Should you meet your heroes? Or should you let them stay on that lofty pedestal upon which they were hoisted back in your teenage years?
You always put yourself up for the crushing weight of disappointment when you decide it’s time to meet that hero, and in the case of a car set yourself up for the death of all your younger dreams and a tear to the bedroom poster. As a youngster there were a few cars I hoisted high up on the mantle of adulation, and one of those was the Vauxhall VX220.
All the other kids loved Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McLaren’s F1 or Porsche’s Carrera GT. But I knew better, I knew that a true driver loved to be behind the wheel of the car that was an Elise in all but name and for the fact that it was better. I knew that the VX220 was true motoring nirvana, not any of the flashy supercars my peers leered over. I had taste, I was a bit of a knob.
So when Vauxhall offered me the chance to drive not just a VX220, but the turbocharged and more track-ready VXR220, there was a hint of nerves in my mind – how could I even think about destroying such memories?
But hold on, why exalt over a Vauxhall of all things? We answer that question by delving into the history books. Specifically to the end of the life of the first generation Lotus Elise. The Elise had rewritten the rulebook on small sportscars when it arrived, all bug-eyed and fun in the 1990s. But crash safety regulations had begun to bite on Lotus, and they needed some help moving on to their follow-up at the start of the new millennia.
What followed was a deal with General Motors to co-develop the car, with all models still to be built by Lotus at Hethel, but with input and funding from the American giant. In return Lotus would produce a sister car, badged as an Opel Speedster in Europe, Vauxhall VX220 in the UK and, in an example of great motoring ideas never followed-through, the Daewoo Speedster elsewhere. Sadly only one Daewoo-badged Speedster was made.
The car was a sensation straight away. Lotus had somehow helped make the VX220 as good, if not even better, than the S2 Elise. Not only did the Speedster/VX220 match the Elise for weight (it weights 220kg less than the contemporary Toyota MR2) but the Vauxhall/Opel cars had more power from their Opel-designed engines.
The 2.2-litre inline-four Ecotec engine gave the VX220 nearly 200bhp, but that wasn’t enough for GM and it was followed by a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, badged ingeniously as the “VX220 Turbo”.
Which brings us to this car, the VXR220, which took the turbo and squeezed 223PS (220bhp) from the engine, added larger tyres, more sporty seats, lowered the suspension and made the car altogether a bit more track-ready.
The VX220 was always better looking than the Elise, but the refresh to the styling and ground-hugging new suspension just lifted it further beyond. With the VXR220 we had, for the first time since the Lotus Carlton, a Vauxhall that could truly adorn a teenager’s bedroom.
Inside the VXR220 is minimalist perfection, with just a few simple dials, metal floors, a slim wheel and a brilliantly tall metal gearknob just waiting to be grasped. The car is started by the press of an unmarked metal button amid the dash and the metal trim suits the lightweight nature of the car perfectly.
It’s a chilly day when we drive the car, so the roof stays firmly on. That, combined with the ridiculously wide sills, means that climbing in and out isn’t exactly easy for one of over six foot like myself. But once in this is a little cocoon I don’t want out of.
Fire up the engine, pull out of Vauxhall’s heritage centre in Luton and the delight of the VXR220 is very quickly apparent. The wheel is almost hilariously hefty at low speeds, but carries every single bit of information it could fizzing from the road to your fingertips. The ride is firm, but since this car weighs slightly less than a bee it doesn’t crash by any stretch of the imagination, rather it seems to skip over each hole.
Throttle response is rapid, and a little more fun is injected by some good old-fashioned lag in the low range. Get past that and the acceleration is electric – nothing with 223PS should be this rapid. The joy is only compounded by slotting up through the gears. The snick, snick, snick of that stick sounds like it was pre-recorded to make sure each one sounds perfect; the slot is lovely, with a little resistance to give some satisfaction as you reach from gear to gear.
Add those to absolutely lightening handling and a chassis that feels almost like an extension of you and this is an addictive proposition. Time flashes by as fast as the scenery as you blast through the countryside. Today’s mod cons are so far away that you get a chance to remember that you don’t need them. And after a little time behind the wheel I’ve convinced myself I could maybe just drive this home and pretend it was mine all along.
The experience has to end at some point though, and to Vauxhall’s unhidden relief I return the VXR220 to Luton, rather than escaping to the south of France like I would really wish. But this has been an experience without real compare: I’ve met a hero that stood up and fulfilled every wish I could have had. Fourteen-year-old me is somewhere in the cosmos quietly crying with happiness.