Back in 1999, Vauxhall teamed up with Lotus Cars to create the VX220. Based on an Elise chassis, the Vauxhall was powered by a 2.2-litre Astra SRi powerplant, which produced 147bhp. The car’s super-lightweight construction (it weighed just 800kg) helped give it a sub-six second 0-62mph time.
Despite being just a Vauxhall, the VX220 was incredibly well received, with a certain Mr. Clarkson going so far as to say it was actually better value than its Elise cousin. In 2003, Vauxhall upped the ante by dropping a turbocharged 2.0-litre unit in the middle of the chassis. Thanks to 197bhp, the car’s 0-62mph was reduced to 4.7sec.
In 2004, Vauxhall unleashed a limited edition VXR220, the same car I was fortunate to get behind the wheel of recently.
You really don’t appreciate just how tiny these cars are until you’re lumbering over one, keys in hand. When CT resident photographer Olgun saw the car, his immediate reaction was to sigh; it’s not an ideal car to transport camera kit about in, after all. Leaving him to play his own unique game of camera gear Tetris, my first attempts at stepping over the sill are rather ungainly, but eventually my gangly frame is slotted nicely inside.
The seats are more like thin bolster ‘cushions’, while the sparse dashboard is a deliberate antithesis of a modern car’s button-fest. In the VXR220 it’s just you, a ridiculously small steering wheel, a rev counter and a speedo.
The mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout means there’s no intrusive transmission tunnel through the centre of the car; almost nothing seperates your feet from your passenger’s. Sound-deadening and soft-touch plastics are absent, with polished metal and welding points proudly on display.
The VXR’s no nonsense approach is immediately evident; as we pick our way through the car park outside Vauxhall’s Heritage Centre, even the smallest city cars tower above us. The lack of power steering combined with the tiny wheel makes for bicep-pummeling low speed maneuverability, but on the road the steering comes alive.
At pace on a winding road, the way the tiny Vauxhall reads my movements is uncanny. Every twitch of every sinew in my arm is fed straight to the front wheels, while every bump and scramble for grip travels through my fingertips.
But what of the engine? The upgraded 2.0-litre inline-four cylinder makes 217bhp thanks to a free-flow air filter, a hybrid turbo and reprogrammed ECU, requiring more cooling and a turbo heat shield to handle the extra power.
My first impressions of the powerplant are, admittedly, unimpressive. Trundling out of the centre of Luton towards nicer roads feels like I’ve given enough time to warm everything up, but planting my foot results in a very brief surge in power, before an immediate drop in momentum. I’ve been making quick progress through the corners but powering out onto straights is frustratingly muted.
After stopping for a while for photos, we head back out into the sunshine to give the VXR’s engine another shot. After a few gentle miles to coax the fluids to life and get some warmth back into the engine, I find myself in second gear approaching the exit of a roundabout - this is the moment of truth…
Where before the engine would start to make some noise then die to a whimper, this time the inline-four comes alive, the revs rising all the way to the redline. The engine is right behind your ears, and boy does it make a racket. It’s rough and real. Finally, I’m pushing through the gears, my backside just inches off the ground making the tree-lined lanes resemble warpspeed.
Hard on the brakes and the car squirrels slightly, the 220’s short wheelbase making hard turn ins on Britain’s broken roads require all of your attention. It feels scatty and frenetic but never terrifying. I’m not fighting against the car, rather with it; it lets me know every time it’s thinking about trying to kill me so I have every chance to counteract it. I have the biggest grin on my face the whole time.
In case you haven’t realised, I’ve fallen in love with this car. Sure, there are more refined engines and dynamically smoother cars, but that’s exactly why I love it. On well-sighted roads when I was able to push, I’ve never felt so in-tune with what a car is doing - there’s no middle man handling your inputs. But what really sold me was that even at six-tenths, on those tight roads, it was awesome fun.
You can pick up an early normally-aspirated 2.2-litre for around £7000, and honestly, if you don’t have a significant other to answer to, I urge you to get one. Even crawling through traffic is an event; if you want to fall in love with driving again, this is the car for you.