By Richard Aucock,
last updated December 20 2005

Look at the van in the pictures and imagine it on a busy M1, surrounded by fellow van drivers. Cue copies of The Sun hurtling off dashboards as they all weave between lanes with fury in an effort to get alongside.

Talk about underground celebrity; all the company car drivers just looked at the stickers and thought I was an idiot. But then, how were they to know what lay under the bonnet?Please click photos below to enlarge - more at bottom:

The driver who delivered it to us was another who was unaware. "Thought it was a 1.7 diesel when I got in, mate" he confessed. I can only imagine the sheer terror when he booted it for the first time and experienced a rush similar to the one Iím enjoying as I showboat to the cameraphone-wielding occupants of a VW Caddy TDI. No, itís not a 1.7 diesel. Under the bonnet, branded with a silver Day-Glo ĎVXRí sticker, sits a 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine thatís right now kicking me in the back like few cars and certainly no van have ever done before. An Astra VXR engine meets its commercial cousin, to create the worldís first (and, so far only) Astravan VXR. Have they gone mad?

Leaving the motorway for a favourite switch-back sequence of twisties bring confirmation that they have. We complained that the Astra VXR torque-steers. This doesnít. Jam down the throttle and the front wheels simply light up, spinning like fireworks, yet little else happens; the wheel doesnít tug or shimmy, so completely is traction overcome. Your only option is to lift off and, eventually, once again enjoy grip and the ability to steer. Wow. Itís taking a more circumspect approach that brings best results. Even though, so considerable is the power, such circumspection is only relative. We have no figures but the 1200kg VXR hatch hits 60mph in 6.2 seconds. This also has 240bhp and a similar kerbweight...

Such is the vigour with which it piles on mph that anything youíve stored in the load area instantly makes contact with the tailgate, with a thud. The GM-spec load cover wasnít designed to hold items steady against such loads! Brake hard, using uprated anchors that provide powerful, fade-free stops and, as luggage cannons forward, youíll be glad of the half-bulkhead behind the semi-sports front seats. This also stiffens the bodyshell which, with the overhauled suspension, should make it tidy through bends. But all you can think of at first is how much it sounds like a racing car. Every road chip rattles from the caven-like rear, every suspension sound is transmitted and, at slow speeds, you can even hear the rear brake pads clamp the discs. Fantastic.

Get over the fury of the power and concentrate on cornering, to discover the very stiff, taught ride isnít for nothing. Light, fluffy steering apart, it turns in quickly, grips hard and displays commendable composure. This is a quick-witted, agile machine that, on smoother roads, is as much fun as the Astra VXR hatch, unlikely as that may seem! Throw in a few bumps and it can become a little lumpy, though the suspension isnít as over-harsh as you first fear. Just a shame the steering is so vague, really. And have no fears that the unladen tail is a little lively in extremes; we find the only way to really unsettle it involved an icy, empty car park and the (effective) handbrake...

But it doesnít half drink fuel. Probably because of the sheer breadth and strength of its torque output; a mere throttle-tickle is all it needs. A 250-mile full tank range soon has you becoming more sensible and assessing the Astravanís other attributes, though. Such as a surprisingly good stereo, clear instrumentation and comfortable seats. However, the perches are too high, the steering wheel (an aftermarket Irmscher job) uncomfortably thick and the gearchange dreadful; notchy, loose-feeling, rubbery and with a worrying tendency to graunch into fourth gear. Everything a gearchange shouldnít be. The interior is pretty plain and plasticky, if well-built; but then, the lack of white dials and alloy dash trim only added to the stripped-racer effect.

Logos as garish as the Astravan VXRsí are at risk of labelling it a joke. But itís far from one. Those Ď888í badges on the side are not there for nothing because the company, which engineers Vauxhallís BTCC racers, also developed this. And it shows, from the well-honed suspension to the sheer standard of engineering. This could be a factory-built car. Sadly itís not, and never will be Ė a VXR van is a niche too far even for Vauxhall. However, judging by how those vans were pouring over it, thatís probably a good thing, if only for the sanity of other motorway users...

Edited by Dazza (28th Oct 2006 1:05pm)