Light Club: Comparison of Elise and Vauxhall VX220
Can the new Toyota-engined Elise 111R out-punch and out-handle Vauxhall’s VX220 Turbo? Seconds out for the lightweight title fight.
Words: Jethro Bovingdon
Pictures: Andy Morgan
Vauxhall must have felt vindicated when the VX220 Turbo was launched last year. Sales of the normally- aspirated version had been disappointing since its launch in 2000 - the Griffin's sports flagship never quite escaped the shadow cast by its cousin, the Lotus Elise. But adding a turbo and a significant power boost resulted in a car so distinct from the Elise that it began to justify its existence.
Suddenly the 200bhp VXT was overshadowing the Elise in terms of sheer speed, and trading punches with it for feedback, grip and poise. Sales started to take off; here was a new affordable sports car hero worthy of attention.
But if Lotus was concerned about the VXT stealing sales away from its one and only model, it wasn't letting on. The line from Hethel was alwavs that the Lotus badge has a stronger pull than the Griffin, and that the Elise appeals to a subtly different type of buyer.
Eh? The lightweight, no-frills, driver-focused Lotus appeals to a different buyer than the lightweight, no-frills Lotus-built VX220 Turbo? That has always seemed like a strange argument to me, and now there's an Elise that's out to steal back some of the VXT's thunder. It's parked in the brilliant Mediterranean sunshine of St. Jean Cap-Ferrat, painted a suitably confident shade of red and spoiling for a fight. The Toyota 1.8-litre VVTL-i (variable valve timing and lift - intelligent) powered, 189bhp Lotus Elise 111 R has finally arrived.
So, in the red corner we've got the screaming L27,995 Elise 111R and in the blue corner the thumpingly torquey L25,495 VX220 Turbo. We've sampled Toyota's VVTL-i engine and six-speed box before, in the Celica and Corolla, but Lotus has developed its own engine management system and, of course, a bespoke linkage for the 'box to suit its new application. It does, however, retain the big top-end kick when the cam switches from mild to wild that makes the Corolla and, to a lesser extent, the Celica so frustrating to drive. Its 189bhp peak is reached at 7800rpm, with a moderate 1331b ft of torque at 6800rpm. With a kerb weight of 860kg, Lotus claims the 111 R will cover the 0-60mph sprint in 4.9sec and hit 100mph in 13 dead. All out, it's said to reach 150mph. The figures mirror almost exactly those of the Vauxhall, but the nature of the rev-hungry Toyota engine should endow the 111R with a very different character to the leggy VXT
Lotus welcomes the comparison; in fact you get the impression it would welcome any comparison, such is the company's confidence in the 111 R. The talent of Lotus's development drivers is no secret and Matthew Becker and Gavan Kershaw are quietly delighted with the way the car has turned out. Kershaw is adamant: 'It might not be the perfect Elise, but it's as close as we can get it.' And his views on perhaps the most controversial addition to the R, servoassisted ABS braking? 'Matt and I were asked to set lap times and then comment on the ABS - we thought it wasn't working, but it had cut in seven or eight times during the lap.'
Reversing your backside into the newly sculpted and more comfortable driver's seat is still an exercise in contortion, but once you've unfolded your limbs again it's clear that today's Lotus prizes materials and quality almost as highly as steering feel and chassis response. The swathes of Alcantara and leather are a big step forward over previous Elises and the driving environment is far superior to the spartan VXT
This 111 R has the Touring pack fitted, which includes extra sound insulation, a thermally insulated hood, full carpet and leather trim, a digital radio and MP3/CD player, auxiliary driving lights and, horror of horrors... electric windows! Now, this L1995 option pack may be anathema to many Lotus fans but the Elise needs to appeal to a wider audience than just track day junkies and B-road blitzers. It certainly adds an air of maturity, but it takes the 111 R's asking price up to a hefty L29,990.
But you get what you pay for and the 111R is a quality item, evident not only from the cockpit materials but also from the way it moves. You can feel all the time and effort that's been put into honing this Elise. just ambling through sleepy Nice is enough to tell you that this model rides better than any other despite the 20 per cent stiffer springs, and it feels all-of-a-piece even when just one wheel drops into a pothole. The gearbox makes a good first impression too; light yet precise, it snicks positively through the gate and rights the imprecise and unsatisfying action of the five-speed unit used in previous Elises.
