HSV Astra VXR 2007 Review
August 21, 2007
$5,830 - $8,250
Theoretically, HSV making a four-cylinder car is like AC/DC releasing an unplugged album. It wouldn't sound right, it would look stupid and have bogans up in tattooed arms.
And yet, as unimaginable as it seemed a few short years ago, it's happened in the form of the VXR otherwise known as an Astra that looks as though it's dressed up to go on Gladiators (that show where lycra-clad muscleheads would hit each other with giant ear-cleaners).
It really is an overdone bodykit and seems to have been created by the same guy who did Jordan's breasts.
The strange thing about the $42,990 baby HSV was that, at first, it didn't feel that much different to the Holden-built SRi Astra I'd driven a couple of weeks previously, which costs just $34,990.
Being merely plain rather than ugly, the SRi won't frighten horses or small children.
But it does share the butt-ugly, exhaust-pipe-in-the-middle look that too many designers are borrowing from the Porsche Boxster, mistakenly thinking it looks good. A bit like Lindsay looking at Paris and deciding a mugshot was a neat idea.
One would guess what you're paying HSV for is the butch looks and the badge, which is what makes the interior so strange. I couldn't find a HSV badge anywhere.
You'd think they'd put in those funky dials you get in a Clubsport. But no, they've just left in the ones that say “Opel Performance Centre” and look a bit uninspired. There's even an Opel lightning bolt, rather than the Aussie Dark Helmet look, on the steering boss.
These clues provide the giveaway that HSV has had less to do with this car than Milli Vanilli had to do with their songs.
The VXR is fully imported from Europe, which is a good thing unless you buy HSV out of some strange sense of petrol-chewing patriotism.
I did finally find a HSV emblem, in the decal on the back window, above the words “I just want one.”
It seems a cruel way to taunt someone who's bought this car, making them read this every time they check their mirror. There are HSV badges on the exterior; they get stuck on in a holding yard before the cars go to dealers.
Elsewhere in the cabin, there are two nice Recaro seats and a beefy steering wheel, but other than that it looks like the interior designer just shrugged and said “that'll do.” The thing that the letters HSV bring to mind most urgently, besides aggressive styling and loud clothing, is the thundering rumble of a V8.
And you're just not going to get that in a car powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder. Sure enough, the noise the VXR makes is as far from a throaty V8 as James Reyne is from Pavarotti. It's more of a 'parp' than a rasp. Give it a bootful and it will start to wax lyrical, but it never really makes a noise you'd describe as pleasant.
After tootling around town for a few days, wondering why its 177kW felt so similar to the SRi's 147kW, I finally took the HSV into more appropriate territory and was duly rewarded.
Out on the open road, it was a revelation. Finally, I felt safe to press the Sport button, which, in the city, turned the VXR into one of those fierce little dogs that just has to attack every other canine it sees.
Sport buttons are often mere frippery, but clearly this one really does what it claims, quickening the steering, firming up the suspension and improving throttle response.
After being underwhelmed all week, the amped Astra took to the Old Pacific Highway with all the aggression the HSV name implies. This is a seriously quick car, a second faster to 100km/h than the SRi, stopping the clock at 6.4 seconds.
An even bigger surprise was the chassis, which is wonderfully stiff, banishes bodyroll and generally takes responsibility for making this Astra so much fun through the bends.
If you're up it, it really can carve a section of road, with its 320Nm helping you to punch out of low-gear corners. There's undeniable lag before the big turbo punch comes in, but if you keep it on wick, it just flies.
The ride is still firmer than a cliched TV prison warder, however, thanks to the very HSV-looking 19 inch rims (the SRi has more practical 18s). The steering is good without being outstanding, It's no BMW 130i, or even a Golf GTI, but it's enjoyable.
The one big thing this underling has over the entire HSV range is that it's the only one with a really good six-speed manual gearbox. What it really misses out on, compared to its big brothers, is not being rear-wheel drive.
I expected a lot of torque steer, but it wasn't as bad as feared. It was there, you could feel the wheels scrabbling and the steering tugging slightly at speed, but it wasn't awful. Then I took a humble left-hand turn on the outskirts of Hornsby, got careless with that feathery throttle and nearly had both my arms rent asunder.
Sorry, but you can't put 177kW through a set of front wheels and not have torque steer, no matter how many Mazda 3 MPS dealers tell you you can.
Personally, I enjoyed the SRi Astra just as much, perhaps because it's not trying as hard to deny engineering principles and visually it's less offensive. So if I really wanted an Astra, I'd be pocketing the $8000 difference.
Sadly, though, neither comes close to the hot-hatch class leader, the Golf GTI.
HSV Astra VXR
Engine: 2L/4cyl turbo; 177kW, 320Nm
0-100kmh: 6.4 seconds
Honda Civic Type-R
Engine: 2.0L/4cyl; 128kW, 193Nm
Economy: 9.3L/100 combined
0-100km/h: 6.6 secs
Mazda 3 MPS
Engine: 2.3L/4cyl turbo; 190kW, 380Nm
0-100km/h: 6.4 seconds
Engine: 2.0L/4cyl turbo; 168kW, 310Nm
0-100km/h: 6.5 seconds (est)
$5,830 - $8,250