At a time when Vauxhall's solitary hot hatch contender is the very ordinary Corsa GSI, it can be easy to forget the brand's rich history. It was Dan P's Corsa VXR used reviewthat was the reminder: there were fast, exciting, interesting hot hatches in the Vauxhall line up not so long ago, and now there isn't. Shame.
Indeed, the VXR lineup (or OPC, as it was elsewhere) used to be chock-full of contenders. 15 years ago, the notion of making performance MPVs was mocked, but cars like the Zafira VXR and Meriva VXR were arguably ahead of their time and previewed the contemporary obsession with fast 4x4s. Getting seven to 150mph is no sillier than getting five around the 'ring in eight minutes (an Enid Blyton tale not yet told), after all. In addition, Vauxhall made good on its collaborations with others, the VXR220 and VXR Monaro models delivering huge performance (and fun) for, relatively speaking, not a lot of money. The Insignia VXR, while heavy, was a stylish and fundamentally competent alternative to the usual German barges. Your prejudices might say otherwise, but there were decent cars nestling under the VXR badge, and now there isn't one at all. Even if they weren't your cup of tea, reduced choice should never be celebrated.
The last Astra VXR was proof of the quality. While the original version was given a fair amount of stick for its slightly loutish manners, the 2012 car was different - a more mature, better rounded quick Astra. It had Vauxhall's HiPerstrut front suspension, a branded take on Renault's PerfoHub design to minimise torque steer, adaptive dampers with developmental help from ZF Sachs, Brembo floating discs and a Drexler limited-slip diff. So even with a chunk more power than its predecessor - 280hp, up from 240 - the second Astra VXR could deal with it a whole lot more comfortably than before.
Which was all well and good; the trouble was it made the VXR perhaps a little too mellow for its own good. Thanks in part to its frumpy kerbweight - a Vauxhall insider once told PH that the Astra was 'over-engineered' which is a polite way of saying 'heavy' - it wasn't as sharp as a Megane, as endearingly lairy as a Focus or as classy as a Golf, despite being a solid competitor for all three. One Astra VXR had been a bit too OTT, then one was arguably too OAP - see here for how the car demure the car looked without the Aero Pack so often seen.
So what was to be done? How could the VXR grab the spotlight in a fiercely competitive hot hatch category? The Astra VXR Extremewas the answer. Shown at the Geneva motor show in 2014, the Extreme appeared custom-built to solve any lingering image issues. Not only was there a motorsport link for it (with an Astra Cup car racing at the Nurburgring), there was history in fast Astras (the previous VXR having clocked a record-breaking 8:35 at the track in 2005) and seemingly an appetite as well.
Don't forget this was just about the time the front-wheel drive Nurburgring record was going gangbusters as well: SEAT had claimed a 7:58but were less forthcoming when it came to explaining how; Renault Sport was soon to announce its Megane Trophy-R that would do 7:54; and Honda then followed up with a 7:50 claim for an FK2 Civic Type R prototype. This was all before the Clubsport S Golf, too. Within a year of the Astra's debut, the FWD 'ring record had changed hands three times - it was an ideal opportunity.
The Extreme was well equipped for the task at hand, too. Nestled in Vauxhall's Geneva press pack (which included the Adam Rocks, a new 1.6 'whisper diesel' and the launch of OnStar in Europe) the Extreme spec read like a track day fiend's Christmas list. Power was set to be more than 300hp from the 2.0-litre turbo, with 100kg of tedious mass jettisoned through trick bits like a carbon roof, bonnet and wheels (!), 800g aluminium wings and two slender Recaro buckets up front. Combine all that with even bigger Brembo brakes (370mm front discs), a rear cagstiffness, semi-slick Hankook tyres, adjustable dampers and a reprofiled aero setup and all the ingredients were there for a hot hatch 'ring warrior supremo. Furthermore, the Nordschleife would be the perfect place to demonstrate the Astra's ability: ask anyone who's attempted to go quickly there, and consistency, predictability and stability are vastly preferable to flighty agility.
The idea, quoted here verbatim from the Extreme press release, was for a "low production run planned by Vauxhall if reaction is positive." For reference there were 150 Clubsport S Golfs allocated to the UK, and 30 Trophy-Rs - the Vauxhall figure would surely have been closer to the latter. Whether it would have actually secured the 'ring record it isn't possible to say - even with the weight-saving measures, the Extreme was still 1,375kg - though it was nice to imagine the halo effect such a car might have had. The Golf is the perfect example of this influence: a standard GTI is pretty good, but the Clubsport S is genuinely exceptional, and remains so despite its lap time being surpassed; that one model, a tiny portion of the overall sales, gave the Mk7 Golf GTI a much more favourable rep with enthusiasts than it otherwise enjoyed. The same should have been true for the Astra VXR with the Extreme.
As it is, we'll never know. Presumably the reaction wasn't positive enough; we've contacted Vauxhall to see if there was any further reason, though nothing has been forthcoming as yet. Given the timing with its contemporaries could hardly have been better, there was doubtless an internal reason which prevented the Extreme strategy coming to fruition. Certainly it would have been costly to produce - making it potentially prohibitively expensive for the consumer - or perhaps it was deemed too wilfully 'extreme' for its own good. There's always the possibility it wasn't quite as quick as Vauxhall hoped; which is a tight corner when you consider the cheques that aero pack was writing.
Whatever the reason, the VXR never made that low production run it claimed to be considering. Tellingly, it ended up marking the demise of the hardcore Vauxhall hot hatch. That the Adam S (to become the Adam Grand Slam) was also announced at the Geneva show in 2014 shows where things were going. Since then the Astra, Corsa and Insignia VXR have all met their makers, replaced in the case of the latter two by less powerful, less interesting GSI alternatives. The most potent Astra in the range is a 1.6 Ultimate. And the Adam still exists, albeit back now as an S - it costs £19,000.
While it would be absurd to suggest that one model would have changed the fortunes of a GM-helmed Vauxhall, the Extreme would certainly have lent VXR an interesting point of discussion - not to mention a signal of intent and the sort of front-wheel-drive flagship it hadn't shown an interest in before. Obviously the imported Holdens at the time were cool, but real cachet in Europe comes from a killer hot hatch - the kind the Astra may well have been. It would have been memorable, divisive, attention-grabbing - the ideal sort of thing to head up a VXR range. That the Extreme didn't happen - that we weren't delivered another noughties anti-hero to write home about - is disappointing, half a decade down the line.
More so because of course VXR isn't going to happen again. Not in this lifetime. For one thing, its current parent company isn't going to allow it, and for another, anything fast in the future Vauxhall mould will need to be as virtuous as an offshore wind farm. The VXR Extreme would have at least allowed the brand to bow out in terrific, look-what-we-can-do style, rather than tepidly petering out with not much to show. At the time we just shrugged our shoulders, thinking the car another casualty of the manufacturer's occasionally haphazard way of doing things. But with a torrent of spilt milk now under the bridge, its stillbirth denied us the last chance of a rosy-tinted view of a banzai sort of Vauxhall; the final leftover of a mainstream firm that could badge anything from a Aussie-born V8 saloon to a Norfolk-bred mid-engined sports car and somehow get away with it. Extreme stuff was the hallmark of Luton's long era in the performance spotlight. Shame it didn't get the mic drop it deserved.