WHEN A CAR IS MORE THAN “A TO B”Text and Photos: Reinis Babrovskis
“Sure, it is just a car, as long as it gets me from A to B I am happy” – the most depressing phrase I’ve ever heard. Life is too short to be boring; we have to enjoy ourselves, have fun in what we do, including driving. Luckily there are many manufacturers that understand that a car is not just a means of getting about, nor is it about the leather seats, the sat nav, the adaptive cruise control or Bluetooth gadgets. One of the cars that couldn’t care less about the toys or gadgets, comfort or how many bags will fit in the boot is the VX220.
VX220 was one of the greatest all time roadsters produced (sort of!) by the German manufacturer – Opel. It was amazing in every aspect – from driving experience to the looks. It had just one downside though - nobody wanted it. With barely few thousand units sold this car died a premature death. Who was to blame for this - the bloody Griffin badge; after all, what would you rather own – a Lotus or a Vauxhall. Luckily there were people out there who were able to see past the brand and understand it was a magnificent oversized go-kart that could laugh in the face of many sports cars instead.
VX220 also known as Opel Speedster in Europe is a 2 door rear-wheel driven transverse mid-engine sports roadster. It was manufactured by Lotus in Hethel, Norfolk, England between 2000-2005. It was arguably the best Vauxhall ever made. With a weight of just 870kg it also was very fast and capable of outperforming much more expensive cars. The VX220 was designed by Niels Loeb and Martin Smith, whilst Steven Crijins was in charge of the interior design……. all 5 minutes of it.
After the introduction of a new legislation to the European crash safety Regulation, Lotus was forced to replace the original track warrior; however, money issues meant they were on a look out for another manufacturer to team up with in order to complete a new chassis. This is where the General Motors stepped in and agreed to provide funds to develop the new platform in return for the newly developed chassis and space in their factory.
VX220 made its first general public appearance at the 1999 Geneva International Motor Show, with the first production model hitting the roads the following year. The car was built in the newly expanded Lotus factory in Hethel, where Lotus allocated 3,500 thousand spaces for the VX200, yet only few thousand cars ever left the factory due to the poor demand from the public.
As per the agreement the VX220 was based on the Elise series 2 aluminum chassis tub with slightly extended wheelbase and wider rear track. The newly design chassis was weighing in just 72kg. The bodywork was made entirely of a glass reinforced plastic (GRP). Out of the 2500 parts that make up the VX220 only 141 are identical to the Lotus Elise, meaning it wasn’t just a lazy copy and paste job by the German manufacturer. The entire car weighs in at 870kg (2.2 N/A version) whereas the turbo version gained 50kg.
You know you’re in a VX220 when a three point turn becomes a workout session at a gym. The unassisted steering on the VX220 might be hard work at low speed, but it is precise and provides the ultimate feedback to the driver at higher speeds. Having the Lotus chassis underneath, the VX220 could tackle any road and surface at mind blowing speeds without any body roll, under-steer/over-steer issues. The drivers’ hands would give in before the car traction would. Designed with a small under-steer set up, there was no risk of quick rear wheel traction loss either. The handling of the car is sharp, precise and forgiving; it is an amazing car to drive.
Contrary to the Elise, the VX220 came equipped with ABS system as standard, including brake servo assistance and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD); however, being a track orientated car the ABS kill switch was a must by many owners. The suspension is stiff but more than acceptable for a daily drive.
The Engine and Transmission
Vauxhall/Opel offered a choice of two engines for the sporty roadster - a 2.2 N/A and 2.0 turbo. Despite producing just 147bhp from the Z22se 2.2 naturally aspirated engines it was plenty for the lightweight car, as even at this power/weight ratio the VX220 was offering more performance than its main rival Lotus Elise. For the thrill seekers from 2003 onwards Vauxhall did offer a faster package – the Z20let 2.0l engine equipped with a turbocharger, resulting in outstanding performance. The 2.2 litre demonstrated 0-60 acceleration times of 5.6 seconds, whereas the 2.0 turbo brought it down to very impressive 4.7 seconds; however, the extra 50kg added with the different engine meant the VX220 community playfully described the turbo as the ‘Tubby’, as the 2.2 version was lighter and more nimble; however, the straight line performance of the Turbo was, in the early 2000’s, supercar territory.
