Top Gear's Bargain Heroes: the Vauxhall VX220
The Elise's less glamorous cousin is no less fun to drive. Vauxhall VX220 buying guide here
‘Vauxhall’ is a name you may associate with worthy cars that sensible people drive. And you’d largely be right to do so.
But in the early 2000s, Vauxhall went a bit mad. It joined forces with Lotus, and using the Elise as a base, released the VX220.
It was shared with GM’s other companies – and badged as an Opel and a Daewoo in other markets – but all of them rolled off the same Norfolk production line as the Elise. That’s despite the Vauxhall (or Opel, or Daewoo…) sharing only around ten per cent of its parts with the Lotus.
What they do share, though, is their core: an extruded aluminium chassis. And with prices starting at £6,000, the less glamorously badged VX220 is the more attainable of the pair. Read on to see if you should be reaching for your wallet or not…
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There are three versions you need to know about. The base VX220 launched in 2000, having been developed alongside the Series 2 Lotus Elise. It came with a 2.2-litre naturally aspirated engine, which produced 144bhp and 149lb ft, enough for a 135mph top speed and 5.6sec 0-60mph time.
Good though it was, the car really got the attention it deserved when the VX220 Turbo arrived in 2003. Its engine was a turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder, good for 197bhp and and 184lb ft. Performance improved, its respective stats 151mph and 4.7sec.
Finally, there’s the car you see here. The VXR220, which arrived in 2004, was a 65-off special edition, based on the Turbo. Its engine was tweaked up to 216bhp and 221lb ft, with the Turbo’s top speed swelling 4mph and half a second being lopped off its 0-60 time.
It also got the option of more serious (and lower) Ohlins suspension, while its wheels dropped a size. The regular VX220 favoured 17s for looks; the VXR220 switched to the Elise’s philosophy of 16s for sharper handling. When the rest of VX220 production topped 7,000, this VXR is a rare beast indeed.
And if you want to complete your geek’s check list, here’s how to spot a VX220 apart from an Elise, beyond the Vauxhall’s arguably more intricate and exciting styling…
The VX220’s engine range was unique among the pair, with Lotus using Toyota-sourced units for the Elise S2. The Vauxhall had a longer wheelbase (by 30mm), a wider rear track (up 20mm), and VXR version aside, it used bigger wheels.
Oh, and the VX220, as if to better align it with the Corsas, Astras and Vectras it’d be sharing a showroom with, came with ABS and an airbag as standard. A small sop to Vauxhall’s sensible-shoes image…Advertisement - Page continues below
How it feels to drive today
It’s quite an effort to clamber over the sill and nestle into the seat – probably more a sign of me getting old, than the VX220’s structure ageing – but once in, the driving position feels almost central. Insert some kind of tenuous McLaren F1 reference here.
But given how low-slung, bum-skimming-the-floor the driving position is, being sat in the centre allows some extremely good visibility. It’s a small car, too, and threading it about the place is so, so easy. Non-assisted steering, that’s heavy at 2mph, lightens up as soon as you’re out of your parking space.
In fact, the steering is absolutely standout, just like it is in an Elise. If I were cobbling together the ‘perfect car’, picking favourite components from everything on sale, I’d pick the steering from these cars.
The neat, efficient inputs of steering needed for even the tightest of corners feel like an extension of your thought process, and the amount of feel and weight that’s crammed into that small movement of your hands is bordering on witchcraft.
Few cars communicate with the speed and clarity of a VX220. It’s like it’s telegraphing its grip to you via broadband, while the rest of its rivals are stuck with dial-up. The result is that your confidence soars and you end up leaning on the grip of this in a way other mid-engined, rear-driven sports car simply do not allow. And the ABS means you’ll lean on the brakes just as hard, too.
My caveat is that it was a dry and sunny day when I drove the VXR above. Add a sprinkling of wet weather and I’m assured things get a little trickier on board.
