Vauxhall hot hatches have had a chequered recent history. A reputation for lots of power, but in a chassis that can barely handle it, has dogged Luton's performance offerings, first with the Astra GSI Turbo, then into the Astra and Corsa VXR models, all enthusiastically potent but severely lacking in finesse. News that the latest Corsa would reinvigorate the 1990s GSI brand had our hopes up, but that turned out to be something of a damp squib too.
Maybe the badge Vauxhall really needs to bring back is that which adorned its earliest front-wheel-drive hot hatches: GTE. Arguably, the GTEs were its greatest and best-loved hot hatch efforts, laden with raffish charm and styling that utterly trounced rivals in terms of pure, lairy aggression.
Try staring down this Mk1 Astra GTE, for example. Go on, we dare you. Five'll get you ten you'll blink and look away. Big, glaring eyes, a jutting chin spoiler and a blacked out grille make it look murderous, and a rear end that seems to sneer at you resentfully as it pulls away only completes the effect. From the side, the Astra's equally handsome; neatly proportioned and canted back over its tail as though it's straining to pull away.
Inside, things are slightly less convincing. The velour-clothed Recaro seats are fabulous, of course, but the rest feels rather cheap; the dashboard with its paper-thin plastics, tacky dials and the odd, U-shaped gear knob, all shared with standard Astra models. Mind you, it is of its time; few hot hatches did things any differently, and it wasn't until later in the 1980s that interior embellishments started to pop up in them with any regularity.
Start the Astra up, and you're greeted by an off-kilter thrum, the automatic choke only just doing its job of keeping the engine alive when it's cold. As the car warms up, though, the idle steadies, and soon you feel confident about exploring further up the rev range.
What you find is pretty terrific. The GTE is powered by the 18E engine, a version of the 1.8-litre OHC Family II engine seen in Vauxhalls right through to 1995. With just 115hp it might sound asthmatic, even for the standards of the day - but out on the road, probably thanks to the Astra's lightness, it punches way above its weight.
Even low down there's a solid glob of torque to get your teeth into. In fact, so giving is the engine in the lower half of the rev range that you find yourself tempted to change up at about 5,000rpm thinking it might be all done. Keep it spinning to the red line, though, and you discover there's plenty more where that came from; rather than tailing off, the amount of shove you get just seems to grow, only really falling away a fraction before you hit the 6,500rpm red-line. It'd be overstating things to call this a VTEC-like performance, but for an old eight-valve lump it's really very compelling.
What's more, if you hold your gear right up to that point, you find the revs drop straight into a perfectly juicy nugget of torque when you change up, encouraging you to keep going. And from about 2,000rpm onwards there's a glorious hard-edged induction warble to go with the acceleration, overlaid with a fantastically old-school exhaust rasp.
That engine really is what this car is all about, its flexibility, sparkle and downright brawn dominating the driving experience. But don't take it from that that the chassis is a poor relation. True, it doesn't quite have the outright precision or playfulness you'd find in a Mk1 Golf GTI; the steering is rather heavy at low speeds, and if you try to flick it from one direction to another there's a little slop in the suspension that causes the body to hesitate before it settles. While we're talking flaws, the gearbox could be more precise and the wooden brakes mean you often find yourself standing on the pedal to scrub off speed.
Nevertheless, the GTE is still terrific fun to drive. Once you're up to speed, the steering's weight improves significantly. The rack isn't that fast, so the GTE never feels darty or zingy, but the nose does respond the instant you turn the wheel, and so progressive is it that you always know exactly where you are, which gives you such confidence in the front end that you find your entry speed creeping up and up. Happily, the GTE rides brilliantly; firm but pliant, ensuring only the most jarring bumps make it through to your behind, with the outcome being that those mid-corner lumps don't knock you off line.
As a result, it's very easy to build up a rhythm and find yourself flowing happily from corner to corner, surfing on that lovely wave of torque and savouring that buzzy engine note having forgiven, or at least forgotten, the niggles. On a British B-road, the Astra GTE is right at home, and able to maintain its speed so well that there are much more powerful hot hatches it could probably stay with.
Ultimately, in the pantheon of these first-generation hot hatches, the Mk1 Golf GTI still has the edge over the Astra GTE. It is the more precise car, tauter and slicker, and endowed with a more solidly built interior. But the Astra's brawny engine, lairy styling and sweet, flowing chassis nevertheless make it a joy to drive, and a hot hatch that deserves to be better known. If Vauxhall could bring back the GTE badge on a car imbued with as much character and charm as this one, it'd be on to a seriously good thing.
SPECIFICATION - VAUXHALL ASTRA GTE
Engine: 1,796cc 4-cyl petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 115@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 111@4,800rpm
0-60mph: 8.5 seconds
Top speed: 115mph
On sale: 1983-1985
Price new: £6,739 (1984)
Price now: from £5,000 (LHD) / £8,000 (RHD)
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