Blood Brothers: Vauxhall VX220 vs Lotus Europa S

It seems hard to believe, but before the launch of Lotus's Elise in 1996, track days and track day cars didn't really exist. Well-maintained dedicated tracks were few and far between and the handful of enthusiasts who did enjoy them often did so in their own mildly-modified road cars, with just a lucky few able to savour the pleasures of more expensively procured German and Italian exotica.

But the success of that original Hethel-bred two-seater changed everything and spawned a whole host of dedicated but affordable machinery capable to taking you to and from the track, as well as around it. The choice is now almost endless, with track cars for the road, road cars for the track and even - for those with a penchant for trailers - track cars for the track.

Two of the Elise's latest descendents - the Lotus Europa S and Vauxhall's VX220 Turbo - both fulfil this brief admirably, capable of commuting and cornering with equal aplomb. And both share not just a common ancestor, but also the same remarkably capable power-plant - the Vauxhall/Opel-designed Z20LET.

Family tree
In a marriage of convenience Lotus and Vauxhall/Opel worked together to develop the series two Lotus Elise platform. More stringent European crash regulations left Lotus needing significant investment to evolve its K-Series-powered Elise into the next generation of Toyota-powered machine, and in return for providing this Vauxhall/Opel gained a GM-engined and badged equivalent - the VX220 - which sold as the Opel Speedster in the rest of Europe.

Originally launched in 2000 in 2.2-litre 147hp normally-aspirated form the VX220 Roadster was favourably received, although not always by those of a Lotus persuasion, and helped raise the profile of Vauxhall's motorsport arm - cars racing in the British Touring Car Championship used the VX brand from 2003.

Calls for a hotter version saw Vauxhall launch its £26,495 200hp 2.0-litre VX220 Turbo in 2003 offering greater performance than a Lotus Elise, for less money. With a factory-fitted manual hood, ABS brakes, a starter button, twin chrome exhaust pipes, tinted glass, a Momo steering wheel and an optional removable hard-top the VX220 Turbo breached 60mph in a Boxster-bashing 4.9 seconds, handled damn near as well as an Elise and could return 33mpg on the way back from the track. All it lacked was a legendary badge.

With the VX220 coming to the end of its life Vauxhall launched a final tweaked VXR220 version in late 2004, with power raised to 220hp and a torque peak of 210lb ft at 4,800rpm. Priced at £29,995 this last VX220 boasted even greater performance (62mph in just 4.2 seconds) sharper steering, a 10mm lower ride height, uprated brakes, stiffer dampers and different wheels. Vauxhall even offered adjustable dampers as an option for the more track-focused buyer. Just 65 of these specials were offered for sale.

Meanwhile Lotus was busy evolving its series two Elise from the 111S and 111R into the hard-top Exige and - in late 2006 - into the Europa S. Intended for those who wanted to experience that unique Lotus DNA but perceived the Elise and Exige as too raw, basic and uncompromising for everyday use the Europa S was built on a stretched version of the Elise's bonded aluminium chassis and employed a Lotus version of the 200hp Z20LET engine from the VX2220 Turbo.

Capable of touching 62mph in 5.6 seconds and priced at £32,995 the UK media's reception to the model was lukewarm, despite the car's eminent capabilities, and relatively civilised standard spec - which included the kind of 'luxuries' that VX220 and Elise owners could only dream of. We're talking comfortable seats, carpet, electric windows, a radio (this was an option on the VX220), sat nav and air-conditioning here folks.

But the model wasn't good enough for Lotus die-hards, leading to the pretty rapid release of an improved SE version with a revised suspension, enhanced braking, a £1,250 Luxury Touring Pack interior option and engine tweaks taking power to 225hp. 62mph now arrived in just 5.4 seconds and owners of existing S models could receive an equivalent performance ECU/brake upgrade kit for £1,200. But despite these efforts the Europa (which ended production in 2010) only sold in small numbers compared to its Griffin-badged sibling, with fewer than 500 cars ever produced. In contrast Vauxhall shifted around 5,000 VX220s, with close to 2,000 in turbocharged form.

Brothers in arms
Both parties gained immensely from their joint collaboration - Vauxhall's fledgling VX and VXR branding gained much-needed publicity and has since gone on to establish its place at the head of the Vauxhall family, whilst the possibility that Lotus might have had to kill off their Elise altogether in 2001 doesn't bear thinking about. Without the whole-hearted commitment from both GM and Lotus we might never have seen an Astra or Corsa VXR, an Exige or Europa S or possibly even the continued existence of Lotus sports cars.

Like brothers, the VX220 Turbo and Europa S may possess slightly different dimensions, yet share much more than just a passing resemblance. The common DNA is deep-set: both are derived from the same Elise aluminium chassis, with GRP bodywork and of course an almost identical GM turbocharged powerplant. The Europa S was even built on the same Hethel production line as the VX220 Turbo. Together these mid-engined, lightweight siblings, alongside their Elise cousin, helped to reinvigorate the early noughties sports car scene in Britain - and for that if nothing else we owe them both a debt of gratitude.

Family feud
But as in any family there have been inevitable disagreements, brooding resentments and sometimes even outright hostilities. Compared to more mundane automotive fodder both the VX220 Turbo and the Europa S can rightly claim a high PH rating - focused, highly communicative and genuinely exciting to drive almost every journey is a real treat. But there are differences.

The Vauxhall is truly hardcore, a no-frills budget supercar. It's the series two Elise Lotus should have built. To get anywhere near the same thrilling on-road experience from a small Lotus you'd need to splash out £25,000 on a 2008-on Elise SC, and an immaculate VXR220 - like the red car you see here maintained by Andrew Boddy and Terry Forder from the Vauxhall Heritage Centre - might still show the Lotus a clean pair of heels.

