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Road Test – Vauxhall Astra VXR

I remember back in the eighties my friend had an Astra SRi which was his pride and joy. It went like stink, but the handling was so bad that it was positively dangerous. To a degree, the same can be said about every hot version of the Astra ever since. Will the latest VXR coupé be the car that breaks the mould?

 

In recent years Vauxhall has become world class at extracting spectacular amounts of power out of a 2.0 litre engine and this version of the VXR is no exception; the high boost turbocharger punts out a stonking 276bhp and, even more impressively, 295 lb/ft of torque. Vauxhall is also producing some seriously good looking cars these days and this one, based on the curvy Astra GTC, is a proper head turner. VXR trim adds 19 inch wheels, big exhausts and a hefty rear spoiler to give the three door coupé a more menacing look; coupled with the lowered ride height, it looks the part from every angle. The interior is fairly standard Astra fare apart from figure hugging, leather trimmed sports seats and a small chunky rimmed steering wheel. The quality of materials is impressive, though, as is the fit and finish and, with room for two six footers in the back and a good sized boot, it really is a practical proposition as a family car.

 

Of course, this is a hot hatch so we need to talk about the driving experience. As well as that mighty engine, a lot of technology has gone into the VXR. A fancy front suspension setup gets round the worst of the problems created by putting so much power through the front wheels and a limited slip differential is meant to take care of the rest of them. It also has an adaptive suspension system, the kind of technology normally associated with an M series BMW. There’s a normal setting for pottering down to the shops, sports setting for tackling a twisty back road and “VXR” setting for when you’re really on it. The various modes are operated by a couple of buttons on the steering wheel. But does it all work?

 

I’m happy to say, yes it does. The engine delivers sledgehammer performance; 0 – 62 comes up in 5.9 seconds, similar to a Porsche Boxter, and it charges on to 155mph. Above 4000rpm the engine emits a rasping snarl overlaid with a high whistle from the turbo, a sound that is seriously addictive. The adaptive suspension earns its keep; even in standard setting there is bags of grip and very little body roll – press the VXR button and it turns into a proper little racing car. The ride is excellent in anything other than VXR mode when it acquires a bone jarring firmness.

 

The limited slip diff is slightly less successful; it is not at all subtle in its action – either it’s off or it’s on. What it does allow you to do is slingshot out of the corners with your foot hard on the floor, very exhilarating! Accelerate hard in a straight line and the wheel squirms in your hands as it tramlines and follows every contour of the road, the classic symptoms of torque steer. Even this can be good fun, though; it feels like you’re wrestling the car.

 

The Astra VXR is more than a hot hatch; it’s a proper little sports car. It looks and sounds sensational, goes like a train and handles like a go cart, yet it rides like an executive saloon and has all the practicality of a family hatch. All this comes at a price, just shy of £27,000. If it had an Audi badge, no one would think twice about it, but the fact that it’s a Vauxhall will give some people pause for thought. It shouldn’t do; this car is worth every penny.

Kit Johnson

Car as tested Vauxhall Astra VXR   £26,995 RRP

 

This article appeared in the Great Barr Gazette, a local magazine delivered to 16,000

homes in the Great Barr and surrounding area’s.


Used Car – Old Rollers That Won’t Roll You Over

For over a hundred years Rolls Royce has produced cars that are the last word in luxury, quality and exclusivity. Have you spotted any recently in Walmley or Sutton Coldfield?  Naturally, they are extremely expensive but, if you shop carefully, you too can join the millionaires club and own a car that is also an investment. Here are the ones to go for:

 

Rolls Royce Silver Shadow      (1965 to 1980)

As stately as the queen and as understated as a Barbour jacket, the Silver Shadow was the first modern Rolls Royce. This car was an exercise in craftsmanship; the Connolly hide seats were hand stitched, the burr  walnut dash was hand polished and only the finest lamb’s wool would do for the carpets. The self levelling suspension gave a ride that is a match for a modern day Jag. Power from the huge 6.75 litre V8 was described as “adequate,” certainly enough to waft this hefty car along in near silence. Prices start at £2,500 but a pristine 1977 model with a scant 80,000 miles under its belt can be yours for £8k.

