Story by Allan Muir
Photography by Gus Gregory
NOW THAT EVERYONE HAS GOTTEN THE 'I CAN'T BELIEVE it's a Vauxhall' hoo-hoo out of the way, the reality is that the VX220 is a mighty fine sports car. There exists enough raw talent to put it for beyond the reach of MGFs and Z3s and into the erogenous zone previously earmarked exclusively for the Lotus Elise - the only car in the past decade that has made me think seriously about re-mortgaging the house in order to own one. Put issues of badge and heritage to one side and it boils down to this: the VX and Elise are both exceptionally rewarding cars, and writing off the Vauxhall simply because it's a Vauxhall would be a serious mistake.
You'd be forgiven for getting the two confused. The VX makes use of the same aluminium chassis technology pioneered by the Elise, was designed and developed in partnership with Lotus and is built at Hethel, so they have far more in common than the VX does with, say, an MGF. Which is great for the VX as it spearheads a radical change of direction for Vauxhall. Goodbye dull and mundane, hello dynamic and exciting. But one step at a time: the VX has to cater for a wider range of driver skill levels than the Lotus, the result of which is that these two sports cars are less like twins than you might expect.
The coarse nature of the 1.8-litre Rover K-series engine, as applied to the Elise, has always been a source of disappointment for me. Its modest power output isn't the problem; it's simply not a nice engine to use. Contrast and compare with the sweet, torquey 2.2-litre Ecotec engine in the VX220. Even beyond 60OOrpm the GM engine is smooth and civilised, carrying refinement all the way into the soft cushion of the rev limiter, thanks in part to the soundproofing applied to the rear bulkhead. The Elise sounds like it's letting a thrash metal bond jam in its engine bay.
The VX220 gives an insight into the flexibility of an aluminium chassis like the Elise's; its wheelbase hasbeen stretched by 30mm, its tracks are wider front and rear and a new rear subframe accommodates the GM engine. Visually the VX resembles the Elise in that it has the same targa-style body and flying buttresses behind the cabin, but the Lotus's soft beach buggy curves make way for an edgy, multi-trapezoid theme with bulging, flat-sided wings that give the driver equally soaring views fore and aft. For sheer drama and presence on the road, the VX220 has the diminutive Elise on the rack.
Once you've got over the pleasant shock of discovering that the engine isn't about to batter your senses into submission and actually outperforms its Lotus rival, the next surprise is just how calm and composed the VX feels as it's going down the road - and how solid. Suspension and steering tuned to Opel specifications - oversteer verboten - might once have been suicide for a sports car, but not here. The VX is a remarkably easy car to drive quickly over demanding roads, soaking up potholes that the Elise crashes into, refusing to be deflected by the ridges that cause bump steer in the Elise. Sometimes it almost seems bland after the intimacy and drama of the Elise. In tight corners it runs out of front-end grip well before the Elise, and the steering loads up more to leave the driver in no doubt that the limit is approaching. But it's still crisp and full of feel - just not as animated as the Elise's.
The slight mainstreaming of a radical concept extends to the inclusion of safety features such as antilock brakes (notably powerful and non-interventionist) and a full-size alrbag (in a gorgeous little Momo wheel), both of which are surplus to requirements on the Elise but welcome all the some. But what really sets the seal on the VX's greater usability is its new hood design. Described as 'shower-proof' rather than 100 percent carwash-friendly, it clips into place quickly and easily without the need for tools - the complete opposite to the Elise's awkward, time-consuming affair.
Adding rather than subtracting works for the VX's cabin, too. It's still spartan by Vauxhall standards - no Traff icMaster, thank God - but extra trim, snug-fitting floor mats and less body-coloured plastic take away some of the low-rent bareness you get In the Elise, while still leaving plenty of nice aluminium to admire. It's colourful and attractive and the detailing is impeccable.
If the VX220 does nothing else, it highlights the fact that there's still room for improvement in the Elise, until now the greatest affordable sports car by a country mile. You can be sure that Lotus isn't sitting still, even though it knows that the Elise will still sell itself to out-and-out enthusiasts and snobs who wouldn't be seen dead In a Vouxhall, even one as rewarding as this. Naturally the thought of owning a Lotus is more appealing than a similarly priced Vauxhall, but right now the VX220 is the more complete COL Fun in a Vauihall? Believe it.
CAR OCTOBER 2000