Are there no bargains anymore? Hot hatches used to be value thrill machines, cramming outsized engines into tiny bodies to create instant exhilaration. But then everyone bought small SUVs, seemingly giving up on dreams of one day owning a car that’s actually fun to drive.
But hot hatches are having a revival – the model has never been, well, hotter. Ford’s Fiesta ST got the ball rolling again and now Vauxhall is gaining momentum with its new Corsa. The standard Corsa underwent a major refresh at the end of 2014, and now there’s a reborn VXR version to go alongside it. You could be forgiven for assuming it was designed with those of a baseball cap-wearing persuasion in mind, but here’s the thing; it’s way better than that.
The 1.6-litre turbo-charged engine is carried over, albeit with a number of significant tweaks to increase performance. It’s all about the details – a new air intake, revised injectors and so on – and the result is better horsepower and torque produced at more accessible revs. The headline figures are 143mph and 0-60mph in 6.4 seconds, and by any measure that’s fast for a car costing less than £20,000.
The good news doesn’t stop there, either. The suspension has been revised, with clever new dampers that can distinguish between bumps in the road and body lean – the idea being that you get a decent ride quality, while still keeping everything the right way up when you’re pressing on. There’s also a performance pack for an additional £2,400, which adds a mechanical limited slip differential, bigger brakes and a more aggressive suspension set up if you’re dead-set on taking to the track.
All this, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell it from a more humble Corsa. There are lovely shell-backed sports seats as standard that offer excellent support, and the chunky steering wheel gets you in the mood for racing. But fire it up and the 1.6 turbo is surprisingly quiet.
The clutch is light and the gearshift, although shorter and sharper than the standard car, requires no additional effort. The dampers certainly deliver on their promises and the Corsa VXR undoubtedly has firm suspension that makes going over bumps a piece of cake. There are plenty of creature comforts to enjoy here, too – spec it right and you can have heated seats and steering wheel, climate control and a smart IntelliLink infotainment system that hooks up to your smartphone.
So the Corsa VXR is still the kind of vehicle you could buy as a starter car for your son or daughter but, even better, it’s also the kind of machine you’ll want to buy yourself. Tapping into the performance is easy; a prolonged squeeze of the throttle is all that’s required, thanks to the generous torque, or you can rev it out and snick through the slick gearbox for maximum effect. There’s even a tuned Remus exhaust system that’s loud enough to be lots of fun but not so loud it’ll annoy the neighbours.
More impressive is the way the VXR steers, brakes and deals with bends. If you go for the performance pack you’re getting a more edgy car, but one that feels more capable and exciting as a result. My test drive included some very hot laps of Knockhill’s challenging race circuit and, for a relatively humble road car, it was fast, fun and genuinely felt like it had been built by enthusiasts.
There are more sensible ways to spend this kind of money, including a regular Corsa, which will provide fuss-free transport. But the VXR proves that modern hot hatches – even the baby ones – offer a thrilling ride, sophistication and a huge shot of adrenalin at a very modest price. The good old days of hot hatches are here again.
Mat Joy works for motoringresearch.com.
0-62MPH: 6.5 secs
TOP SPEED: 143mph
CO2 G/KM: 174g/km
MPG COMBINED: 37.7mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★★★★