Checking out the competition - VXR range at Thruxton
I attended the VXR trackday at Thruxton yesterday, mainly as a cheap way of getting some track time in at one of only 4 tracks in the UK I've not driven! Here are my thoughts on the cars, if anyone is interested:
First up, the Astra, the car I spent the most time in. I didn't have a good poke around one on the static display, but did spend much time in one and the interior seems well screwed together, and the design a strong point of the current Astra, I think. All of the VXR range have nice Recaro seats and very pleasing thick, soft-touch and grippy leather steering wheels, light years ahead of the one we had in our CTR. Setting off, I found the throttle responsiveness an absolute blight initially, it surged ahead on a tiny throttle opening then as you backed off the turbo kicked in and off it surged again. This first car may have had the "sport" button on, I switched it off for my next few Astra runs - the result being vastly favourable for wet track work. "Sport" button on or off, the engine felt keen and the car genuinely rapid even at low revs. The response on a part throttle made the car feel very quick.
I was very impressed with the steering feel, chassis under braking, and keeness of the car to change direction, it worked with me and understeered less than any of the other cars on the day, rotating nicely under trail-braking on corner entry much like my GTA does. It also felt super-stable in the heavily wet conditions on the straights - at one stage I looked down at the speedo (you don't view instruments much on a track that's new to you, in traffic, in the wet!), thinking I was following someone truly pedestrian on the straight, and was shocked to see 110mph on the dial.
Overall I was highly impressed. I had felt from reading between the lines of the mixed reviews of this car that I'd like it's chassis, and I did. I experienced no torque steer, the only downsides were a hyperactive throttle (which you get used to) and more eagerness to push on on corner exit under power than with Alfa's FWD setup. A fine car, and one that reaffirms my traditional stance of being at odds with many magazine testers - even the instructors on this event were allegedly wary of instructing in the Astra due to the torque steer - of which I experienced none, just good faithful communication. A car that rewards being really driven.
Statically, the Corsa is a bit of a chav's paradise. I recall thinking "is that it" when reading the list of improvements over the standard car in the road tests, and that's how it feels in the flesh, bodykit aside. Setting off, the pedals, steering wheel and gearchange all feel notably flimsy next to the Astra, and while it feels taut and keen the throttle response could not be more different to the Astra. If anything it is too relaxed on a part throttle, this car just did not feel quick at all to me compared to the others.
The chassis is a peach - confirmed to me on my "hot laps" passenger ride when it demonstrated more adjustable, smooth sliding than I've ever experienced in a FWD car. But that's not quick on a track, or adviseable on the road - it comes into it's own in big lurid slides that are just not relevent to anything I'd ever want to do. Just driving the thing as you should, it feels stable but lacks excitement and involvement. Perhaps it's too competent.
That it handles so well in extremis with so few changes over the basic car shows that the new Corsa has a great chassis, but for me this "hot" version was the biggest disappointment of the day if I consider my view of the car vs the very positive press reports. It may get road testers salivating, given an empty test track and an obsession with drifting, but for me it fails as a sporty car for the road. Spend more on the Astra, it will reward you more and feels and looks leagues apart in terms of quality.
Statically, the Vectra is the most impressive VXR "make over" compared the the standard car. The bodykit has real purpose and looks somehow better harmonised with the car than many, and the interior is very pleasant and sporty, with nice leather recaros and generally a good feel. Setting off, it had by far the most exhaust burble - I'd not really noticed the engine note of either of the cars above, as you often don't, much, on track. The Vectra made a bassy rumble that is as naughty as any modern road car I've been in recently at low speed. I wanted to like this car, all the boxes so far having been ticked.
Unfortunately, it felt heavy and "floaty" out on track. It felt like the damping, springs and ARB's could all be substantially stiffer. While tracks do make road cars feel soft, I actually tend to get on with soft setups and this was not driving at 100%, plus was wet - when road cars feel at their best on track. Braking into corners the rear of the car was still floating about, discouraging exploring the use of trail-braking in such a short time on track, and this car was by the easiest to push into understeer mid-corner - which, when it came, felt more terminal. It got the power down well enough, being sensible, but where the Astra punched it's way eagerly down the following straight on a part throttle at medium revs, I was suprised to introduce the Vectra's pedal to the carpet without really feeling I was going anywhere fast.
