It took Vauxhall a long time to make their mind up regarding their range-topping brand. While the boys in Essex decided that ‘RS’ should be their undisputed halo range in the ‘60s, Luton took rather longer and straight up dithered. Between the ‘70s and the early part of the 21st century we were treated to HSs, HSRs, SRis, GSis, Turbos and finally, the VXR.
This indecision undoubtedly enabled Ford to steal a march on Vauxhall, and it’s only relatively recently that the latter’s VXR range has begun to approach the levels of appreciation enjoyed by other comparable brands. Still, the VXR brand has delivered some seriously cool cars over the last decade and a bit, everything from bonkers re-badged Holdens to stupidly powerful family vans (take a bow Zafira VXR), and it just keeps on delivering.
Top of the tree has to be the latest Astra J VXR, a car that bristles with tech, looks fantastic, re-defines what a performance front-wheel drive Vauxhall can do, and can go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Focus RS. Then we have the example here, a car bought brand new by Bryn Williams in 2014.
“I’m known for driving my cars pretty hard and for going through a fair few gearboxes,” Bryn explains with a grin. “My last car was a Corsa SRi that I slowly converted to full VXR spec and I destroyed a fair few M32 gearboxes on that, so I wanted a car with a warranty.”
Various Corsas were weighed up and rejected before Bryn finally settled on the all new VXR, put his deposit down, jumped in the car and drove direct to Thorney Sport to well and truly void said warranty. What started out with a discussion about the pros and cons of Stage 1 tuning ended with Bryn driving off in an Astra boasting one of the firm’s Stage 3 VXR-R packages.
While this doesn’t involve any alteration of the internals or turbo, it does see the Astra given a stage 3 remap, induction work and free-flowing exhaust system, all of which left Bryn with a handy 307bhp, a figure that jumped to 321bhp once the box-fresh A20NFT had loosened up a bit (just over 60 miles had clicked over on the odometer at the time of the VXR-R conversion).
“I’d be lying if I said I noticed a massive improvement in performance after all that work, mainly as I’d driven the car fairly conservatively up until then, but in the months since it’s really come alive,” Bryn explains. “350bhp is on the cards for next year, possibly more if I opt to fit a larger turbo…”
The VXR-R package came with a whole host of badges, stickers and wheel options, though this latter aspect of the kit posed something of a conundrum; the wheels offered were performance based (Team Dynamics Pro Race being the most popular), and while there’s no doubt that these are fine, lightweight alloys in their own right, they aren’t exactly a rare sight on bright blue Astra VXRs.
In the end Bryn bit the bullet and fitted some Team Dynamics (though they weren’t Pro Race 1.2s) and ran them for several months, only deciding that they needed to go when he took the fairly drastic step of fitting an air suspension kit to the car.
“That wasn’t a decision I took lightly but I can honestly say it’s been one of the best modifications on the car, and one that’s made it a whole lot more usable.”
First, a bit of background. A set of posh Bilsteins found their way under the arches within weeks of Bryn’s name appearing on the V5, all wound down about as far they could go with the ‘helper’ springs removed. The resulting ride was, perhaps unsurprisingly, crashy and deeply uncomfortable. Throw in the fact that he kept gouging his splitter on all but the most pathetic of speed bumps and it becomes all too clear why Bryn eventually went all out and had Plush Automotive fit an air kit with twin 400cc compressors, Air Lift Performance struts and HPDT rear bags.
Bryn admits that yes, he did have some concerns about compromising the poise and handling of his VXR, but the air kit has so far proved much better than the previously mentioned Bilsteins.