Vauxhall VX220 dynamic exterior

Vauxhall VX220 | Alternative Classics

Vauxhall VX220 | Alternative Classics

The Lotus Elise carved itself a niche as a lightweight British sportscar the committed driver could use every day, but in 2003, there was an even better option; surprisingly, it was a Vauxhall – the VX220 Turbo.

The standard Vauxhall VX220 had been on sale for a couple of years before the Turbo landed – a convenient collaboration that was apparently sparked by Lotus’ need for development in safety and GM’s need for development in ‘sexy’.  It was an excellent idea, but with a USP, the Vauxhall could have made a more significant dent in the sales of the better-looking, sweeter-handling and more appealingly badged Elise.

The Turbo’s introduction brought the defining character the VX220 craved. Offering significantly more performance than the standard model, the Turbo was, surprisingly, billed as the softer of the two, with more cosseting suspension and an easily accessible mid-range. That was the theory, at least, but it didn’t entirely live up to the microscope of the car’s launch where journalists – keen to sample the Turbo’s so-called-docile nature – crashed six of them.

They should have known better. With no stability control, a short wheelbase and a mid-engine layout, the standard VX wasn’t immune to stepping out, and the Turbo merely added power oversteer to the mix.  But it was indeed quick. Not only did the Turbo have the measure of the S2 Lotus Elise 111S – the fastest sold then – it also dished out beatings to the likes of the Porsche Boxster S and Honda S2000. One (evidently quite brave) Evo correspondent reckoned the Turbo could match a 996 GT3 in the right hands.

While that’s up for debate, what can’t be argued is that VX220 Turbos can now be had for the same price as a basic Lotus Elise, with close to half the horsepower, and it’s this value that remains the Vauxhall’s biggest attraction.

Rarity could be another pull because only around 4500 Turbos were built, with the car’s life coming to an end in style in the form of the mildly tuned VXR220 run of 65 cars, which landed a year before the Vauxhall went out of production in 2004.

Vauxhall VX220: why buy one?

The Vauxhall VX220 Turbo was a performance bargain when new, and the passing of time has enhanced its value.

Key to this boast was its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. Its 200PS (147kW) sounds modest by modern standards, but in a car weighing 930kg – or about half the weight of a current BMW M3 – it proved to be plenty, getting the Turbo from 0-62mph in just 4.7 seconds, 0-100mph in 13 seconds and onto a respectable top speed of 151mph.

What explains the Vauxhall’s character even better is that its 250Nm (184lb ft) of torque arrived at just 1,950rpm – compare that to a Lotus Elise 111S with just 174Nm (128lb ft) delivered at a peaky 4,500rpm, and it’s clear where the differences lie.

Vauxhall claimed the VX220 shared just ten per cent of its parts with its Hethel-based brother, but one of those parts was the famous aluminium bonded tub that made the Lotus light and strong.

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Vauxhall then increased the VX220’s wheelbase by 30mm, the car’s rear track by 20mm and added ABS brakes, adjustments that aimed to tame the Lotus’ at-times-challenging on-the-limit handling, with an airbag thrown in case the company’s efforts proved unsuccessful. 

Designed to be even easier to live with than the standard car, the Turbo had a softer suspension setup that allowed it to breathe with bumps rather than crash over them; plus, you got a gear-shift-indicator light and a revised instrument cluster.

Touring Pack-optioned cars brought untold luxury in the form of a proper fuel gauge (in place of the annoyingly inaccurate digital readout), extra sound deadening and carpets that make the Turbo more tolerable on long drives.

Even so, it’s hard to argue the VX220 Turbo is practical. A talented gymnast would have trouble elegantly clearing the car’s sills on entry. While taking the roof off helps with access, it’s not easy, taking around a minute to navigate the soft top’s combination of slider, catches and struts before snugly squeezing it into its roof bag.

You do at least get a 206-litre boot with plenty of room for a couple of soft bags, and fuel economy of 33mpg officially – high 20s in reality – is tolerable given the performance.

Vauxhall VX200: Problems to look out for?

The reliability issues that blighted early VX220 Turbos were less forgivable, with reports of suspension problems and engine covers that allowed water to leak into the spark plugs – Vauxhall released a new engine cover to sort out the latter. Seats are also known to work loose from their mountings.

Age brings new problems that previous owners may have yet to iron out. The Vauxhall fibre-glass body is easy to damage, and even a tiny knock requires an entire new clamshell, which will be hard to source. The same goes for head and tail light clusters.