The Europa S on the other hand delivers 95 per cent of the same thrills but without compromising everyday comfort. OK - in terms of pampering it's a million miles away from a Porsche 911 but compared to the Vauxhall it's almost luxurious. The Lotus is easier to enter and exit, claims a more forgiving ride, boasts a six-speed rather a five-speed 'box and has a 'proper' boot, yet retains the VX220's talkative steering. And most of its performance - if you opt for an SE version, or an uprated S model like the black one you see here owned by Lotus aficionado Geoff Morgan.

Of course the pure-bred Hethel car claims greater badge kudos too, but at a price. A decent Europa S could set you back as much as eight grand more than a VX220 Turbo - and you have to question whether it's worth it, especially when the Vauxhall is faster. And easier to buy too, with many more used examples advertised for sale.

Ultimately both are genuinely special cars to drive and own, and aside from a dull low-speed resonance that flexible Z20LET engine really is a gem. But the Vauxhall is quicker, more engaging and much more affordable - in short it's more of a Lotus than the Lotus Europa.

1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Power (hp): 200@5,500rpm (VXR220 220@6,300rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 184@1,950rpm to 5,500rpm (VXR220 210@4,800rpm)
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Kerb weight: 930kg
Top Speed: 149mph (VXR 155mph)
0-62mph: 4.9secs (VXR220 4.2secs)
MPG: 33.2 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 202g/km
Price: £8,500 to £14,995
Manufactured: 2003-2005
Love it: Awesome drive, no one knows what it is
Loathe it: Need to be a contortionist to gain entry with the roof on
Spotted:2004 Vauxhall VX220 Turbo, 22,000 miles,£11,750

1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Power (hp): 200@5,400rpm (SE 225@5,600rpm)Torque (lb ft): 201@5,000rpm (SE 221@4,000rpm)Transmission: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 995kg
Top Speed: 143mph (SE 147mph)
0-62mph: 6.1secs (SE 5.4secs)
MPG: 30.4 (NEDC combined) (SE 28.8)
CO2: 220g/km (SE 229g/km)
Price: £15,995 to £24,995
Manufactured: 2006-2010
Love it: That unique Lotus driving experience never diminishes
Loathe it: Harder to justify the price once you've driven a VX220 Turbo
Spotted:2006 Lotus Europa S, 42,000 miles, £19,000

Photos: Michael Ward

Thanks to Europa owner Geoff Morgan and Vauxhall's heritage centre



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Comments (54) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Guy R Baker 10 Jul 2012

    Not just driven them mate - owned them! A VX220, an Elise 111s and a VX220 Turbo. Drove a Europa S for a week too.

    The reason for the comparison is because of the common engine, and I don't agree with your comment on the weight of the VX220. My turbo felt at least as well balanced as my NA VX220 - only 60kg difference too which ain't a lot for a big man!

  • n4aat 02 Jul 2012

    A good effort but it doesn't appear that you have ever driven these cars.

    It is easy to generically compare the VXT to an Elise etc. But unfortunately the VXT was fundamentally flawed. Firstly, the engine was way too heavy and really ruined the balance compared to the non-turbo car, and more importantly the brakes were dangerous when braking hard on an uneven surface going into ice mode when braking over a bump.

    And as for saying the VX was what the S2 Elise should have been. I would say that the VX was in between the S1 and the S2.

    Put the research car mags down and go and drive them. smile

  • ESOG 01 Jul 2012

    As always with Lotus; would of, could of, should of...BUT DIDN'T!!

    However, the Europa never seemed the right look to me, its funky and off somehow, yet the black one in this article has changed that perception for me. I would take this exact one with no hesitation! Its beautiful and sporty here, love the tan seats with the emblems in the head rests. Much nicer to look at than the Vaux IMHO.

    Edited by ESOG on Sunday 1st July 03:48

  • Tucker1 30 Jun 2012

    My Europa is the updated 225 and I have recorded 4.8 0-60 times using a GPS device, so the manufacturers times for the SE and 225 are not exaggerated and are easily repeatable. Not sure why the quoted Europa times here are so slow.

    Comparing the cars, the VX Turbo is fantastic value and has huge scope for mods, best bang for your buck and is a genuine, big grin, supercar slaying track car that can be used daily with sensible running costs. The Europa is exactly the same but any prospective buyer has to decide if the badge and exclusivity due to its rarity is worth the extra initial purchase price. I felt it was and bought a Europa, I have not regretted it and have never had a car which draws so much attention. Depending on your budget you takes your choice but both are great cars. I would argue the Lotus will have a better residual so any extra money put in now will be recouped on its sale. The VX would be my choice if I wanted to do car trackdays as it does the same job with less money at risk. Anyone thinking about either should get one bought, did I mention mine was in the classifieds!

  • roger.daltrey 30 Jun 2012

    Its the gearing that makes the VXT so much quicker.

    Often manufacturers will be keen to exploit an impressive 0-60 (or 0-100k if you're on the continent) and the easiest way to do this is using 2nd gear to take you to 61 (or thereabouts).

    The Europa requires 3rd gear to achieve 60mph and that (even with the fastest draw in the west) will still take around half a second extra.

    The SE (or 225 S) is supposed to do 0-60 in 4.9 secs - take off 0.5 for the gear change and you're in VXT territory ??

    The VXT will go over 60 in 2nd - so one less gear change, the MGTF160 was similar with a taller second gear.

    The Europa really has 1 to 5 quite close and a 6th taller cruising gear.

    Not sure why TBH, as the torque comes in impressively low anyway, but it does ensure you can find a cog thats good quickly.

    I find 3rd to be the utilitarian gear - as the car can go from almost standstill up to a reasonable speed without having to move the stick (like my old Mondeo ST200)

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