For: Luxury, presence, value, quality

Against: Doesn’t do corners, too many are used as wedding cars

 

Rolls Royce Camargue  (1975 to 1986)

The Camargue is a 2 door coupe based on the floor pan and mechanicals of the Silver Shadow. The Pininfarina styled body is  timelessly elegant and hugely luxurious. In 1976 this was the most expensive car in the world and the fact that only 500 were made makes it extremely collectible. Even so, I found a truly immaculate 1982 model with 64,000 miles on it for £43k. That may seem like an awful lot of money but this is a car that is only going to increase in value.

For: Glorious looks, immense style, a sound investment

Against: You’d probably never drive it

 

Rolls Royce Silver Spirit  (1980 to 1998)

The Silver Spirit was a new car for a new age. The 80s were all about brash, go    getting entrepreneurialism and this new Roller reflected that with its monolithic,    in-your-face styling. It was as big as the QE2 and as luxurious as Donald Trump’s penthouse suite. The owner was more likely to be boss of his own company than a titled landowner and more likely to be behind the wheel than sitting in the back. Unfortunately, it was based on the same mechanicals as the Silver Shadow and retained the same aversion to corners and lack of performance. This might explain the falling rock depreciation – these days you can pick up a ’93 model that has been barely run in over 49,000 miles for £7,500.

For: Huge comfort, road presence, the  bargain of the century

Against: Rather ugly, massive running costs

 

Rolls Royce Silver Seraph        (1998 to 2002)

By the time the Silver Seraph came on the scene, Rolls Royce had fallen into Volkswagen ownership (they kept the   Bentley brand and sold the Rolls Royce name to BMW). The engine was a 5.4 litre BMW V12 that finally gave the car the power it deserved. The electronics, equipment and running gear were all state of the art, but a lot of the craftsmanship that was a Rolls Royce hallmark had been lost. Visually, it was sleeker, curvier and more compact than anything that had gone before. Unfortunately, those compact dimensions also extended to the interior. You can pick up a ’98 model with a minimal 74k on the clock for £28,000; not bad for a car that cost £155k when new.

For: Looks, sophistication, ride comfort, road manners

Against: It’s really a high end Beamer


Road Test – Jeep Compass 2.2 CRD 4×4

Jeeps have always been the American equivalent of the Land Rover, iconic vehicles with a reputation for toughness, off road ability and practicality. The Wrangler rivals the no frills workhorse Land Rover Defender while the Grand Cherokee offers a kind of cut price alternative to a Range Rover though without the build quality, luxury or prestige. The Grand Cherokee in particular has been a steady, if unspectacular, seller over here but has always seemed more at home in its American heartland.

Somewhat belatedly Jeep has seen the  writing on the wall for big SUVs and is pushing its Compass crossover heavily at the moment. The Compass has actually been around since 2007 and the original version was notable for its switchable four wheel drive system and one of the ugliest noses ever to be slapped on a car. This new version features heavily revised styling, new engines and a choice of either permanent four wheel drive or front wheel drive. Of course, the whole point of a crossover is that it combines the street presence and elevated driving position of an SUV with the practicality, low running costs and road manners of a family hatch. Will Jeep be able to pull off this trick with the same panache of the Nissan Qashqai and impress motorists in Sutton Coldfield?

Straightaway, I have to say that the styling is a huge improvement on what went before. The chunky grill and headlights blend nicely with the squared off flared wheel arches and the sharp lines of the bodywork to deliver a pleasing combination of chunky offroader and crisp contemporary styling. Step inside and there is plenty of room for five adults on comfortable (leather in the case of my test car) seats. Put the back seats down and you get a load area the size of a small van. There’s plenty of kit as standard too but the fit and finish of the interior feels fragile, the plastics are hard and shiny and I didn’t feel any confidence that the switchgear would still be working properly in a couple of year’s time. All pretty much what you would expect from Jeep then!