Another prominent weak spot is the roof, never the most watertight; wear and tear means leaks are likely, and a replacement will cost around £1,000, although an aftermarket hardtop will cost roughly half that.

Servicing cost should be reasonably affordable, ranging from £300-750, and the Lotus lightweight means tyres, brake pads and discs will withstand plenty of abuse before needing replacing.

Vauxhall VX220: How much to pay?

Today, you can pick up a used Vauxhall VX220 Turbo for roughly half the price of a well-specified Mazda MX-5, which is impressive considering the gulf in pedigree and performance.

Crash-damaged cars start from less than £12,000 and could be a sensible option for thrashing on track. Adding £6,000 to your budget gives you several low mileage/owner cars to choose from, and as most (if not all) have been modified, it makes sense to pick the vehicle with mods that best suits your tastes. Over £20,000 buys you a mint, bonestock example with a verifiable history that stretches back to when the car’s tyres first hit Tarmac.

Limited-run VXR220s are the most prized of the lot and will set you back £25,000. Arguably, their five-spoke Speedline alloy wheels are with the price hike alone, but they also get more power and torque – up to 219PS (161kW) and 300Nm (221lb ft), respectively – for 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds and a 155mph top speed. Ohlin dampers and smaller wheels – down from 17 to 16-inch – also make these the sweetest handling of the lot. 

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Alfa Romeo 156 GTA

The best sports saloons for under £10k

The best sports saloons for under £10k

If for some reason a small two-seater sportscar simply doesn’t fit into your lifestyle, there are other ways of quenching your thirst for exciting driving.

There’s a long list of larger, more practical, but no less exciting sports saloons that are capable of putting a dirty great smile on your face. Here are eight of the best.

W211 Mercedes-Benz E55

The W211 Mercedes E55 comes from a time when AMGs were as much about cosseting as they were about tyre-shredding performance. That said, there’s plenty of the latter. Power comes from a supercharged 5.4-litre V8 that hammers out 476PS (350kW) and a mighty 706Nm (521lb ft) of torque to the rear wheels via a conventional slushbox – factors that make its 4.7-second 0-62mph time all the more impressive.

Standard air suspension ensures it’s very comfortable, giving the E55 a high-speed ride not a million miles away from an S-Class of the period. It’s the ideal mile-crusher. Yet it’s also relatively agile, with neat body control and feelsome hydraulic steering. Having said that, a little more traction in the wet wouldn’t go amiss. Inside, the E55 is starting to show its age but still feels relatively plush. You get comfy armchair-like seats up front – complete with active bolsters that clamp your body in corners – and a back seat with acres of legroom.

The boot is also generously proportioned and there’s an estate version if you need more room. Sadly, you’ll need every one of our £10,000 to get your hands on one.

GD Subaru Impreza WRX

The Subaru Impreza rumbling flat-four could stake an Oasis-like claim to being a sound of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, it’s that recognisable. A delivery of more than 200PS delivered 0-62mph in under six seconds and a top speed of more than 140mph. Permanent four-wheel drive was the secret to the former and it helped the Impreza deal with the UK’s patchy climate.

Sadly, the introduction of cars like the Volkswagen Golf R – with its fancy DSG gearbox and viscous coupling on-demand four-wheel drive – sounded the Impreza’s death knell. But while a WRX wouldn’t see which way a Golf R went on a country road, the Subaru has character a VW can only dream of.

This brings us to this particular GD version of the Impreza. So long as you avoid early ‘bugeye’ versions, it’s a handsome vintage, with a chunky body that earlier models missed out on but without the ugly hatchback rear-end of later offerings. Our £10,000 buys you an exceptionally nice WRX but you could also take a gamble on a leggier (and significantly spicier) STi variant.

X350 Jaguar XJR

While this version of the Jaguar XJR lacks the svelte lines of the models that preceded it, it’s still the one we’d recommend. The X350 XJR is notable for its aluminium body that – larger than the car it replaced – meant the big Jag was capable of surprising fuel economy. Around 30mpg is within reach – not to be sniffed at in a 400PS (294kW) super saloon. That said, it’s the XJR’s performance that’s most notable.

Its supercharged 4.2-litre V8 offers effortless overtaking grunt – even compared to the competition of the time – and a buttery smooth ride makes this a great machine for tackling long distances.

Inside, the XJR misses some of the older model’s character but it’s a lot more spacious, with a usable back seat and a huge boot. Wood and leather are not in short supply, either. The best part about this unloved Jag is the price, with mint examples on offer for well under £10,000.

