Somewhat unbelievably, the Vauxhall VXR8 is still on sale – and it's gained an automatic gearbox. Does that dampen or improve the ultimate alternative muscle saloon?
About five years ago, I drove a Jensen Interceptor. My, what a thing that was. It was like sitting in the cockpit of a 1960s airliner, all leather and chrome, and it made the most glorious noise. In fact, it had only one very minor flaw: it was completely uncontrollable.
A stab on the loud pedal and the bows would rise, prompting an irresistible urge to bellow all sorts of nautical terminology, caught somewhere between terror and excitement. “Hoist the mizzen and splice the mainbrace!” you’d yell as the car lolloped off down the road, its direction bearing very little relation to your frantic sawing at the wheel.
I’m not sure whether this slackness was standard across all Interceptors or unique to the one I was driving (well, helming, anyway). But a part of me was expecting a similar experience as I hunkered down in the Vauxhall VXR8.
Now, I was aware that the VXR8 isn’t as wayward as that Jensen – indeed, all of Vauxhall’s antipodean imports have actually been remarkably good to drive – but still, the VXR8 is getting on a bit now, and its slightly unsophisticated reputation and vast power meant it had the potential to be a bit of a handful.
The VXR8 has been on sale here for nine years; it arrived in 2007 to replace the mechanically similar Vauxhall Monaro VXR, a descendant of the original Monaro which first went on sale here way back in 2003.
Under the bonnet sits General Motors' 6.2-litre V8, its 577bhp output identical to that of the pumped-up Mercedes-AMG E63 S. Power goes to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox or, as here, an optional automatic, also with six-speeds, twin clutches, and paddle shifters.
Inside, the VXR8 is not a sophisticate. There’s cheap, silvery plastic, faintly wobbly stitching and a plethora of different materials so vast it feels as though the buyers couldn’t decide, and simply ticked the box marked “all of the above”.
And then there’s the exterior, which is just a shade less subtle than a slap in the face with a dead pollock. Those skirts and spoilers are undoubtedly “on fleek” with “da yout’” (i.e. extremely respectable among youngsters), but they certainly don’t allow you to pop discreetly to the shops for a pint of milk.
Those who speak loudest often have nothing to say, however, and the VXR8 is certainly pretty shouty. What’s more, the fact its platform is shared with slushbuckets like the Australian-spec Holden Commodore and American Buick Park Avenue and Chevrolet Lumina suggests my Jensen Interceptor musings might not have been wholly inaccurate.
Good news: they were. Carving my way through London, it takes all the self-control I have to resist burying the throttle away from traffic lights, leaving vast trails of tyre smoke and rubber behind. The VXR8 turns you into the yob everyone presumes you are, tempting you to do deeply socially-unacceptable things whenever there’s a gap in the traffic.
The gap has to be reasonably sizeable, mind; the VXR8 feels pretty chunky here, its width intimidating and the opposite corner of the bonnet feeling almost in a different county.
All that changes once you get it out of the city. Prod the loud pedal, and the V8’s mellifluous burble becomes a sharp bark as the gearbox drops down a couple of cogs – doing so good and swiftly – and gets overlaid by a progressively louder whoosh, the sound of air being sucked through and pounded into the inlet manifold by the Eaton supercharger.
With the traction control turned off, smashing the throttle to the floor can have the rear end slipping around as it attempts to push you forward – but you’d expect nothing less from a muscle car, right? When provoked in a corner that tail slides easily, but it’s docile and delightfully controllable, so if you’ve got the space, you can play with it as much as you care to.
But the VXR8 isn’t just a tail-happy drift monster. Among the smart bits of tech here to enhance the driving experience are magnetic ride control, torque vectoring, and a limited-slip differential.
The result is phenomenal. On a twisting back road, just when you’re expecting the big Vauxhall to feel all at sea, it knuckles down and sharpens up. Turn in at speed and the front end bites instantly, flicking you round the corner at a rate completely at odds with the car’s size.
At this point you have options: squeeze on the throttle progressively to exploit the VXR8’s prodigious outer-wheel grip, gaining speed through the corner and flying out of it in a blur of scoops and skirts; back off the throttle to trim the front end into the apex more tightly; or hoof it extravagantly to break the tail away into one of those lurid powerslides.
The automatic box doesn’t hamper the process at all; true, you haven’t quite as many ratios to choose from as you do in most other performance cars, but the changes are slick and as fast as you need them to be, and the gearbox is always faithful, doing without the occasional wilfulness of some other twin-clutch efforts.
The steering isn’t the greatest, lacking the crispness and urgency of some of its rivals, but it is at least predictable. And perhaps the engine note could be more overt when you’re on it; it never quite delivers the fat V8 warble you might expect from a muscle car.
Other than that, though, the VXR8’s a truly talented thing. As a point-to-point machine, it’s up there with the best, yet it’s far more than just that. It’s more likeable than many big performance saloons, simply for not taking itself too seriously. Choose to get boisterous with it, and it’ll play along, its silly black-and-white rear wing waggling around in the sky like a dog’s tail.
Of course, if you’re considering one of the other big saloons that’ll do what the VXR8 can – the Mercedes we’ve already discussed, and there’s also the BMW M5 to consider – then you’re probably not really in the market for the VXR8 itself. Too downmarket, I’d imagine.
But what you might be in the market for is something a little smaller, still with four doors and passenger space for five, but without the VXR8's considerable girth and prodigious thirst. A car like the BMW M3, for example, which costs fractionally less than the VXR8 yet goes just as quickly.
What's more, the M3 doesn't force you to live with the Saturday-night-on-Southend-sea-front looks, and the Sunday-morning-on-Southend-sea-front interior. Then there are the running costs (think 18mpg on a good day and CO2 emissions that place it in the highest of tax bands), and the fact that you'll forever be explaining to friends why you spent almost £60,000 on a Vauxhall.
Once, the VXR8 was saved by its muscle-car ethos, but even here it's been usurped. Ford now offers the right-hand-drive Mustang 5.0, a bona fide muscle car which won't see which way the Vauxhall went, either in a straight line or in the corners, but nevertheless offers V8 thrills and preposterous burnouts for around £20,000 less.
All of which leaves the VXR8 as a car without a case; still deeply likeable, but more of an eccentric choice than ever before. You shouldn't buy one. It'd be an act of sheer lunacy.
But a few people will, regardless. And to them, I doff my cap, for doing the different thing – the slightly barmy, completely unjustifiable thing – and ending up with a car that laughs along with them every time they drive it as a result.
Vauxhall VXR8 automatic
Tested: 6,150cc V8 supercharged petrol engine, six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Power/torque: 577bhp @ 6,150rpm/546lb ft @ 3,850rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Acceleration: 0-60mph in 4.2sec
Fuel economy: 18.0mpg
CO2 output: 373g/km
VED band: M (£1,120 first year; £515 thereafter)
Verdict: Big, flamboyant and daft, but also remarkably talented. Naff interior, shouty styling and high price make it hard to recommend, but it's still an absolute hoot.
Telegraph rating: Three stars out of five
More Vauxhall reviews