I didn't really pick up any V6 vibes either, though as I say you notice these sorts of "character" points much more on the road. Certainly it was no quicker to respond than the others, and it lacked a nice induction roar, it just felt turbocharged. Overall I feel this is a decent car bearing in mind the looks and interior, you are more likely to push the straight line perfirmance than handling on the road, so if these appear cheap on the SH market in future they should not be discounted as a rapid and comfortable means of getting from A to B. But I couldn't really discern any depth of talent within the car, it would be a tool, no more.
Then lastly the VXR8. I would have felt cheated not to get a drive in this car. In the flesh it looks less chavvy than I expected from the pics, and the static display car showed that the core engineering is very well done. The V8 - suprisingly short when you are used to seeing a certain company's straight-sixes mounted this way - sits well back in the chassis and the engine bay looks just "right" somehow. The interior, too, was well beyond what I expected from the pictures, raising the more than acceptable bar of the Vectra far higher. The brakes are lovely, big, track-ready units (BMW take note...) and some of the options on display looked nice - especialy the yummy bigger, grey wheels (I'd guess 19" at least!).
It's a really big car though, the gearchange felt like it was in the passenger footwell! Setting off, there was a bit of V8 rumble from a standstill, but I'm guessing these cars were on the standard exhaust as I'd heard precious little noise from the outside as the cars trundled down the pitlane. If I was going to take the spectacular emmissions and mpg hit of this car, I'd want the V8 experience stamped all over every aspect of it, personally.
The VXR8 run was marred somewhat by traffic on the second lap, and an instructor who clearly felt 400bhp, RWD, and a typical bunch of petrolheads meant more of a chance of an early grave than for his colleagues. He may have been a Vauxhall emplyee not a typical club-racing instructor, he was not interested in prior experience or track technique, just kept saying what a bargain the car was at £35k. Obviously the electronics stayed firmly on.
This car, though, was a real dissapointment overall. Yes it's big, plush, refined and comfortable. But the weight means it is very keen to push into understeer in the wet, and not too keen to come back out of it, even driving only slightly into that condition. It didn't feel that keen to rotate around me on corner entry and it's a big bloody car to start getting frisky with, learning to get the most out of it would take balls of steel on the road.
The engine had a fraction of the character I expected - it lacked much of a V8 burble, any sort of induction howl anything like my GTA's V6, and also had quite a relaxed throttle response. It was never wired into my brain, helping me find grip by instantly adding/reducing power like my engine, it just punted me along on a wave of refined but slightly woofly noise. Not that a track is a good judge of these things, it didn't feel that quick either - I was suprised to look down at one point and see over 4k revs on the tacho, throttle in the floor, and not feel more "go".
It's probably a car that would feel superb in the US or Australia or somewhere like that, woofling along in comfort with reserves of ability when needed, given the space. As a proposition for UK enthusiasts I don't think it is the right sort of car. There are countless cheaper smaller cars that offer more driving thrills on our narrow roads, and some even have more depth of character in the engine department. On most of the roads I blat on, I'd take the Astra over this for a quick blat.
As a last point, all of the cars could do with considerably closer spaced pedals, better suited for heel toe (which I tried once but was just a disaster without familiarity) and less chunky gear knobs, plus more weight in the controls. As a plus point though, I'm assuming all electronics were firmly "on" all the time, and they were impressively light in their interventions. Most of the (older tech) traction control systems I've used would have been more invasive and harmed momentum more than the Vx ones did, though I've noticed that all such systems are better in the wet - I quite like mine in the wet even when hammering it, so maybe that flattered them. I only really noticed the Vectra baulking at putting the power down on occasion, from which I felt sure it was a FWD, not 4WD, version.
When I got back in the GTA, the idiosyncratic nature of the position - with the wheel, main instruments, gearshift and pedals all closely grouped in a kind of pod around the driver - looked a bit odd at first but as soon as I pulled away I warmed to the extra weight and responsiveness in the controls. Wanging along some nice lanes on the way home, I realsied how far any of the VX's were from my ideal - in having a revvy, responsive engine that gives it's best in a wide but high-revs powerband and does so with real zest and depth of character. But some - the Astra and Corsa in particular - did make me think I'll be doing the right thing when I invest in some better dampers or a full coilover kit for the GTA soon, on the bumpy stuff their more modern setups are less of a handful!