Darren’s VX220 is running the 2.2 naturally aspirated Vauxhall engine, code name Z22SE Ecotec. The same engine can be found in other Vauxhall models including the Vectra, Astraand Zafira, as well as other manufacturer vehicles (Pontiac & Chevrolet) making it easy to maintain, look after and reliable, especially considering the much lighter car it was pushing around.
The VX220 uses the Getrag F23 5-speed manual gearbox. And even though the gearbox is not the most refined and initially got criticised by the motoring journalists, it can handle the track perfectly and the gear changes are very nice and precise. Who wants the flappy paddle or automatic gearboxes that all cars get nowadays anyway?
The interior of the VX220 is very similar to ones found in a race car – it is very compact and driver oriented. You don’t get much in it though. The VX220 gets everything one may require in a car – a steering wheel, three pedals, a manually operated window lever, a gear lever, a handbrake and an engine start button; that’s pretty much about it though.
Yes, it also has a stereo (that can’t be heard anyway) since the sound isolation is absent in this vehicle, floor mats are all the creature comforts afforded as carpets are not included (they could; however, be obtained as an optional GT extra from the Vauxhall/Opel). Completely forgot, the roadster is also equipped with a heater that is as powerful and warm as a breath of a penguin and without carpets, climbing into the VX220 in winter morning is similar to climbing into a fridge! Safety - whilst the driver is protected with an airbag, the passenger isn’t so lucky. The art of getting into the car gracefully with the roof in place is basically to put one foot in, then fall into the seat while folding yourself in two, It is actually easier than it sounds. As for getting out….. there is no easy way to perform this, I’ve watched people come out on their backs and their fronts; wearing of skirts should be avoided at all costs! But over the years you do learn the best way according to your body shape. Well, if your driving skills don’t approve with the VX220, your body will learn to bend in such ways you thought it wasn’t possible (no need for Yoga). On a serious note, do not let all these things put you off, once you get in, the seat holds you perfectly; the distance from the wheel can be sorted by the drivers seat sliding adjustment, whereas the passenger seat doesn’t move, footrest is all they have to make themselves comfortable.
The car is all about the driver, from the start button to the Performance Stack Dials, everything you need to drive fast is within reach. Darren bought this car in England and drove it home up through England and Scotland to catch the boat back to Northern Ireland, this was his first journey in the car and when he got out in Stranraer he wasn’t sore or tired, the seating position and driving capabilities of the car had certainly kept his senses switched on, but this wasn’t at the expensive of tiredness.
Indeed, two days after bringing the car home and driving it for the first time, he took it on track at Kirkistown, this speaks to how good the chassis and driving dynamics are that he felt confident enough to push hard so soon into ownership!
Darren drove the VX220 as his daily drive for 4 years, including many trackdays, the car performed faultlessly and apart from some tyres and brake pads/discs the only other issue was a Lambda Sensor fault that was easily replaced. Even fuel consumption is good, as the car is so light, he averaged 35/40mpg easily , even with a heavy right foot.
But Darren parked the VX in early 2013, in favour of a ‘normal’ car for the daily commute, intending the VX to only be off the road for a few months until summer came round again, fast forward 3 years and the VX still had not moved from the Garage, it was covered in a layer of dust and was jokingly referred to by his son as ‘The shelf’ as some (light!) stuff had been piled up on it.
So started the revival of the VX220, it was a long and tor….. no not really, he dropped a new battery in the car and it started immediately! So other than normal servicing parts the car was back on the road and MOT’d at first time of asking.
As a daily drive Darren chose not to modify the VX220 and in standard trim it’s a very quiet car, but its now a weekend car…. So modifications started, first to be installed was an ITG Maxogen Carbon Fibre Induction kit, which brings with it a deep sound once past 3000rpm, but on lower revs sounds normal, next is a modified Exhaust after that… who knows !!
The VX220 is truly an amazing machine, that was released in the wrong time with the wrong badge. Once the novelty of luxurious toys in the cars wore out people realized that nothing replaces the fun factor. Cars got bigger, fatter, heavier and less fun. People didn't understand the VX220 back then.
The prices of the VX220 have gone up in the recent years and have become a collector's item. If you are interested in one, now is the right time to grab one of these and never let go.