How much a few short words can change a car. Stick an RS at the end of a Megane or Focus and it becomes a completely different beast - turning what might be a low-spec, gutless repmobile into a car that's recognised as being at the forefront of its class.
The RS suffix - or the ST or vRS - can add hundreds of horsepower and torques to a car. And, while the Ford Focus ST is rapidly approaching, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That's one of physics' immutable laws, but it also happens to be true of Ford and Vauxhall. Don't believe me? These two bastions of the UK car industry have been slugging it out for decades: for every Fiesta a Corsa; for every Mondeo an Insignia; for every ST a VXR.
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This time the two hot hatches are going head-to-head - and Vauxhall is feeling confident. "We didn't test the car against the Focus ST," says a VXR bigwig.
"In terms of power and chassis, the VXR is superior," he says in a Germanic accent and an air that does not smack of arrogance, but confidence.
Indeed, the Vauxhall Astra VXR is powerful. It boasts 276bhp - 250-300bhp is the new hot-hatch paradigm, says the chaps from Vauxhall - and a stunning 400Nm (295lb-ft) of torque; figures that propel it straight to the top of the current crop of hot hatches.
But, just as importantly, it has a very clever (and expensive) suspension set-up to handle all of that power and twist through the Astra VXR's front wheels. As was pointed out, people laughed at Saab when it said it could channel 150bhp through a front-wheel set-up; double that figure and you can see how this might be difficult.
A few things can happen when you try to put a lot of power through front wheels, and few of them are good. The lack of traction is the most obvious. When you pull away your wheels will slip; when you corner you understeer.
Torque steer is another. Because the front wheels are steering and transferring power you can easily find you aren't steering the car at all - the engine is. Before you know it the steering wheel is pulling roughly to one side and you're heading for a hedge at high speed.
A lot of engineering has to go into a car outputting 400Nm of torque through the front wheels to make it driveable, so Vauxhall has brought together its clever and comfortable Watts linkage rear suspension, a Drexler limited-slip differential to address understeer and a HiPerStrut front suspension to reduce torque steer.
As a result of the additional traction from the mechanical limited-slip diff, the traction control and ESP have been tweaked, bushes stiffened and ride height lowered over the Astra GTC. It's a fascinating insight into the symphony of checks and balances that go into making a hot hatch driveable.
Vauxhall Astra VXR first drive
First impressions are excellent. All of the Astra VXR's mechanical trickery translates into a car that sounds lovely on start-up, is very powerful without feeling manic and handles wonderfully, the limited-slip diff could have been designed for that hoary old 'handles like it's on rails' cliche.
The effect of the Drexler diff is to provide a feeling that the Astra VXR is actively pulling you into a corner, like a steel wire has been slung around a pole on the apex and wound in. It gives a feeling of tremendous confidence and banishes most - if not all - thoughts of understeer. There is still some wheel-slip off the line when pulling away fast and torque steer is not eliminated, you need to keep a firm hand on the steering wheel when accelerating hard.
That steering wheel is noticeably smaller than the Astra GTC - and it is pleasingly firm with the Sport or VXR setting engaged thanks to hydraulic steering. A constant complaint of drivers who enjoy driving is that steering systems are inevitably too light. Vauxhall appears to have listened and learned.
The steering on the Astra VXR is responsive, gives excellent feedback and is nicely weighted - it communicates where the car is and what it's doing; along with giving an impression of the road surface underneath. Brakes are deep and responsive too, meaning the driver can feel secure in understanding the performance of the car.
The ride can get bumpy in VXR mode, though the suspension soaks up any crashes. The ride is more bouncy than jolty over poor road surfaces, but body roll is fairly limited and deselecting Sport or VXR buttons on the Flexride system makes things as comfortable as many small family cars. As a daily drive the Astra VXR would be more than capable.