The 111R even feels pretty torquey, something I never thought I'd say about the VVTL-i Toyota unit. Without the bulk of a Corolla to lug around, it finally lives up to the promise of its spec sheet. Only the thrashy, tuneless blare present even at fairly low rpm and the slightly limp brake pedal taints the 111 R's immense feel good factor.
We're on our way to rendezvous with the VX high above Nice on the Col de Vence and already it feels like there's an epic battle just waiting to be played out... Clear of the city and with a picture-perfect Tarmac rally stage climbing high up to the snow-covered peaks, it's time for the 111R to shrug off all that talk of refinement and electric windows and prove its mettle. Has the Elise gone all soft? No, not even a little bit. Wind the engine up and the R really starts to feel like it's got a true 189bhp, switching from useful to manic as the rev-counter swings past 6200rpm. It gets better when you hit a braking zone; get through that dead centimetre or two of travel at the top of the pedal and there's much more feel than non-servoed Elises enjoy. I feared the ABS might cut in early and actually increase dry stopping distances (it's the same hardwear as found on the VXT, which does suffer in extreme driving) but Lotus has worked wonders with the software and the ABS allows individual wheels to lock to maximise retardation. Even when it's active you barely know that the electronics are making up for your clumsiness.
To back up the frantic engine and excellent brakes is a chassis with all the poise and deft response you could ask for. The skinny 175/55 Bridgestone Potenzas generate an astonishing amount of grip, only edging into understeer if you're completely committed and then holding the tiny slip angle doggedly, even if you stay on the power. Exiting hairpins, you might just get the tail to edge out a few degrees, but such is the traction and lateral grip of the 111 R that power oversteer simply isn't on the agenda unless you've got a huge area in which to experiment. It's a formidable package and only the gearbox occasionally sullies the experience (still) - quick changes from second to third can see you running into the forks of the 'box rather than cleanly into gear. The question is: what can the VXT do to stop the Elise from once again casting a dark shadow over it?
The answer in pure dynamic terms is not a lot. The VXT can't live with the Elise's competence. The steering is fabulous - judged against any car other than the R, whose helm manages to be both lighter and more consistent on lock and yet even more laden with the kind of feel that spurs you on to really push towards the limits of the tyres. The VXT's brakes lose out under heavy load on bumpy surfaces, triggering the ABS too early, at which point all the stopping force seems to disintegrate. And in terms of sheer grip and point-to-point pace the R really puts the boot in. Where the Elise simply turns in and holds its line the VXT will be washing wide, and even if you temper your entry speed the VXT will lose out on exit, where the abundance of torque will be trying to light up the rear tyres.
This might sound like a contradiction of much of what we've said about the VXT in the past, but it's not. It's just that when you're on maximum attack, the Elise walks away from the VXT But the victory isn't total. For all its composure, the Elise can't be taken by the scruff of the neck and steered on the throttle at road speeds in the same way the VXT can. And while you'll be going a little slower through the corners in the VXT, with 1841b ft of torque available all the way from 1950rpm to 5500rpm the Vauxhall nearly always feels quicker in a straight line and more willing to respond to the demands of your right foot through a corner. It's hugely satisfying to be able to impose yourself on the Vauxhall like this and it means that even boring journeys can be injected with a bit of magic if a quiet roundabout suddenly looms large.
It's not enough to deny the Lotus a comprehensive victory but it sufficiently differentiates the VXT from the new super Elise. The price difference of L2500 and bigger headline horsepower and torque will help, too.
So with Toyota power, a six-speed gearbox and the most impressive ride and handling compromise since its launch, the Elise is better than ever. The 111R blends the body control of the extreme 135R with an even better ride than the standard and 111S K-series-engined Elises (which continue to be offered at L22,995 and L25,995 respectively). Reservations are f ew, but you'll have to work hard to keep that screaming engine above 6200rpm and learn to live with its blaring engine note. All things considered, that shouldn't be too much of a hardship.