GM Europe had a reputation for building solid, reliable but resolutely uncharismatic cars. In an attempt to shake off its fusty image, the company turned to Lotus.
The 2000 Opel Speedster and Vauxhall VX220 siblings owe their existence at least in part to one of the many financial crises that have regularly threatened to engulf Lotus Cars over the course of its lifetime. General Motors had owned Lotus outright from October 1986 to August 1993. It had inherited the front-engined Excel 2+2 and mid-engined Esprit, but recognised that both these ageing designs, while selling steadily in small numbers, had limited potential for growth. Instead, it decided to return Lotus to its roots with a small and affordable roadster, which it hoped would have mass-market appeal.
That car was the M100 Elan, a front-wheel-drive two-seater convertible, launched in 1989. This was a well-engineered and undeniably pretty roadster, and GM had big ambitions for it in the US market. Unfortunately, fate intervened in the shape of Mazda, which launched the all-conquering MX-5 in the same year. Not only did the MX-5 undercut the Elan significantly on price, it had a proper traditional RWD layout and promised typically Japanese levels of build quality and reliability.
Keen drivers dismissed the Elan’s FWD handling characteristics as safe but uninvolving, while others were deterred by Lotus’ patchy record for reliability. In the first three years of production, fewer than 4,000 Elans were sold, of which less than 600 made it to the US.
GM had had enough of its British sports car misadventure and sold out to an investment group in 1993. Just three years later, the company was sold again, this time to Proton Holdings, the Malaysian national automotive company. Despite this instability, Lotus had used the intervening period productively, designing the first Elise.
This was a small, lightweight mid-engined roadster, a car much more in the Lotus tradition than the M100 Elan. Powered by a Rover K-series engine producing just 118bhp, its light weight, just 725kg, allowed it to accelerate to 100km/h in just six seconds. The handling was simply brilliant. The Series 1 Elise and its more powerful derivatives undoubtedly saved the company and gave it a viable future.
There was, however, a cloud on the horizon, in the shape of tougher European crash regulations, due to be introduced in 2000. The Elise would require significant re-engineering to meet the new regulations. Lotus was, as ever, struggling to meet the cost of this and Proton was contending with its own problems at home, so was reluctant to help.
General Motors again came to Lotus’s rescue. A plan was agreed whereby GM would contribute to the development of the Series 2 Elise if Lotus would also produce a differently bodied version, to be sold under the Opel and Vauxhall marques. That version would become the Opel Speedster and Vauxhall VX220.
The Speedster concept was first unveiled at the 1999 Geneva motor show and the production car was launched in July 2000. Although based on the same platform, the angular fibreglass bodywork, designed by Niels Loeb and Martin Smith, contrived to look rather more substantial than the lithe Elise.
This was an optical illusion as both cars shared almost identical exterior dimensions, although the Speedster had a 29mm longer wheelbase, at 2,329mm. Both the Speedster and Elise were built on the same production line at Lotus’s Hethel, Norfolk factory. This had been expanded to a capacity of 10,000 cars per year, 3,500 of which were forecast to be Speedster and VX220 models.
Despite appearances, the Speedster weighed just 870 kg, only 10 kg more than the Elise, and used a GM 2.2 litre all-aluminium Ecotec engine/ manual transmission from the Astra, instead of the Elise’s Rover-derived powertrain. The engine produced 144bhp, allowing the Speedster comfortably to outperform the 120bhp Elise at launch, reaching 100km/h (62mph) in 5.6 seconds.
The Speedster’s excellent chassis could clearly handle more power and, in 2004, a 2.0 litre turbocharged version was introduced. Despite the reduction in capacity, this engine produced 197bhp. This more than offset a weight increase to 930kg, caused mainly by the iron block of the new engine. The Turbo could accelerate to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds and reach a top speed of 242km/h (150mph). This extra performance was at the cost of some driveability and the normally aspirated version, with its more linear power delivery, was generally considered the nicer drive.
The 2.2 litre normally aspirated engine was dropped in 2004 and a track-focused lighter and more powerful turbo was offered, called the VXR220. Only available in red, this produced 216bhp and shaved another 0.5 second off the 0 to 100km/h time.
Production of the Speedster and VX220 ended in July 2005, with no replacement offered. Total production over five years was just 7,207 units, which fell far short of GM’s 3,500 annual sales forecast for the model. Plans for a longer and wider VX320 V6 Turbo hard-top coupé, reported by Autocar magazine in March 2004, came to nothing.
Autocar rated the VX220 highly and included it in its Cars of the Decade list in January 2010. The magazine described it as the sort of car one could drive in comfort every day, but equally well exploit to the full on a track day. Refinement was more than acceptable with the roof up, with low levels of wind and engine noise, and there was adequate space for soft luggage in the boot. It lacked electric windows and air-conditioning, but was none the worse for that. The fact that, new or second-hand, it was significantly cheaper than the Elise just added to its appeal.
Vauxhall’s UK launch of the VX220 was marred by a truly awful TV advertisement starring comedian Griff Rhys-Jones as a nutty professor type, running around in his Y-fronts and vest. It was intended to be partly self-deprecating on Vauxhall’s part, poking fun at the notion that the company could produce a sexy sports car. It backfired spectacularly, being voted worst commercial of the year in a poll by Campaign, the leading advertising industry magazine. Informed observers of course knew that Vauxhall did not build the VX220 in any event. For those with a taste for the absurd, the advertisement may be found here:
Rhys-Jones, who had starred in a number of previous advertisements for Vauxhall, (mercifully) never did so again.