Saab 95 Aero

In lieu of a Volvo T5 saloon (sorry, fast Volvos need to be estates in our book), it’s the Saab 95 Aero that flies the flag for Sweden on this list. Unlike its countryman, the 95 wears its saloon car body well with a chiselled front end and handsome lines that bring to mind the aeronautical theme Saab loved to play on.

Performance isn’t jet-like but it’s not far off. Turbocharger torque and 250PS (184kW) mean the Saab delivers in-gear performance to humble far more exotic machinery and it is also an exceptionally comfortable cruiser. Unfortunately, it’s no B-road blaster. Traction is limited and the Vauxhall Vectra-derived chassis – although heavily modified by Saab – can feel all at sea if you stray above eight-tenths. But, with your family abroad, you’re unlikely to do that.

Instead, it’s better to marvel at the restrained good looks of the spacious cabin – complete with its Night Panel that reduces distractions by dimming all but the speedo at night. Our £10K budget means you can pick from the best examples.

Audi S4

The Audi S4 takes its place on this list based on its engine alone – a 344PS (253kW) 4.2-litre V8 that produced more thunder than a tropical storm supercharged by global warming (ironically, its replacement would be a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 with little of the older unit’s charm). The V8 started with a characteristic rumble that manifested into an old-school bark before you grabbed another gear in the six-speed manual box, revelling in the throaty splutter as the revs dropped. It’s pure theatre.

Which is just as well, because the S4 was not all ‘that’ in corners. With a large portion of its V8 sitting ahead of the front axle, it tended to understeer, which was exacerbated by the standard quattro four-wheel drive.

That said, there’s still a lot to love. The S4 looks as smart today as it did when it went on sale in 2005 and inside you’ll find an example of peak Audi interior – one that’s beautifully built, easy to use and has plenty of room for a family. Prices start from a mere £7,000.

BMW 335i

The days of the £10,000 M car might be far behind us but that doesn’t mean you’re all out of options. The 335i BMW 3 Series is a sparkling example of the hidden gems lurking below the M-car halo. Its lusty turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six has the power to worry hot hatches (and a soundtrack they’d kill for), with over 300PS (221kW), 0-62mph takes well under six seconds and you get a 155mph top speed. The rear-wheel drive chassis is a joy to behold and – unlike newer versions – you can also have a (rubbery) manual gearbox.

Adjustable dampers are another option worth looking out for, giving a handling balance that ranges from surprisingly comfortable to deliciously taut. The 335i gets all the sensible stuff right too. It looks ‘right’, the cabin design is blissfully intuitive and you can tickle 40mpg with a light right foot. All in all, the 335i could be one of the best cars – of any type – available for £10,000.

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA

We couldn’t write this list and not include an Italian stallion with room for four. But while the Ferrari-engined Maserati Quattroporte seems like an obvious choice, the DuoSelect automatic is your only option at this price and it is plagued with slow shifts and dismal reliability. The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA has no such problems.

Its six-speed manual will never age the car (we’d avoid the Selespeed auto), while the Alfa’s magnificent-looking Busso 3.2-litre V6 is arguably more characterful even than the Maser’s unit. Delivering a rich growl you’ll not find in anything modern. Sadly, the driving experience isn’t quite such a delight with torque steer and understeer aplenty. But, hey, at least it’s a challenge.

The standard 156, with its hidden rear doors and offset number plate, looks great and the GTA’s extensive body kit only adds to the sense of occasion. Considering their rarity (around 150 are left), £10,000 for a well-used example of this practical saloon seems like money well spent.

Vauxhall Insignia VXR

While the Vectra VXR was a tyre-smoking, understeering mess of a fast saloon, the Insignia VXR was rather good. It was, like the old car, a performance bargain giving you a 325PS (239kW) 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 (0-62mph in 5.7 seconds and a 155mph top speed) for the price of a bog-standard BMW 3 Series. But, unlike the car it replaced, it could also handle. Sure, it doesn’t have the rear-biassed feel of a fast BMW but standard four-wheel drive means it grips hard and is never flustered.

It’s also very comfortable if you’re looking for something to while away the miles in. The Insignia doesn’t have the wide-boy image of VXRs of old, either. Its clean shape and tight shut lines are more Audi than fast Ford – only the lovely ten-spoke alloy wheels hint that this is the performance model.

Inside, it’s more stereotypically ‘Vauxhall’. A sea of black plastic meets your eyes and the scatter of buttons doesn’t look tidy, but it is roomy. With prices starting from £7,000 for a car that is not much more than ten years old, it arguably offers the best value of all the cars here.

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