The Luton Po

Vauxxhall: Solid, dependable – and dull. The Luton Marque hardly sets pulses racing, but that’s what you get if you go 80 years without a sportscar. The arrival of the startling VX220 should change all that, says Andrew Frankel

More sublime experiences behind the wheel have come my way than anyone could expect in several lifetimes. I have been lucky. But, until now, not one had been at the helm of a Vauxhall. You should not be too surprised by this. Vauxhall has not made a purpose-built sportscar for nearly 80 years, and those that have had sportiness conferred upon them in the interim were usually better off without it. Even the quickest of all, the Lotus Carlton, left me strangely cold. But now I am giggling — actually laughing — and not at, but with the Vauxhall I am driving. This is the VX220 and if it does its job you and I will never think about Vauxhall the same way again.

In the broadest possible terms, it is an Elise with Vauxhall’s brandnew 2.2-litre twin-cam under its engine cover. Except it’s not as simple as that. In Europe, where the car will be known as the Opel Speedster, every effort will be made to erase the name of Lotus from its heritage, despite it using a modified Elise tub, being developed by Lotus and built alongside the Elise in Norfolk. Talk to Opel people and they’ll tell you Lotus is a supplier, point out that considerably less than 10 per cent of the VX220’s components will fit an Elise and that none of the critical dimensions are common to both.

And yet when you sit in it, and even more when you drive it, this is a car that shouts Lotus at you, and let no one tell you it’s anything other than the better for it. And in many ways, important ways, it’s better than an Elise. Some might say the provision of anti-lock braking and a driver’s air bag is a sop to the Nanny State, but not those whose lives will be saved by them. The hood works properly, too, requiring neither several minutes of your life nor a doctorate in mechanical engineering to erect or stow.

I’d tentatively submit that it looks better than an Elise, too. When stationary, in the flesh or on these pages, that is a difficult contention to support. But follow one for a while, or watch one approach in the mirror, and you’ll see both a purpose and a 21st century modernity missing from its cousin.

Consider also that the Lotus makes do with Rover’s game but now decade-old K-series, in 1.8-litre, 118bhp guise, while the Vauxhall unit is new, displaces 2.2 litres and produces 145bhp. What’s more, and this is critical, it produces 1501b ft of torque, compared to the 1221b ft of the Lotus. Yes, the VX220 is heavier by some 95kgs, but it still weighs only 875kgs and comfortably bests both the power-to-weight and torque-to-weight ratios of the Elise — yet it costs only 1320 more at 122,995.

Enough statistics. If you have driven a Lotus, almost any Lotus, you already have a good idea of what makes up the essence of the VX220. Given the broad range of size, price and performance of Loti over the years, this might seem a generalisation too far. But it is not. All Lotus cars of the last 20 years, and many before them, have a trademark fluency in their steering. Blindfold me and make me steer the VX220 down a runway and I’d tell you in 100 yards I was in a Lotus. And, for once, I’d be wrong. Its response is linear with hardly any dead patch at the straight-ahead, and when you wind on lock, the car actually goes where you point it. You only need a constant-radius corner and an array of modern machinery to discover how many cars, to this day, still fail in this most simple respect.

So good is the VX220’s steering that it helps foster another and increasingly rare talent. It’s one of only a small clump of cars on sale today that’s actually fun to drive slowly. You can appreciate the response of its steering, the communication of the suspension, as well at 50mph as 100mph; to be honest, probably more. The car has an essential rightness to it which is as evident when bumbling down the lanes as it is blasting around the track. ft’s pointless trying to place a finger on the particular aspect of the car’s dynamics that creates this happy situation. Truth is, it is the way all the individual areas of ability interact that is responsible. Take the engine: you start it buy turning the key and thumbing a button on the dashboard in a once timehonoured and now entirely cliched way. To be honest, there’s nothing remotely remarkable about its sound, a dully pleasant burble at idle rising to a dully pleasant roar at 6000rpm. But it works. The joy is it has torque from idle, pulling well at 2000rpm, strongly at 3000 and is at maximum attack by 4000rpm; you soon grow to appreciate that all that stick-stirring an Elise requires to maintain momentum is actually a lot of effort for insufficient reward. Neither car has a great gearbox, but the Vauxhall’s is not only better, but used less too.

The real test lies in its chassis, its ability to get down a favourite road, or around a great race track in the same inspirational manner as an Elise. The bald facts are not promising: the VX220 weighs over 10 per cent more than an Elise and while the Lotus is set up to thrill the pants off good drivers, a Vauxhall could never be so cavalier: the VX220 will have to look after the bad ones too. Then there is the fact that the VX is bigger than an Elise and therefore theoretically less wieldy; and the fact that the marketing department insisted it ran on 17-inch wheels. While they look great, any engineer will tell you they add unsprung mass (a pet hate at Lotus) and force compromises to keep the chassis balance and steering efforts acceptable. Which is why, unlike any other car on earth, the VX220 runs a ridiculously skinny 175/55 tyre at the front. Conversely there are mighty 225/45s at the rear. By comparison an Elise has 15-inch front wheels covered by 185/55 tyres and 16-inch items at the back with modest 205/50s.

And yet you need to drive it back to back with the Lotus, jumping from one to the other, to divine exactly where the Vauxhall falls down. Driven in isolation, this Vauxhall is superb, easily capable of coping with more power even though what it already has will take it to 60mph from rest in 5.6sec and on to 136mph. You notice first the ride, stiffer sprung but more gently damped than the Lotus and almost magically compliant for a sportscar. It maintains total control over its body through surface and camber changes with no hint of pitch or wallow, yet is never harsh or caught out by everyday lumps and bumps.

Drive harder, as the car insists you must, and you realise at once that those skinny front tyres are not lacking in grip. The VX220 will comer at speeds beyond the wildest dreams of most sporting cars, keeping flat and fast and understeering only when provoked or driven faster than is sensible on public roads. On the track this becomes a more dominating trait and you have to adapt your style to keep the nose into the apex, either with a slow-in, fast-out approach or, more amusingly, turning in a shade too fast on a trailing throttle and loosening the back of the car. On the road, it’s not even an issue.

Does it handle as well as an Elise? Frankly, no. In every respect that matters save perhaps outright grip, the Lotus is fractionally better. It turns in with a shade more alacrity, is better balanced, more communicative and ultimately more fun. Curiously, however, the VX is the better braked of the two. The Elise has mighty stopping powers, but you can hit the Vauxhall’s middle pedal with yet more confidence, stand the car on its nose and actually hear the front tyres start to sing, right on the point of lock-up before the ABS cuts in.

That said, so marginal are these advantages, they alone do not provide grounds for choosing a one over the other. Their badges, however, might. If you can see more than a handful of people who choose to drive Vauxhalls also buying a VX220, your imagination is wildly better than mine. That just leaves the diehards, all of whom will want the Lotus for the name and heritage. And I, for one, do not blame them. For Vauxhall, the only job the VX220 has to do is help convince the world that they are not the most boring car company in Europe. In this respect, it does the job about as well as anyone could expect. It’s safe but exciting, quick but containable; it has talent in abundance and few faults. In short it is a car that deserves to succeed more, I fear, than it actually will.