Forbidden Fruit: Vauxhall VX220 Turbo

Vauxhall (ne Opel) offers a monumentally dull selection of cars, but with one exception - the VX220. When the company needed a desirable roadster to boost its image, it turned to its old friends at Lotus. The boys from Hethel could draw on their experience of the Elise, and they were also responsible for tuning the suspension of the Astra hatch.

The production reality, launched at the end of 2000, was a car that shared 15 percent of its parts with the Elise, but had a subtly different character. While the Lotus puts all its efforts into delivering a sensual driving experience, the VX220 is more of an all-rounder. The cabin, while still relatively spartan, has an airbag, anti-lock brakes and a stereo. The 2.2-liter engine fitted to the entry-level model focuses on low-end torque, in contrast to the 1.8-liter Elise's high-rev freneticism.

The standard car is quick - 0-60 mph takes just 6.1 seconds - but the new Turbo model lifts the performance into a whole new stratosphere. It's 2.0-liter engine boasts 197 bhp at 5600 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque all the way from 1950 rpm to 5600 rpm. The results are dramatic - the VX220 Turbo rockets to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, to 100 mph in 12.8 seconds and reaches 151 mph. A Ferrari 360 Modena is scarcely quicker and an Elise is laughably off the pace.

The suspension - unequal-length wishbones at both ends - was developed by Matthew Becker, who's dad was responsible for the Esprit. The younger Becker also honed the Elise, but he's given the VX220 a subtly different feel. In tune with Vauxhall's instructions, the VX is less extreme than the Lotus, trading the last tenth of tactility for extra comfort and driveability.

But this is not to suggest that it's any less accomplished. The ride quality is nothing less than exceptional for such a sporting car. Couple this with staggering stopping power from the ventilated discs and more agility than a Porsche Boxster, and the Turbo becomes an extremely rapid cross-country machine. There's no question that it's faster against the watch than the Lotus and at least a match for rally bred specials, such as the EVO VIII.

With the standard car retailing at #22,995 ($36,100) and the Turbo costing #25,495 ($40,027), the VX220 is also excellent value for money. It's fractionally cheaper than the equivalent Elise, offers more kit and, of course, more performance.

But a single, crucial problem has compromised its success in Europe. Its elegant, chiseled lines make it look unlike any other Vauxhall and it's built on the same production line as the Elise, but it's nose still carries a telltale 'V' grille and a Griffin badge. The Griffin, for the sports car snob, carries none of the cache associated with the green and yellow moniker of Lotus. And in Europe, such things matter.

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