Sibling Rivalry: Lotus Elise 111S VS Opel Speedster Review

By: James Robinson, Unique Cars magazine

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When is a Lotus not a Lotus?

Back in 1999, Lotus was in a bit of strife with their very popular Series 1 Elise as new safety legislation for the European market deemed it unsafe under new crash-safety standards for MY2000 cars. Unfortunately Lotus didn’t really have the spondulicks to develop a new Elise to comply with safety regs.

Around the same time, General Motors had come to Lotus, which it had previously owned, with the idea of commissioning the Hethel firm to build them a sports car to spice up their appeal in the Euro Zone.

A deal was struck between the marques, money was exchanged, and the net result was two cars that looked markedly different on the outside, but were built on the exact same platform underneath.

2002 Opel Speedster

One would be the Series 2 Lotus Elise, the other would be called the Opel Speedster, or in the UK market, the Vauxhall VX220.

While the Series 2 Elise was brought into Australia, we didn’t get the GM offering down under, and although a few have been personally brought into the country, I’ve never seen one in person.

That all changed though when The Healey Factory in Mitcham, Victoria, got in touch with us and said that they had a mint condition 2002 Opel Speedster which had been personally imported from Switzerland.

2002 Opel Speedster

What’s more, The Healey Factory told us that they also had a 2003 Lotus Elise 111 S for sale and said "Why don’t you drive them back-to-back" for an automotive game of spot the difference.

We didn’t need to be offered such a rare opportunity twice, so after organising a date for testing, and commissioning the assistance and expertise of our resident racing driver and multiple Bathurst winner, John Bowe, we picked up the two vehicles from The Healey Factory and went for a drive.

Bowe jumped in the Elise first, and you couldn’t really blame him, what with its excellent green paint scheme and yellow racing stripes, so that left me in the Opel.

2002 Opel Speedster

I should probably start by pointing out some of its differences from its sibling.When it was first released, GM was keen to point out that despite being built alongside the Elise in the same factory in Hethel, the Speedster only shared eight per cent of it’s components with the Lotus, most notably the same aluminum tub shrouded in body panels made of the same type of fiberglass.

The Opel’s 2.2lt, inline four cylinder motor, however, is very different from the Lotus’s Rover K-Series engine and, rather strangely, the Speedster’s power plant is actually quite well known here in Australia, as it’s the same motor that powered the Holden Astra of the same era, and even has the same output figures of 107kW and 203Nm.

The GM motor feels resoundingly unlike that of the Lotus donk. The experience is dominated by the Opel’s extra torque, as power delivery is served up much earlier in the rev-range. As a result, the motor is less eager to be revved out, with peak power delivered at a rather low 5800rpm. It’s still a pleasant motor, and being naturally aspirated, throttle response is exceptional, but it lacks a bit of theatre.

2002 Opel Speedster

In saying that though, it is damn quick, mostly because it only weighs about as much as four Biggest Loser contestants (850kg). We weren’t going to performance test the two cars, but Opel claimed a 0-100km/h time of 5.9 seconds, which is fast, even by today’s standards.

In addition, I’ve got to admit that I much preferred the gearbox in the Opel, as the ‘F23’ five-speed box, built by Getrag, felt much more positive to row through the gears.

Another difference you notice to that of the green car is that the Opel has servoed brakes and ABS. This may not sound like a big change but boy does it make a difference.The Opel feels much more reassured in it’s efforts to stop you from hurtling into any stationary objects in front of you.

2002 Opel Speedster

The ride in the silver Speedster is also much more civilised, and instead of smashing the bitumen beneath you into submission like the Lotus does, the Opel gives the impression of almost gliding across the top of the road surface. It still provides great feedback through the composite backed seat, but it’s just more cosseting and comfortable.

I enjoyed my time in the Opel, but when Bowe pulled up ahead of me for a car swap, I have to say that the aesthetically appealing Lotus did seem exciting before I’d even jumped in the drivers seat.

The minute you get into it and pull away however, you realise it is a much more raw and visceral mode of transportation.

2002 Opel Speedster

The motor, a Rover K-Series 1.8lt inline four-cylinder, feels much happier the more you rev it out, and it does feel noticeably punchier, which it should be as peak power sits at 116kW at 7000rpm. Torque is down on the Opel (175Nm), but you don’t really care because it’s much more fun getting up it.

The overall speed that the Lotus can gather up does out-do the Opel, and it is quicker, but you’d expect that because it weighs 44 kilograms less, tipping the scales at just 806kg.

However, while the engine was more enjoyable, the Toyota derived ‘C56’ five-speed manual found in the Elise was not. The throw was nice and short, but it felt quite clunky and dare I say it, a bit agricultural, and it needed a bit of manhandling to get the best out of it. Some people will enjoy the fact you need to be heavy-handed with it, and in isolation I think it’d be fine.

2002 Opel Speedster

And the ride, God it’s crashy, which really surprised me because Lotus are meant to be the last word in chassis tuning. Compared to the Opel, driving across anything other that super smooth tarmac felt vaguely like falling down a flight of stairs. Once again though, I suspect some will like the more raucous experience.

The Elise’s brakes have no servo and no ABS and, while I got used to it, it is off-putting the first time you use the middle pedal, as it genuinely gives you the impression that that it’s just there for ornamentation when you try and stand on it. Yes I know it’s the more pure way to go, but I’d take the superbly judged servo brakes of the Opel any day.

All in all, both the cars were amazing fun to drive, so much so in fact that I think they recalibrated what my brain thinks a sports car should be, and jumping back in my everyday car after driving both gave me the same sensation of jumping back in a road car after a day of go-karting, they really are that different from the norm.

2002 Opel Speedster

I’m not really meant to pick a winner here as it wasn’t an out-and-out comparison, but if it were my money, unlike JB I’d pick the Opel every day of the week.

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