Hot hatchbacks have remained a constant in the market since I was a boy. Different manufacturers have claimed the crown for the best pocket rocket over the years (and Peugeot even seemed so bored with it they threw it away). Some cars evolved into bloated pastiches of their former selves (much like this author) and external factors like fuel prices and insurance costs have dealt some heavy blows to the sector at times. Vauxhall have always recognised the importance of the sector and have recently renewed their well-known offering, the Corsa VXR.
I think the way the current Corsa looks is an improvement on the model it replaces. It’s subjective, but I didn’t like the headlight treatment on the previous car and I prefer the less organic looking, more chunky lumps and bumps of the newer model.
Now it might be because I’m a sad old geek and the front of the white press car reminded me too much of a Star Wars StormTrooper, but the looks really grew on me. If you are more certain that late 70’s and 80’s sci-fi wasn’t in fact the pinnacle of human cinematic achievement, then I suppose there is enough protroduing out of the front of the car to take issue with, but the side profile is very nicely resolved.
It is perhaps less subjective to praise the interior of the car. Vauxhall have thrown the money where it counts in this sector, at the seats and the stereo, and have not succumbed to the excesses of designer dreams in shaping the dash. It is simple, well layed out and uses good quality materials.
The main disappointment inside was the heating controls. In what was otherwise a very modern and high-tech interior, the rather low-rent heating control knobs let the car down and I actually found it extremely annoying that there was a dial to adjust the temperature but no volume knob on the stereo, leaving me stabbing away at untactile buttons on the wheel or the touch screen.
I was very surprised by the ride quality in the VXR. One could be forgiven for expecting a car like this to be all about riding low and going fast, but it was a very comfortable place to be. I offered various people lifts to various places and it was only once the average age of the occupants tipped over 70 that there was any comment about the ride being too harsh.
Between the fantastic seats, the well engineered suspension and the superbly well insulated cabin, you wouldn’t think you were in a lairy pocket rocket with low profile tyres.
Now, I’m an old fashioned guy when it comes to how I like my power delivered. Thin elusive power bands between a squillion and a squillion and one revs have never excited me, so I’m actually quite a big fan of the recent trend towards turbo-charged engines as they tend to have much more low-down grunt and this Vauxhall is no different. I really enjoyed this engine. It pulls from very low down and delivers strongly across the rev range. This is a good thing as it allows the driver to concentrate on the dynamics of the car a little more. There is a nice enough burble from the exhaust but it gets worse with revs, not better.
Steering and Handling
It’s just as well that the power delivery is good in this car because the driver must apply ALL his or her concentration on the handling when peddling the VXR with vigour.
Now, its important to say that my experiences could be down to however hard a life this press car had before I got my hands on it, or to my shortcomings as a driver, but believe me I tried to get on top of this. I drove it in all kinds of weather, on varying tarmac, willing that bond of understanding between man and machine to appear, but it didn’t. I suspect it is more to do with the compromises chosen by the engineering team when trading off between ride quality and handling. I think the Corsa’s handling was sacrificed a little for the very good ride quality.
I found the onset of torque steer almost completely unannounced and the effects of it alarmingly severe. Trying to drive the car with spirit on a twisty road, balancing the cars weight with the throttle, was too much like Russian Roulette. The steering just didn’t deliver enough feedback for the driver to sense the front wheels starting to let go. It was binary, and when they went, the immense torque of the engine pushed whichever wheel was winning the argument so hard that the result was some pretty significant involuntary changes of direction.
After the joy of the lovely interior, the comfortable ride and the progressive power delivery, it was pretty heart-breaking to find the handling spoiling the party, but it did for me.
The frequency with which I unexpectedly lit up the front wheels also made me wonder whether people factor in excessive front tyre wear into the running costs of cars like these. Our test car had Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber which won’t be cheap to replace.
If you need a hatchback like this then I understand. If you need to seat more than the two happy occupants of an MX-5 and a Toyubaru GT86 is too dear or still isn’t quite practical enough (ie your back-seat occupants have legs), then I get the lure of a hot hatch as where you need to look. I’m sure they all suffer from the inevitable compromises in handling and away from that, the Corsa VXR has some very strong cards to play, so base your choice on how you will use the car. Here at TT we have been most impressed by the SEAT Leon Cupra, but it is substantially more expensive. The similarly priced Ford Fiesta ST is also worth a look.
CAR: Vauxhall Corsa VXR
ENGINE: 1.6 litre 4 cyl turbocharged
TORQUE: 207 lb ft
PERFORMANCE: Top speed 143 mph. 0-62 mph 7.1 secs
ECONOMY: 29.9 mpg combined
CO2 EMISSIONS: 174 g/km