In fact, when journalists drove the VX220 on circuit during its original press launch, the stories of cars spearing off in several directions at once are infamous. As we’ll get to in a couple of slides’ time, this is one of the more crashed cars on the second-hand market…
What is a little bizarre is driving a car with Elise-like responses that has a turbocharger chirruping away behind your ears. Until Zenos joined the British sports car scene in 2015, driving a roofless special like this usually involved natural aspiration or supercharging.
The sound of a turbo engine is a little odd, then, but not unpleasant. And with comfortably less than a tonne to move – VX220 Turbos are 930kg, n/a cars even lighter – it’s far from slow, even if the supercharged Atoms of today would leave it for dead.Advertisement - Page continues below
But then an Atom is nowhere near as practical as the VX220. Alright, luggage space is scant. You’ll have no luck trying to hear a radio with the roof off at anything above 30mph. And you need to be close friends (or more) with your passenger if your frequent, (presumably) inadvertent bodily contact isn’t to become an awkward talking point.
It’s refined with the roof up, and when you’ve endured the slightly fiddly removal procedure, it’s nice and cosy inside when you’ve got the heater turned up. The stowed roof eats into the boot space a bit (well, a lot) and you wouldn’t want to be running round the car attaching it in a sudden downpour, but its simplicity is charming.
Which is a statement that rings true for the whole car. If you like creature comforts, or safety-centric technology beyond a singular airbag, the VX220 isn’t for you. But if you like geeking out over brilliant componentry and revelling in the very specific thrill of a car focused entirely on handling, very little can touch it. Unless it’s got a Lotus badge and costs several grand more in equivalent condition…
What to watch out for
Accident damage. With both the Lotus Elise and its Vauxhall cousin, accidents happen (owing to tricky wet-weather handling) and shoddy repairs are more common than is ideal.
So be astute about it: take along a torch and shine it through the V-badged grille, to check the condition of the car’s crashbox structure, and to make sure it doesn’t look patched up.
Given how many VXs have been crashed, you shouldn’t necessarily turn down a car with a minor ding in its history. But make absolutely sure that if the prang was frontal, the crashbox has been replaced with a manufacturer-spec part. A third-party, GRP-constructed item is not something you want.Advertisement - Page continues below
Round the back of the car, peel back the carpet in the ‘boot’ area to check the body work is uniform. Patched up sections will suggest accident repair.
Owing to the cost of a new rear clam – £5,000 – there are plenty of VX220s which were a Cat D write-off when used values hovered around a similar value, simply from contact with someone else’s tow bar. On the flipside, some people might use that as an excuse when a far more serious accident has taken place.
“I wouldn’t buy a Cat C or D car without pictures of it before the accident repairs,” says Jon Seal, of Jon Seal Sports Cars. “If you’re looking at a VX220, go on the forums and tell them which one it is. It’s a close-knit community and chances are someone will know what lies in its history.”
While damaged or inconsistent paint could hint at an accident, Jon says you shouldn’t assume that’s the cause. If a VX220 has been stored outside, and moisture has got into the paint and then frozen, the paint can crack. A similar thing affects Lotuses too.
It’s more common on VX220 Turbos than naturally aspirated 2.2s, and is most prevalent around the door tops, boot lid, and the front and rear clams, in the areas around the light clusters.
Oh, and check the lights are in working order and all the badges are present. These parts are notoriously difficult to get hold of. A front light cluster will set you back £1,000…
Mechanically, though, Jon assures us the VX220 is pretty robust, so long as it’s been cared for.
Like the Elise, radiators are a common part to fail, and owing to the amount of labour required – the whole front clam needs to come off – it can cost as much as £1,000 to replace.
There aren’t any huge warning signs either, so it’s more a cost to bear in mind and have an emergency fund for if you do plump for a VX220.
The VX220 Turbo can suffer boost leaks, while in 2.2s, the clutch slave cylinder can fail. It’s a gearbox in and out job, again leading to a bill of up to £1,000 given the hours of labour. Keep an eye out for any warning lights during a test drive and fluids leaking underneath afterwards.
A service ought to be carried out every 12 months or 10,000 miles, but less frequently used cars might have a service every two years. The 2.2 is chain-driven, while the Turbo uses a cambelt, which needs changing every four years, or 60,000 miles.
