It’s been badged an HSV, an Opel, and now the hottest Astra will return in 2015 as the Holden Astra VXR to put the Lion badge back in the hot-hatch game for the first time since 2009.
Holden, though, is adopting the VXR performance badge from UK sister company Vauxhall instead – which you could see as a fairer swap considering Vauxhall takes the HSV GTS (called the VXR8 GTS).
The mid-sized Insignia VXR is also coming in 2015, while the next-generation Corsa OPC/VXR is under consideration, though for now we’re focused on the Astra that must give Holden credibility against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance and Golf R (and soon-to-be-reintroduced Scirocco R), Renault Megane RS275 and upcoming Ford Focus RS.
It should be competitive on price if Holden sticks to the stickers of previous models. The HSV VXR (2006-2009) and Opel Astra OPC both asked $42,990 before on-road costs.
Vauxhall and Holden invited members of the Australian media including CarAdvice to reacquaint itself with the fast Astra in the UK – for now wearing the griffin badges of the British arm – ahead of its 2015 return.
Fortunately, Holden is importing only cars not weather from England, as our road and track day sessions were wet and gloomy.
The Rockingham circuit is famous for its oval, though we run on the twisting infield section so the VXR is presented with more challenges than just having to turn left at speed.
And the VXR comes through such a supreme test of a car’s level of grip and traction.
The 20-inch Pirelli tyres – 245/35s – hang on gamely through the slippery corners and get purchase under hard braking.
More impressive is how the Astra VXR pulls out of corners (not apexes so much as we were using grippier karting lines here) despite the direct injection 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder pumping out 206kW and 400Nm to the front wheels.
You can feel the Drexler mechanical limited slip differential working away at the front axle as you start to lean on the Astra into and out of corners.
Torque steer is still more evident with the VXR than it is with the RS Megane, despite the Astra’s clever HiPerStrut front suspension – which, like the Focus RS’s system, employs a special knuckle to give the steering some independence from the spring-damper assembly that must cope with bumps under acceleration.
Otherwise the electro-hydraulic steering allows the driver to guide the front end of the VXR accurately and smoothly.
Get the Astra VXR straight and the turbo four’s mid-range punch can be savoured before jumping on the standard Brembo anchors that are nicely progressive and contribute to the VXR’s excellent stability under hard braking.
The VXR, not without some lag off just off idle, growls with the first phase of the shove, before the Remus exhaust emits a jet-like whoosh from 4000rpm.
No dual-clutches or even an auto here for gear shifts; VXR is a six-speed manual only. It’s a decent ’box, though shorter throws would endow it with a sportier feel.
We used the ‘VXR’ suspension mode that’s the stiffest damper setting available on track. There’s a mid ‘Sport’ mode – via a secondary button on the dash – though for British B-roads (similar to Australian country roads in their patchy quality) the Astra hot-hatch excels with just the default suspension.
Even on the optional 20-inch wheels, there’s brilliant compliance that sees the VXR travel untroubled across bumpy surfaces to give the driver utmost confidence to discover the car’s point-to-point pace that’s quick though not ferociously so.
The Astra’s ride contrasted with the Insignia VXR we also drove that was permanently busy and discouraged pressing harder on the accelerator.
It makes the Astra VXR an eminently easy hot-hatch to live with despite even the normal suspension mode being more aggressively sporty than that of a Golf GTI’s.
The sports seats developed by Opel Performance Centre also show Recaro doesn’t always need to be the go-to brand for the just-right balance of bolstering and body-cushioning. It’s a great driving position, too.
Although the VXR is based on the GTC three-door Astra, sufficient rear legroom and a 380-litre boot assist everyday practicality. (CarAdvice has been told the next-generation Astra VXR due in 2017 will be a five-door.)
The next regular Astra is out late 2015 so a downside for Holden Astra VXR buyers is that the car will feel outdated in some ways within months.
A key area of improvement for the new European hatch is an interior that will lift its quality and drop its obsession with buttons.
The current Astra’s centre stack is a daunting mass of switches – though at least the VXR and Sport buttons exclusive to this model get prominence at the top of the dash.
They sit below the high-resolution colour touchscreen that serves up the likes of sat-nav maps and info, audio details, and smartphone app integration.
We’ll find out in 2015 how Holden will equip and price the Astra VXR.
While not as maniacally enjoyable as the now-discontinued Ford Focus RS (next-gen due next year, though) or as richly presented as the hot Golfs (GTI and R), the Astra VXR plays a strong ‘all-rounder’ card and will surely give the Lion badge credibility among Australian driving enthusiasts not besotted with V8s.