In the first of a series of columns dedicated to the VXR brand - the performance arm of Vauxhall - brand manager Stuart Harris looks at what VXR is, and how motorsport helps Vauxhall push home the performance message.
The idea behind the VXR brand is partly to try and relive the days of the good old Astra GTE and other similar 'hot hatches', but is also much more.
You only have to look at the UK market. It's amazing to think that we have some of the most draconian speeding issues of any market in Europe, just look at the number of camera sites we will have over the next few years. But, as a market, we have a massive interest in performance, and we saw this as an opportunity for us to show what we can do.
The VXR brand is meant to be a bit harder-edged than the old GTEs and GSIs of before. We have put a lot more engineering into the vehicles. They aren't 'badge engineered' cars, they are cars that are built on a limited basis and that provide a huge amount of fun and entertainment. They are more aggressive than the older cars so, for us to have the VXR brand and the VX Racing side of things, it makes it an ideal tie-up really for us to use.
The whole plan with the VXR brand was to introduce it in motorsport , which we did in 2002. It was about that time that we started to introduce the concept of the road car programme and that became apparent with the VX220 and the Monaro VXR. From that point on, we introduced other models, some of which will be finished next year when we introduce the Corsa VXR, and then we will build on that. It is a brand in its infancy, but what we have now are the various pieces on the table to really support it.
Last week, we launched the VXR Performance Centre, which is for those guys, the real enthusiasts out there, who want to take their car to another level of performance. We are arranging our pieces on the chess board - we have the racing side covered, we have a good range of road cars, a further enhancement programme going with the performance centre, and we are now going to try and push it even harder in the UK with things like advertising.
With the performance centre, we'll take a VXR or the SRi range and we'll be improving both performance and handling - not so much the looks because we think they are aggressive enough as it is. Certainly, the performance and ride and handling side of things will become more 'track biased'. For an OEM to produce these kind of things for general consumption will be considered too harsh and too aggressive, but we have a hardcore of customers - both blokes and girls - who want to make their car more individual and love doing trackdays, and we will offer enhancements to move the VXR brand up a further notch. But it isn't really for general use to be fair.
The Astra and Monaro get the headlines, but the VXR brand goes beyond that, and includes cars that are a little bit different. When we launched the Zafira GSi, there was general disbelief at us launching a high-perfromance MPV, but it came out and we sold a considerable number of them and people were both surprised and delighted. Now everyone else is coming out with them - Ford have launched one, there is one from Volkswagen that will be performance-based, and it is really case of saying to people that 'just because you have moved out of hot-hatches and have a family and might need an MPV, why should you miss out on performance driving?'.
It's all about having fun while you're driving so, if you want an estate car and you want a fast car, then why shouldn't you have one? The Vectra estate is a prime example, and Audi have done a fantastic job in pushing the hyper-performance side of things with the RS range. So why not have the fun?
I can tell you now - I'll guarantee it, in fact - because a lot of us have driven these cars. If you're driving along the motorway in an Astra or a Monaro, people have an expectation of what you're going to do and how you are going to drive. If you're trundling along in a Zafira MPV or a Meriva, which is even more fun, then there is genuine shock from people as they try to get past you.
The Meriva is the funniest of the lot and, with the dealers out there who have them, I would urge people to go and try it because it is such a giggle. We have had people who have come into showrooms for a regular car, have seen the Meriva and taken it for a test drive and have come back to order one immediately because it is such fun and it's so quirky and different. What a dull place the world would be if there weren't things like this for people to talk about and write about, and I'd just say to people 'don't knock it until you've tried it!'.
We have all the range we want for VXR now and there won't be a Tigra VXR and there won't be an Astra twin-top VXR. We'll provide some sporty parts from the performance centre for those cars, but they won't attain full VXR status. To be honest, the way the life cycles of the cars work, we are already working on what we can do for the next generation Astra and starting to work on the next generation Vectra, so I think that what you'll see in time is that the VXR range will become more focused as we sharpen up things on each car we do. As I said, VXR is a brand in its infancy and we need to learn like other manufacturers have done over the year. Hopefully, we can get the same status as people like M-Power have and RS had with Ford.
We obviously market the Astra in the BTCC and then we have the Monaro that competes in the British GT championship. The Monaro programme is run by a privateer team in the form of Emotional Engineering. They have had a couple of years of hard graft trying to learn their way round the car and, certainly, in the GT championships, it has been an uphill struggle for them. However, in the third year, I think they will really get their act together. For us, it is a great focal point for the Monaro guys out there. We have regular meets at the GT events and, at Silverstone, we had nearly 40 cars that just turned up out of the blue. At the next meeting, I carried some hospitality for them because they love to follow the racing. It is great focal point for the people who love the car and you could see it at the BTCC meeting, where there were a load of them parked up having come to watch the touring cars. They love motorsport and having a car to follow is quite important to them.
The BTCC is a fantastic place to display your prowess in the field and, with the number of vehicles there are on the grid at the moment, and the fact that ours are near the front, it is great advert for us. It enables us to promote the vehicle and the brand, as well as the manufacturer. Vauxhall is a continuing supporter of motorsport in the UK, which is nowadays becoming more and more important, even though there are less and less manufacturers actually doing it. We'd like to see everyone joining us to support British motorsport.
In retrospect, it's a case of 'more fool them' for the other manufacturers in terms of the UK market because, if you look at the TV package there is in touring cars, and how you can reach the audience with that - especially now that all the races are live - ourselves and SEAT and, to a lesser extent, Honda and MG, can reach 2.5 million when we have live coverage and the later repeats. It is a fantastic tool to use and demonstrates the VXR brand to people. I know SEAT are doing the same with their manufacturer status, while the Honda is obviously a car that you can't buy in the UK and dear old MG has departed, so it is down to us and SEAT to keep pushing. I believe that next year is the year when other manufacturers come into it - and the more the merrier really.
I think 2006 is set to be the toughest season yet and, as we saw at Brands Hatch, the BTC-spec cars are all unbelievably competitive - ourselves, the Honda, the MG and the privateer Hondas are all there or thereabouts. The oddity is the SEAT running to Super 2000 rules that we all change to next year, as they are almost in a different league. You can see how the SEAT pulled out in the closing stages of race one and how the Leon could conserve its tyres with it running at a lower weight.
If I was a betting man, I would say it will go down to the final race. As to who will be there at the end, we'll be there and hopefully at the front, but you can never tell how it's going to shape up...