Jon says he’s seen cars go longer, though, and that he’s never seen a belt snap. So don’t be too alarmed if a cambelt is overdue, but make sure maintenance isn't slack elsewhere, too.
Plenty of VX220s have been modified, and might slurp through oil as a result, particularly on a trackday. “A supercharged VX220 2.2 will use a litre of an oil on circuit,” says Jon. But standard cars should be light on oil; notable consumption is a problem that needs looking at.
Low running costs are a forte of lightweight sports cars like this. So alongside scant oil use, you should see 40mpg from a standard VX220 on a long journey. “A tuned car will drink like a fish on track, though,” adds Jon.
Light cars are light on other consumables – brakes and tyres should last a decent amount of time, so long as you aren’t hammering around a track every other weekend.
In sensible road use, rear tyres can last 15,000 miles, while fronts last longer still “How long is a piece of string?” adds Jon: if you’re chucking your VX220 like your life’s an autotest, tyre bills may be higher…
How much to pay
Jon says prices have gone up spectacularly in the last few years, and you can no longer get something decent for £5,000.
If you want a slightly ratty project car, then £6,000-7,000 is the entry point, while a Cat D VX220 Turbo will set you back about £8,000.
Tidy cars start at £11,000: that should buy you a decent VX220 2.2 with somewhere around 60,000 miles, rising to £18,000 for a “standout” car with more like 10,000 miles. If you want a Turbo, the respective values are around £14,000 and £18,500.
A VXR220, like we drove, is a far rarer beast. Jon sold one recently, with 14,000 miles, for £26,500, and he expects values to keep going up for VXRs in pukka condition. Impressive, given they were a fiver under £30k new. “Find a nice one of those and you’ve hit the jackpot,” says Jon.
"Why I love mine"
Ken Price has owned his VX220 Turbo for over 12 years.
“I took delivery of my Coral Blue VX220 Turbo in May 2004 when it had just 11,000 miles on the clock. My previous car was a Mk2 MR2 T-bar which was my first experience of mid-engined cars. The VX220 was therefore an affordable, natural (and much faster!) progression and I’ve always liked cars that are a little bit different.
“I was the first private owner of my VX, having bought it direct from Vauxhall. It transpired it was one of its press cars, and has Top Gear provenance having featured in the Top Gear studio back in series two.
“I mainly use it for fair-weather, spirited B-road runs, and once a year a group of around 20 owners do a Scottish Highland Hoon covering around 1,700 miles over a long weekend. It demands concentration, but comes alive on quiet twisty roads where the feedback from the steering and through the chassis is so tactile. Even after nearly 13 years and 70,000, miles every drive still makes me smile.”
“It has never been on track, and I prefer to keep it as original and standard as possible. I have, though, fitted a set of VXR220 Speedline Corse wheels to widen the tyre choice and improve handling. I’ve also fitted an uprated four-channel ABS Unit and changed the backbox to a Milltek. Again, these were both fitted as standard on the VXR220. Almost everything else is as it left the factory in 2003.
“The VX has been the most reliable car I’ve owned. It’s only let me down once when it failed to start at home. With the help of a fellow owner we eventually traced the problem to a corroded wire on the loom that powered the ECU. A simple fix in the end. I’ve also had to replace the side engine mounts, the brake servo hose, the odd switch and the turbo heatshield. Other than that it’s just normal wear and tear.
“The VX220 forum is very active and supportive, and other owners will gladly come and help out if you have a problem or need an extra pair of hands or advice. Some parts can be very expensive and increasingly hard to source. But thanks to some talented owners, aftermarket parts are starting to be made which is helping to keep these rare cars alive. There are also some excellent specialists around the country who the community tend to use for servicing.
“Forget badge snobbery, as this little plastic Vauxhall is about the most fun you can have behind the wheel thanks to its mechanical simplicity and lack of driver aids. I have no intention of ever getting rid of it, as I don’t believe there is anything else out there that matches it in terms of performance-per-pound. And with prices on the rise (and numbers of good ones on the road falling), I’d say it’s a sound investment.”