Review and road test of the Vauxhall VX220 (2000 - 2006)
THE GRIFFIN ASSUMES THE LOTUS POSITION
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Vauxhall VX220 may well be remembered as the greatest car that nobody bought. That might be something of an exaggeration, but after a year's manufacture, Vauxhall had managed to shift a mere 458 units, many of these dealer demonstrators and press vehicles. Although the public was aware that the VX220 was ostensibly a Lotus Elise with a nicer engine, it still ignored the roadster - due in no small part to that Griffin badge worn on its beaky nose. After all, what would you rather own, a Lotus or a Vauxhall. For those who are immune to such badge snobbery, a used VX220 is a cut price way to get your high performance jollies.
(2 dr roadster 2.2 petrol [base, Lightning Yellow])
The Vauxhall VX220 debuted at the 70Th Geneva Motor Show in March 2000 and marked a completely new direction for the company. Marketed as the Opel Speedster in Europe, the sleek roadster wowed the crowds but many pondered its raison d'etre. Yes, Vauxhall need the car to sex up its rather staid image a little, but what was the point of a luxurious Lotus Elise? In the end, the VX220 didn't turn out like that. Of its approximately 2500 components, it shares precisely 141 with a Lotus Elise which, in purely numerical terms, makes it a more distantly related to the lithe Lotus than a Rover 45 1.8 is. It's stripped out interior was, thankfully, devoid of the air-conditioning, electric windows and multiple cupholders we'd feared.
Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall from the outset. The target customers didn't care about the historical connotations of the VX designation. In its first UK road test, Car magazine opined, "It's the snob value that will really decide its fate. If the VX220 doesn't succeed, despite how good it is, Vauxhall will have, in the most literal sense, only itself to blame." And so it proved. Despite critical acclaim, the VX220 stayed rooted to showroom floors. A Lightning Yellow special edition and offers of interest free credit failed to spark sales. Perhaps the initial advertising campaign featuring Griff Rhys Jones is a pair of Y-fronts had scotched any slim hope the VX220 had of success. In the end it was good old brand equity (or lack thereof) that did for the VX. Sales in Europe of the Speedster have always been healthy but in this country it seems we just don't buy an aspirational Vauxhall.
The 2.2-litre engine was discontinued in the spring of 2004 leaving the riotous 200bhp 2.0-litre Turbo model to carry on single-handed until the 220bhp VXR220 arrived a few months later. The VXR220 turned out to be a short-lived model with the last examples sold in the first months of 2005.
What You Get
It would be easy to dismiss the VX220 as nothing more than re-bodied Elise. The two cars were, after all, developed by the same people. Easy, but incorrect. In reality, the two cars are defined by their engines. In place of the 1.8-litre 120bhp MGTF unit found on the standard Elise, the VX220 is powered by an altogether more potent 2.2-litre 145bhp powerplant borrowed from the Astra Coupe. That meant re-tuning the chassis and upgrading the brakes to include servo assistance, ABS and EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution).
What hasn't been changed is the basic Lotus concept. This is still a lightweight, high performance, no compromises sportscar for enthusiasts to use on an occasional basis only. Don't go expecting it to be an everyday roadster like a Toyota MR2 or Mazda MX-5: it's far too noisy, uncomfortable and impractical for that. These aren't words you would normally use to describe a production Vauxhall - but then there's never been a production Vauxhall quite like this one. There certainly haven't been many Vauxhall sports cars that cost more, the unhelpful new asking price punching it clear of the Elise. If you do opt for the Vauxhall, you certainly won't feel hard done by. You'll probably receive kudos from true car enthusiasts who appreciate the fact that you weren't so superficial as to be swayed by a badge.
What to Look For
Although many VX220 used models show low mileages on their odometers, don't let that lull you into a false sense of security. The VX attracts an even lower quotient of posers and boulevard cruisers than the Elise and you should assume that a goodly proportion of its mileage has been spent with the hammer firmly down. That said, the 2.2-litre engine seems to be an extremely hardy unit, better able to shrug off the miles than a Rover K-series 1.8 and many of the teething problems that afflicted the Elise were ironed out with the VX220. So it is that there's no rattly pedal box or flabby gear selection issues. The hood has been known to leak and you should check the mounting points for signs of damage. Otherwise run the normal set of checks you'd use on a car that's suspected of having a hard life. Check the tyres and suspension, make sure the owner has used synthetic oil, ask whether it's been used on track and inspect the corners of the bodywork where it swoops out of sight. Finally a word of warning. The aluminium tub of the VX220 is superb at protecting its occupants, but even an apparently superficial crash can effectively write your VX220 off, such is the cost of a replacement. Therefore you should avoid so called 'damaged repairables' at all costs.
(approx based on a 2000 VX220) This is where those who thought they could run a lightweight sports car taking advantage of typically cheap Vauxhall spares prices come unstuck. Should you misjudge a parking manoeuvre and nerf one of those compound headlamp units you'll be looking at a bill for £556. Likewise, if you pride yourself on being the last of the late brakers approaching your favourite roundabout, you'll have to pay for your adrenaline rush. Front pads are £138 a pair and rear £82. A radiator is £192, as is a starter motor, whilst should your alternator blow its brains out, make alternate plans for the £435 needed to replace it.
On the Road
Whatever faults, inconveniences or costs you'll have to contend with elsewhere, this is where the VX220 cranks the equation way over onto the positive side. On the right road, in the right conditions it seems as if the Queen's highway has metamorphosed into an oversized go-kart track for your personal enjoyment. The 2.2-litre engine is usefully torquey, and you'll be able to leave it in third gear around town without complaint or recourse to the clanking gear selector. With a rest to sixty time of 5.6 seconds and a top speed of 136mph, the VX220 destroys B-roads. It will also return an average of over 34mpg, a testament to its light weight.
The handling is an education for those who have become used to more bloated fare. The steering is telepathically rapid, there's almost no body roll whatsoever, and you can feel every grain, pebble and dimple in the road surface through the seat, the steering wheel and reverberating from the underside of the aluminium tub chassis. Drive on looser surfaces and you'll feel like you're sitting inside a tin shed under fire from the buckshot cavalry. With surprisingly narrow tyres, the handling of the VX220 in extremis is more forgiving than an Elise but no less entertaining. Hairy-chested oversteer has largely been dialled out of the chassis in favour of benign gentle understeer.
The driving position is extreme; you'll be virtually sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. At first it feels odd, but it soon becomes extremely comfortable. Step from a VX220 into, say, a Porsche Boxster and you'll feel like you're sitting on a barstool. Getting in and out gracefully with the roof in place remains an art beyond all but the most supple.
There aren't too many genuine five star cars that are available at a bargain price on the used market. The VX220 is probably the best way to take make our label preoccupation work in your favour. Track down a well-looked after example and you will feel superior every time you see a Lotus Elise come the other way. Smugness has never been so rewarding.
Vauxhall VX220 (2000 - 2006) review by ANDY ENRIGHT