Jeep offer a pair of petrol engines with the Compass or a 2.2 litre diesel sourced from Mercedes. The two wheel drive version kicks out 134bhp but the 4×4 has 161bhp as standard. The engine is nicely refined and gives you all the grunt you need with a respectable 125mph top whack and a sub 10 second 0-62 time. I managed 42mpg as well, not bad for a car like this. Although I didn’t take it off road I’ve no reason to doubt that it would acquit itself well in the mucky stuff.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t fare so well on the tarmac; the ride is bouncy on any kind of rough road surface and there is way too much roll through the corners. I thought the whole point of a crossover was meant to be that it drives like a hatchback.

All in all the Compass is not a bad effort; it’s certainly an improvement on the previous model. I really don’t think that it is quite good enough though; it doesn’t have the drivability of the Nissan Qashqai and it lacks the prestige of the two wheel drive Land Rover Freelander. Chrysler, Jeep’s parent company, has now merged with Fiat and the Compass will be replaced next year by an all new Fiat based model. My concern is that the Compass is serving to downgrade the Jeep name, a global brand that has been over sixty years in the making. General motors made a similar mistake when they handed the blue collar icon of the Chevrolet brand to some sad little cars from Korea – remember Daewoo? Rather than using the Jeep brand to add kudos to a Fiat, perhaps Chrysler should concentrate on producing a car good enough to add kudos to the Jeep brand.
Kit Johnson

Car tested Jeep Compass 2.2 CRD 4×4 £23,595 OTR


Awesome S Spec Audis

Audi has now become the marque of choice for upwardly mobile young professionals and many more people besides. Virtually every model Audi makes has its own S version which features high powered engines, uprated suspension and brakes and four wheel drive to handle all that power. Here is my pick of the bunch.

Audi S3           (1999 to 2003)

The A3 is Audi’s answer to the VW Golf, compact, nimble and practical. Throw in a 1.8 litre engine turbocharged to produce 225bhp and an intelligent four wheel system and you have the ultimate upmarket hot hatch. The understated looks are enhanced by the big alloys and you get that legendary Audi build quality. As you might imagine, it goes like stink with 60 mph coming up in 6.6 seconds and the ability to top 150. It also corners like its on rails but it isn’t as much fun to drive as a Golf GTi. Audi’s current desirability is reflected in the price; shop around and you can get an ’02 model with 70k on the clock for £5,500.

For: Build Quality, performance, family car practicality.

Against: Rather staid styling, pricey

 

Audi S4           (2003 to 2005)

The A4 is a compact sporty saloon that also comes in estate and cabriolet guises. Turning it into an S4 involves adding a monstrous 4.2 litre V8 serving up a wholesome 335bhp. The vital statistics are 5.6 seconds and 155mph and the excellent Quattro system delivers superlative road holding in any conditions. As the top of the range model it offers all the goodies – leather, satnav and electric everything and it is as well screwed together as anything on the road. This is a handsome car and the cabriolet particularly is a timeless classic. It is worth buying an S4 just for the thunderous bellow of that magnificent V8. An ‘04 model with 75,000 miles under its belt will set you back £9000.

For: Looks, performance, quality, wonderful sound

Against: There’s no room at all in the back

 

Audi S6           (1999 to 2003)

This big executive bruiser comes as a saloon or an estate but the estate is definitely the one to go for. The power comes from the same engine as in the S4 and the performance is pretty much identical. There is masses of space in both the front and rear and the big boot makes it immensely practical. It handles better than any car this size has any right to do and yet is remarkably smooth riding. The sleek styling won awards when the A6 was first launched and it still looks the part now. The previous version of the S6 is good value too; expect to pay about £7000 for an ’03 plate that has covered 80,000 miles.

