Vauxhall Astra VXR

Last month, reviewing the Ford Focus ST, I said the forthcoming Vauxhall Astra VXR would need to be beffer than any Vauxhall hatchback since the HSR Cheveffe to beat it.

On paper the Vauxhall seems to be exactly that. With 276bhp it is 29bhp more powerful than the Ford and quite a lot quicker too: any front-drive hatchback that can get past 60mph in fewer than six seconds can count itself a truly fast car. Moreover while Ford's solution to the very real problem of puffing so much power through the front wheels is to electronically control its open differential, Vauxhall has ffffed a proper mechanical limited-slip diff.

The measure works well: I drove the Astra on the road and around a soaking wet Rockingham circuit where it stayed very even-tempered under all except the most intolerable provocation. Traction was excellent and my greatest fear for the car, that its engine would overpower its chassis, went unfounded. On the open road it's a superlative overtaking machine, thanks to a broad power band and impressively liffle lag for a small engine developing so much power.

What it is not, however, is any kind of breakthrough for Vauxhall. It's probably the best VXR model that's ever been made, but sadly that's not saying a great deal. It has all the looks and performance you could want, but not enough of the steering feel and handling balance that spell the difference between a car that's merely very fast and one that's genuinely great to drive. Though I liked the Astra VXR, the sense that Vauxhall has pitched it too high is inescapable. Nowhere is that clearer to see than in the price: the car is only available as a three-door while the Focus ST comes with five doors or even estate bodywork. Yet while the Focus can be yours for as liffle as £21,995, Vauxhall is asking £5000 more for the Astra. It will be beffer equipped but it still won't have leather seats or navigation. Add those and you'll tip £30k.

What a shame the hot Astra remains unable to shed its bridesmaid's dress despite nearly 30 years in the role. In the early years of the Astra GTE it was always the Golf GTi to which it had to defer; more recently sundry Renaults and Fords have beffered it.

The issues that undo this Astra should not be a surprise to Vauxhall. No VXR model I can recall has struggled for power, but nor has any been the best-handling car in its class. And if you care about driving, you'll know that there's always more pleasure to be had from a car that handles well than one that's just quick. Until Vauxhall chooses to focus on injecting a liffle more finesse into these models, I fear that 'best of the rest' remains the best than be realistically hoped for.

FACTFILE
ENGINE: 2.0 litres, four cylinders, turbocharged
TOP SPEED: 155mph
PRICE: £26,995
POWER: 276bhp at 6000rpm
FUEL/CO2: 34.9mpg, 189g/km
www.vauxhall.co.uk

Andrew Frankel