But the engine may be the star of the Astra VXR. With a tweaked and turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine it will sprint to 60mph in 5.9 seconds - beating the Megane Renaultsport, Ford Focus and most iterations of the VW Golf and Scirocco R. It has the most power and torque rating in class and - crucially for a hot hatch - retains an element of the raucous and untamed. ESP can be switched off completely, which should delight anyone who's weighing up a track day.
There's a broad, smooth and progressive delivery of torque between 2450-5000rpm, meaning the car will pull strongly in most gears - and pull quickly. If you don't have your wits about you, you can easily find yourself on the wrong side of the legal speed limit very quickly, and without apparent effort.
This being a modern hot hatch, though, there are some rough edges knocked off. The presence of some of Vauxhall's hot hatches of old - GTEs and Triple 8s - make the new Astra VXR feel positively refined.
Bespoke sports seats are designed to be comfortable and functional; the three Flexride settings mean you can firm things up with a VXR button significantly, or smooth things out to an impressive degree by electing to choose a more comfortable ride; there's an ECO button that engages stop-start; you can opt for a satnav and there are all the usual gadget bells and whistles you'd expect from a modern car.
This doesn't affect performance - the VXR weighs in less than the GTC thanks to a number of clever weight-shaving measures - but while the effect of all the VXR's features and refinement does mean the VXR may lack some of the rawk that some hot hatch buyers seek, it will open up a new audience of buyers who may not have previously considered such a powerful car.
Buying the Vauxhall Astra VXR
There is a stiff premium for all of the Astra VXR's power and ability however. List prices start at £26,995 and while Vauxhall is keen to point out that the standard spec beats competitors, adding in the VXR Aero pack - with bi-plane spoiler, side skirts and gigantic 20-inch alloys - that Vauxhall thinks will be snapped up by virtually of Astra VXR buyers and the car comes in at £28K.
That's a long way ahead of the Focus ST and Megane RS and level with the Volkswagen Scirocco R. But it's also nearing the asking price of cars like the Range Rover Evoque and Jaguar XF. Clearly there are different audiences for different cars but the Astra VXR is not inexpensive.
Vauxhall does not seem overly concerned though, it will sell more VXRs in Britain than Opel will in the rest of Europe - an anticipated 1,200 units a year; 2012's allocation is already half sold out.
A quoted 34.9mpg combined is possible, though I managed 27mpg over some challenging driving. That's fairly impressive all things considered and another clue as to how useable the Astra VXR is in the real world. CO2 is 189g/km; again that's not a figure that will prove financially crippling, nor is it likely to put any buyer off.
Hot hatch enthusiasts will be wowed by the Astra VXR's muscular, aggressive and squat stance. It is lower again than the three-door Astra GTC and its reasonably subtle visual flourishes should leave other road users in no doubt as to its intent.
There is good space for four inside and a decent boot. Rear seats can be folded down to extend storage space and there are various binnacles around the cabin to up storage.
The cabin does make maneuvering quite hard at times; thick pillars and a high rear mean all-round visibility is not good and the cabin is very understated - a tad more bling might have fitted the car's character better.
All told this feels like a car designed to offer everything that the hot-hatch brigade will want - the power the chassis, the looks - while opening up the car to a broader demographic. This is a hot hatch with comfort, refinement, gadgets and Vauxhall's 'lifetime' warranty.
Perhaps, like with every new iteration of a powerful hatch, some people will fret about the lack of more rowdy characteristics; the Astra VXR did not feel, to me, as daftly chuckable as the Corsa VXR Nurburgring for example.
But most will enjoy the combination of performance and high quality. With the addition of three letters the Astra has gained much, without losing anything. That's seriously impressive.
Vauxhall Astra VXR
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo petrol, 280PS (276bhp) at 5,500rpm; 400Nm (295lb-ft) between 2,450-5,00rpm, six speed manual transmission
Performance: 155mph limited top speed; 62mph in 5.9 seconds; 34.9mpg (actual on test 27.1 mpg); CO2 emissions 189g/km; road tax £460 / £250 per annum, BIK company car tax 28%, insurance group: 35E
Boot space: 380 to 1,165 litres