I was driving an M Roadster at the time, and had gone through much soul-searching as to whether it was really a sensible car to be kept on the street. An attempted car-jacking two days before we were due to leave made that decision for me, and off I trotted to the car auctions with the intention of getting something inconspicuous, and dare I say it, boring.
What I came home with was a Citroen Xsara VTS – the price was very right, and the car broadly fulfilled the criteria. A year later, despite my best efforts to keep myself amused automotively with a Saab 900 Turbo project car, there was a serious itch that needed scratching very badly. I still had no garage so dreams of a Westfield SEight quickly faded to nothing, and I was basically looking for the most entertaining car that could realistically be kept on the street.
The VX220, going on the blue long-termer featured in Evo magazine and the Dolphin grey one that I test drove, would, with a little squinting, pass the “not too flashy” test, and certainly had the performance credentials to fit the bill. The brilliant yellow one that I actually bought (after a failed eBay auction) felt significantly better than the demonstrator I had tried, primarily down to a decent suspension geometry set-up, and a keener feeling engine, although the colour wasn’t entirely in keeping with my “incognito” aspirations. However, a stack of crisp £20s totalling the princely sum of £20,500 was handed over and away I went.
Pretty much immediately I was called upon to put the practicality of my new purchase to the test. The Xsara was loaded with our camping gear, as the Mrs and I were on our way to the Hay Festival. Now, lovely though the Xsara was, making the choice of which car would be continuing that particular journey was not a hard one for me to make. Persuading the Mrs to ‘rationalise’ our luggage was a harder task, although, with a little ingenuity we squeezed 95% of it in – a trick we would repeat many times throughout the year with “the yellow thing”.
In fact, in much the same way as I imagine certain teenagers spend the early years of their driving careers trying to convince each other that their mum’s shopping car is actually ‘fast’, I spend much of my time trying to convince people that the VX is actually practical. Although the boot aperture isn’t overly large, there is a surprising amount of space right down into the rear arches – certainly enough to cope with the demands of a couple of days worth of camping gear. On one such trip, while using the car to ferry logs from the woodshed at the local hotel up to our pitch, I attempted to convince an incredulous onlooker that the car was, in fact, steam powered.
Although the car proved sufficiently cavernous to meet my needs in the majority of circumstances, and also proved a fairly comfortable motorway companion, these are not the primary facets which set the car apart from the crowd. That honour falls to the car’s immense point-to-point pace and incredibly rewarding nature.
As you would expect when you bolt 200 torque-laden horses to Elise fundaments, the drive is little short of sensational. Whether punching out of the middle of third gear for overtakes on fast A-roads, or attempting to tack onto the back of touring and GT cars out testing at Knockhill (my local circuit), the VX provided the kind of adrenaline thrills usually reserved for the supercar category, and poise more akin to an all-out racer. Living in Scotland, I not only have the benefit of Knockhill, and its cut-price track days and evenings, within spitting distance, but also some of the finest stretches of road anywhere in the country. The Duke’s pass through the Trossachs, and the A701 between Edinburgh and Moffat are particular favourites, as is the A68 south of Jedburgh. Along with a group that goes by the name of Scottish Elises, I have had many wonderful evening and weekend drives on these roads which easily equal any of my on-track escapades.
On the subject of track excursions, I have ventured to Bruntingthorpe for the annual VX club track day, to North Weald airfield for Andy Walsh’s “Car Limits” training day, as well as more than half a dozen trips to Knockhill. For those less familiar with Scotland’s national circuit, it’s worth adding that weather extremes come as standard, and at least two of my track days there were in the snow and ice. While not generally amongst the strengths of mid-engined RWD sportscars, the softer sprung rear made the VX a relatively controllable (although I stop short of using the term “friendly”) steed in these conditions, while Elise drivers were very busy getting overly familiar with their lock-stops. As far as running costs go, the VX is pretty kind to me. Despite putting 10k on the clock, and several track days, I only changed the rear tyres once (£118 per corner) and the front brakes once (upgraded for Pagid Black Diamonds). The car has had a single basic service (£160) and I decided to change the brake fluid for 5.1 after being rather overenthusiastic on the Bruntingthorpe day. Economy is very dependant on how one chooses to drive the car – on track single figures are entirely possible, but I did once manage an average of 36mpg on a very wet and windy run from London to Edinburgh. My last insurance renewal was £760 fully comp (I was 26 at the time, with 3 points for speeding).
There have been a few niggles with the car, which included leaking roof seals, dodgy ABS (which I disabled most of the time) and a few annoying squeaks. The Vauxhall dealer network was, in the most part, poor. Incompetence is understandable to a degree from a team of ‘technicians’ more used to dealing with Corsas and Vectras, but rip-off prices for simple tasks like bulb and brake pad replacement (£450 for fitment of £60 OEM pads) were a little more galling (leading me to do those jobs myself) and their reluctance to honour warranty claims bordered on the dishonest.
All in all, I can truly say that the VX220 is the best all-round car I have ever owned.