.’
From flyweight floorer to heavyweight slugger – the Monaro VXR500 is a proper hairy-chested bruiser. And boy, it feels big both in size and character. Officially the fastest ever production Vauxhall, this Aussie wonder’s supercharged 6.0-litre V8 is good for 500bhp and – far more impressively – a matching 500lb ft. The result is the same rocket-launch acceleration as the Lotus Carlton. Squeeze that accelerator, hear the supercharger whine and the big V8 bellow, feel the back end squirm and watch far away traffic suddenly loom large. A very different type of VXR, but still fast and loud and charismatic.
The last car in my VXR history lesson was the one I was least keen to drive. On looks alone, the Astra VXR Nürburgring left me cold. Wideboy white paintob, shonky chequered flag
graphics and white wheels… I mean, pass the mullet. But my prejudices disappeared the moment I thumbed the starter button and the Astra’s 255bhp blown four-pot settled down to its raucously aggressive idle. What a blinder this car is! Twitchy, almost nervous steering, heroic brakes, incredible BTCC soundtrack from the Remus exhaust, ferocious pace and outstanding
body control – this car feels Styrofoam light and bristles with intent. You don’t drive this VXR so much as unleash it. If only they’d done it in glossy black…
Getting back into The Shrek at the end of the day left me feeling down in the mouth. Yes, the Corsa wears the VXR badge, but it has some big tyre tracks to follow. And frankly, I don’t think it has the chops. It lacks the intent of the Lotus Carlton and the sparkle of the VXR220, it can’t match the Astra Nürburgring for white-knuckled focus, and feels bland and flat after the Monaro.
The Corsa may top the VXR sales chart, but I’m still struggling to fathom its appeal.
By Ben Whitworth
Month 5 running a Vauxhall Corsa VXR: Vauxhall Coarser, more like
This month I borrowed a Fiesta ST-3, priced at £20,120 as you see it here. With its 1.6-litre blown lump generating 180bhp at 5750rpm and 214lb ft at 1500-5000rpm, front wheels driven by a six-speed manual ’box, and uprated steering, brakes and suspension, the hot Fiesta couldn’t be more mechanically – if not spiritually – aligned with my long-termer.
Drop down into the ST – you do sit lower in the Ford’s more supportive Recaros – and much goodwill goes out the window. The Ford’s driving positon is spot-on, but the cabin is a dated mess. That postage stamp-sized nav screen is complemented by a centre console blunderbussed with dozens of buttons. Nasty, compared to the Vauxhall’s clean, modern architecture and intuitive touchscreen.
The first 50 metres shows just how hardcore the VXR’s ride quality is. Someone was obviously feeling uncharacteristically understated at Vauxhall Towers when they decided on naming the Performance Pack. This £2400 option should have been called the Hardcore Trackday Nürburgring Nutter Don’t Tick It Because You’re Nowhere Near Hard Enough No Mate You’re Not Even Close Pack. Because compared to the Fiesta, which feels almost luxuriously smooth and compliant, it’s pretty damned serious.
Thing is, for all its stiffness and rigidity the Ford concedes no ground to the Vauxhall when it comes to body control and dynamic talent. It may be softer but it feels so much more composed and biddable than the Vauxhall. At pace it flows and breathes along the roads, hanging on through tight corners with serious tenacity as its clever torque vectoring electronics keep you from interfacing with the scenery. It also possesses that sparky wrist-flick agility to quickly and cleanly change direction whenever you tweak the quick-witted and feelsome steering wheel. Wonderful. The Corsa’s direct but feel-free steering could learn a lot here.
But easily the Ford’s biggest grin factor is its outstanding EcoBoost engine. Satiny smooth, addicted to its modest redline and blessed with delightfully linear and lag-free shove, its exuberance and enthusiasm define the ST. It sounds superb, too. Its soundtrack fills the cabin under acceleration and on the over-run. I loved it, and getting back into the Corsa and hearing its coarse, characterless engine range from droning idle to raucous redline was a real downer.
The ST’s LSD-mimicking torque vectoring system does an excellent job of gluing the car’s nose into the corner, with understeer only arriving very late in the game. It cannot match the real thing though – the way the VXR’s Drexler LSD yanks the car into even the tightest of bends and then holds that line is little short of miraculous. And the Lutonite’s excellent brakes shade the Ford’s for pedal feel and ultimate retardation.
So, not quite a Luton rout. The Corsa beats the Fiesta for outright punch, cornering antics with its trick front diff, pause-button brakes and fine cabin ergonomics. But on the intangibles – the feel-good factor, the tail-up character and the fizzy effervescence – the ST leaves the VXR feeling dull, drab and, I hate to say it, ordinary. Over the same roads, the Corsa raises a now-and-then smile. The Fiesta has you cackling and snorting. Make no mistake, if it were my £20k looking to be spent on a pokey musclehatch, I’d be heading for my nearest Ford dealership, and saving myself £2k to boot.
By Ben Whitworth
Month 4 running a Vauxhall Corsa VXR: a proper strop
I took the VXR for a proper strop this week. You know. Late night at work. Deserted and familiar roads on the way home. Depeche Mode’s 101 on the iPod. I drove the little Corsa as hard as I could.
And you know what? It delivered. At ten tenths the torquetastic engine, taut body control, epic brakes and pointy steering all gelled together to deliver a proper goosebumpy ride. Tasty.
Problem is, at anything below flat-out and sweaty-palmed, Shrek defaults to its usual status: truculent, dull, stiff-jointed and inert. Pity.
By Ben Whitworth
Month 3 running a Vauxhall Corsa VXR: half-time roundup
We’re half-way through Shrek’s tenure, and a quick delve in to its logbook shows up some diverse comments.