For: Space, comfort, classiness, huge performance

Against: Calamitous thirst, a bit old hat these days

 

Audi S8           (2006 to 2010)

Audi’s flagship luxury saloon lends itself nicely to the S treatment. The original model is too old for consideration now and the 340bhp engine doesn’t really cut the mustard these days. However, the most recent version is a real eye opener. Audi have borrowed the magnificent 5.2 litre V10 from the Lamborghini Gallardo, though it is tuned more for torque than outright horsepower and so has to make do with a mere 450bhp. That’s still enough to punt it to 62mph in 5 seconds and without the speed limiter it would top 190! This car is immensely spacious, hugely luxurious, staggeringly well equipped and corners like the Lambo it borrowed the engine from. You’ll have to dig deep if you want one though; £20k puts you in a 5 year old example with 100,000 miles on it.

For: Looks, Comfort, handling, massive performance

Against: An expensive habit

Used car review provided by Walmley Pages, Sutton Coldfield community magazine advertising local business to the Sutton Coldfield public


Road test Volvo S60 D5

Volvo S60 D5

Volvo has long been viewed as sitting in the second tier of prestige car manufacturers, a club that includes Saab and Alfa Romeo. The reasons for this are simple, dynamically and stylistically any recent model Volvo has produced has

not been the match of its rivals from Audi, Mercedes and BMW. With the new S60, Volvo has set out to remedy this, or at least that’s what the launch advertising campaign would have us believe.

The S60 is aimed squarely at the “compact, prestige, sporting saloon” segment of the market, in other words it is up against the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. What is it doing differently that will enable Volvo to take the fight to these titans of the prestige car industry? Well, if we start with the styling I have to say it looks the part. From the side profile it has the curves that, these days, are associated with a four door coupé and from the rear everything is taut and tidy. Unfortunately, until Volvo decides to completely abandon its boxy heritage, the front end is always going to be a problem. Even with the trendy LED running lights, the headlights are bulbous and awkward looking. To my eye the car looks slightly too high sided and stubby as well.

Climb inside and everything is as it should be in an executive saloon. The fit and finish, quality of plastics and all-round ergonomics are nearly up there with the Audi and ahead of anything BMW or Mercedes have to offer. I’m not wild about the slab-like centre console but it is a Volvo after all. The front seats are supremely comfortable but if you get in the back you will find that the price of those coupé-like looks is limited leg room, a centre seat that is strictly for kids and a slightly claustrophobic feel. There are also some funky things on the options list, how about a collision avoidance system that detects pedestrians walking out in front of you and applies the brakes before you run them over?   

Volvo’s tried and tested 2.4 litre 5 cylinder diesel produces 204bhp in this guise, enough for a 7.4 second 0-62 time and a top end of 146mph. I like the hefty shove in the back it gives when it hits the power band and that distinctive 5 cylinder warble makes it one of the few diesels that I actually enjoy the sound of. The economy figures don’t quite keep up with the likes of BMW, expect around 50mpg in mixed motoring, but are perfectly respectable. I drove the six speed manual which is fine, but I hear that the automatic is to be avoided.

What about the handling though? After all, Volvo has made a huge song and dance about what a sporty drive this car is. I can report that this is without doubt the best handling Volvo I have ever driven and I would go further, it is considerably better than the class leading Ford Mondeo whose platform it shares. Even so, it doesn’t exactly make your heart sing and urge you to push it into every corner as hard as you can. The steering is decidedly lifeless too. By way of contrast the ride is excellent, soaking up the bumps like a bigger car but without any wallowing or excessive roll. The way I see it is that it will be a rare occasion indeed when you explore the limits of the handling envelope of your sporty saloon, but a supple ride is something you will appreciate every time you drive it.

The S60 is a solid all rounder and represents good value for money. Somehow though, I don’t think that it will have the German aristocracy quaking in their boots. Even so, if you are bored with your A4 or 3 Series, it is worthy of serious consideration. And if you are quite happy to drive a second tier, prestige sporty saloon, this is definitely the one to go for.

Kit Johnson

Car tested Volvo S60 D5               £26,745 RRP   

Car review provided by Recommended, Sutton Coldfield community magazine advertising local business to the Sutton Coldfield public