1) I love the leather-wrapped Recaro front seats. Although they initially feel hard and thinly padded, the low-slung chairs are actually superbly comfortable and supportive, and do a great job of holding me in place when the suspension is trying its best to pinball me around the cabin.
2) I hate moving the Recaro seats. You have to push with herculean strength to shift them forward on their runners, and they don’t have a memory function so they won’t return to their original position once you have finally finished wrestling with them. Guaranteed to turn the air blue, every time.
3) The massively fat A-pillars make junctions, parking and cornering in general pretty tricky. I find myself jerking my head left and right like some sort of ’80s break dancer as I try to peer either side of the five-inch wide pillar.
4) Now that it has a few more miles under its collar, the engine seems slightly less reluctant to flirt with the red line, and there’s now a discernible step in grunt from about 4500rpm onwards. Handy for overtaking. The Ecotec lump still drones instead of zings, and it still shrugs its shoulders when it comes to charisma and spark, but there’s nothing wrong with its pace.
5) The heated steering wheel. I know. WTF is a hot hatch doing with a heated steering wheel? I thought they were the preserve of bloated plutobarges. I’ve tried it once. Nah.
6) The IntelliLink sound system that hooks up with my iPhone is impressively coherent to use. Its touchscreen is responsive, its DAB is crisp and robust and JJ Cale sounds pretty good through the speakers. I just wish it had a bespoke control for its illumination because it’s blindingly bright at night, and the only way I can find to reduce its brilliance is to lower the overall cabin illumination.
7) I wish the cabin had a dash more flair. The superb Recaros and a few small VXR badges aside, there’s little to visually lift the cabin beyond bog-standard airport rental status.
By Ben Whitworth
Month 2 running a Vauxhall Corsa VXR: on paper promise, real-world disappointment
On paper, the Corsa has the perfect ingredients to deliver a piping hot-hatch. Grunty turbo engine, trick exhaust system, stiff and stubby three-door chassis, uprated Koni dampers, big Brembo brakes, Drexler limited-slip diff and sticky Michelin Pilot Supersport rubber. Mix that all up with a hefty visual dose of gobby yobby VXR attitude, a sprinkle of Recaros and 18-inchers, and you should have a slightly unhinged hoonmobile that majors on fast and frisky fun.
You should, but you don’t. The VXR is undeniably brisk, and can slingshot its way through corners with alacrity, but it’s just not that much fun to drive. It feels leaden and inert with little of the effervescence and sparkiness I was expecting. Only when it’s taken by the scruff of its thick metallic green neck and wrung to within an inch of its life does it shake off its dynamic torpor and show its true mettle. Which is great on a deserted and well-known B-road. But for the remaining 99.9% of the time I’m behind the wheel, it makes for a frustratingly disappointing daily driver.
By Ben Whitworth
Month 1 running a Vauxhall Corsa VXR: the introduction to our long-term test
I’ve never really ‘got’ Vauxhall. I’ve liked many of its cars – sleek Calibra, ballsy VXR220 and stubby GTC top the list – but it’s never been a brand that has upped my bpm, never been quite on my must-drive radar. The Corsa VXR could change that.
The VXR weighs in at £17,995. Chunky money, but the top-dog Corsa comes pretty well equipped. Bi-xenon headlamps, grippy Recaros, DAB radio, chunky leather three-spoker steering wheel, two-stage traction, a smartphone-savvy IntelliLink infotainment system, air-con, heated windscreen and cruise control are standard.
It’s powered by an evolution of the 1598cc blown four-pot from the outgoing VXR. Revised fuel-injection and air-intake systems are complemented by a Remus exhaust with reduced back-pressure. The engine develops 202bhp at a relatively low 5800rpm and a chunky 181lb ft that kicks in at 1900rpm and stays put until 5800rpm. There’s even an 11sec overboost system that chucks a further 26lb ft at the front wheels during foot-flat manoeuvres. And with a thick-ankled 1293kg kerbweight, all that torque will be necessary.
We decided to go the whole hog with the VXR so we also added the £1045 Leather Pack, £545 worth of pearlescent paint, the £150 Carbon Pack and the £2400 Performance Pack that includes a Drexler limited-slip diff, larger 330mm-diameter Brembo front discs, bigger 18in alloy wheels shod with gooey Michelin Pilot Supersports and Konis fitted with what Vauxhall euphemistically calls ‘more focused Frequency Selective Damping settings’.
If these features sound familiar it’s because they were sported by the outgoing Nürburgring and ClubSport models, and lifted the Corsa from also-ran to contender.
In typical VXR style, it shouts about its performance. Within an hour of it arriving my young daughters nicknamed it The Shrek. Why? ‘It’s very green and very ugly!’ Fair points, both. Its fussy nose treatment, gurning grille and bulging bum are big on muscular intent but low on style.
Surprisingly, the sober and neat cabin is low-key. VXR clues – subtle instrument graphics, logo’d gearknob, alloy pedals – are few and understated. Still, the basics are sound – low driving position, ideally spaced pedals and gearlever, and intuitive minor controls.
First impressions? Well, I haven't fallen in love. The good points first. That hefty torque means the Corsa pushes past slower traffic with ease. The superb Brembos are meaty and full of feel. The Recaros are both supportive and comfortable. Heel and toeing is a doddle with the pedals. Mechanical grip is astounding – the VXR scythes through corners with real security.
The not so good points? The engine comes to the party with plenty of torque, but grunt aside it’s distinctly lacking in charisma. It sounds dull and flat, and there’s little in the way of redline zing. Functional best describes it. The ride is borderline acceptable – it is very uncompromising, and every intrusion makes its way into the cabin. The steering is direct and precise but a touch light and a little mushy just off the straight ahead.
So then, a visual and dynamic mixed bag. Looks like The Shrek has its work cut out.
By Ben Whitworth