The Speedster was a rebadged Lotus Elise produced between 2001 and 2005 by Lotus for Opel. It was also available in right-hand drive for the UK market as the Vauxhall VX220. Sharing the Lotus light-weight philosophy and using the astonishing glued extruded aluminum chassis of the Elise, the Speedster is a car that offers Ferrari accelerations, maneuverability and driving pleasure at only a quarter the price.
Different car manufacturers have different philosophies when it comes to designing a supercar. Most of the producers get engaged in an eternal quest for more horsepower, fitting bigger engines with more cylinders and high-octane fuel. Other, try a more sophisticated approach and make use of space-age technology, adding the latest composite materials, intensely wind-tunnel tested aerodynamics or computer optimized suspension components.
For Lotus, ever since Colin Chapman founded the brand, high-performance was reduced to simplicity. The ideal Lotus pure sports car is a lightweight, stripped-down vehicle with minimum components and a modest engine. The Lotus Elise was a vehicle that perfectly fitted that ideal. GM, which was a partner with Lotus at that time, decided to make the most of Elise’s innovative platform and produce a new vehicle on that basis. In 1999 The Opel Speedster was presented as a concept and production started in 2001 at the Lotus factory in the UK.
It’s not hard to tell that the Opel Speedster amd the Lotus Elise have a lot in common, the body shape, overall proportions and sizes clearly indicate that the cars are closely related. The Speedster got a new exterior design that connected it to the Opel family. Although the car shared the same chassis and suspension they were using different engines.
At the beginning of production, the Speedster was powered by GM’s 134 cui 16-valve Ecotec L61 engine that produced 147 bhp. Since 2003, there was also made available a more powerful version equipped with an 122 cui turbocharged engine that produced 200 bhp. This turbo version was able to reach a top speed of 151 mph and accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds.
You may wonder how a car that only outputs 200 bhp does manage to attain such astonishing performance. The secret is in the low weight of the car and the excellent power per weight ratio, as the Opel Speedster Turbo in full trim only reaches 1,980 lbs.
Expensive high-performance cars like the Ferrari Enzo or the the Porsche Carrera GT produce more than 600 bhp, but weight around 3,200 lbs, 50% more than the Speedster.
The Ferrari and the Porsche have indeed a better power per weight ratio, but as they are heavier, they have to confront with stronger inertia forces, that influence the car’s dynamics on the bends. In a straight-line run the Speedster is handicapped by the horsepower lack in terms of top speed. But, we shouldn’t forget that on a race track the sections that allow achieving the top speed are rare, and, when it comes to cornering the Speedster can outperform supercars that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
Production of the Opel Speedster ended in 2005 and unfortunately, there wasn’t any substitute model announced yet. Opel has a new roadster in the 2006 line-up called the GT, but that doesn’t make use of a Lotus chassis nor follows the light-weight approach.
The Opel GT has a front mounted engine, where the Speedster had it middle-rear mounted and uses the Pontiac Solstice platform (read our review on the Opel GT).
You may know the Opel Speedster Turbo as it was featured in the computer driving simulation game from E&A Sports: Need for Speed: HotPursuit 2.
Themain competitor for the Opel Speedster was undoubtedly the organ donor: Lotus Elise. In many ways the cars are identical, but the Lotus sold a lot better than the Opel/Vauxhall pair. This may seem strange as the Speedster Turbo is better equipped (safety accessories such as airbags, ABS, better interior finish), a bit faster and considerably cheaper than the Elise. We can only guess that the brand was the one to make the difference. Everyone knows Lotus as an exotic and traditional sportscars manufacturer with an excellent background in motorsport. On the other hand, Opel/Vauxhall are known for their popular and affordable family sedans. Therefore, in terms of prestige and image, the fight between the Elise and the Speedster was an uneven one. For someone that can look beyond the badge, the Opel Speedster is better value for money.
Body & chassis
The Speedster’s lightweight was achieved through several different methods. The most significant and revolutionary component was the aluminum chassis. Formed of bonded aluminum sheets in tub shape, glued and riveted together as a premiere for the automotive industry, the Lotus designed chassis only weighted 150 lbs. The Speedster’s weight was driven down even more by the use of lightweight carbon fiber on sections of the under-tray.
The general proportions of the Speedster are of a very small car — a two-seat convertible with only a small stowage space for luggage. The short 91.7 inches wheelbase also keeps the car’s profile trim and compact. Finally, Speedster’s weight was kept down by stripping away many of the comfort elements that are considered mandatory in a high-priced car. The interior of the car defines the term “Spartan” as much of the aluminum tub is left exposed, and many of the interior components have large holes drilled through them to cut weight further.
Exterior design is one of avant-garde even now, after production closure. The curvaceous lines of the Elise were replaced by sharp edge-design lines that followed the general tendency of the Opel line-up for the beginning of the new millennium. Very interesting is the forward view between the distinctive angular curves of the front wings.
The Speedster Turbo was differentiated to the base model by a couple of discreet black splitters on the front, a body colored discrete wing on the back, larger air scoops on the flanks and new wheels with forked spokes. The scoops and the spoiler definitely got to enhance the ‘junior supercar’ image. And we already know that image is justified by the Speedster’s presence on the road.
The heart of the Speedster Turbo was the familiar transverse 122 cui 16 valve, turbocharged engine used on that time Astra GSi. In the Speedster Turbo however, the engine was installed just in front of the rear axle. It was built of a cast iron block and had an aluminum head with twin overhead (DOHC) camshafts.
The maximum power for the turbo unit was 200 hp at 5500 rpm, while engine torque was an impressive 185 lbs/ft between 1950 and 5500 rpm. Other differences between it and the normally aspirated 134 cui include the compression ratio (8.8:1 for the Turbo and 10:1 for the NA), and a reduced oil capacity, but increases in cooling capacity and battery power for the Turbo.
The turbo engine, courtesy of Opel Astra uses iron rather than alloy blocks, which along with all the turbo add-ons made the Speedster Turbo weight 120 lbs more than the NA model. Compared to engines of the same type from Mitsubishi Lancer EVO or Subaru Impreza WRX, the Speedster Turbo’s maximum output of 200bhp at 5,500rpm looks a bit tame. But, that is backed up by a literally flat torque curve which is constant from 1950 rpm to 5500 rpm.
The power is transferred to the rear wheels for both models by the same Getrag 5-speed manual gearbox. However, on the Turbo both final drive and fifth gear ratios were raised to make better use of the increased power and torque.
The car can be extremely fast if the gears are made full use of and the engine is reved until that ‘shift up’ light comes on at around 6,300rpm. If an Opel Speedster Turbo is being driven at full not many cars on the road can keep up with it. The 0-60 mph sprint in just 4.7 seconds is Ferrari 360 Modena quick and is a car with twice the power and four times the price.
Specs for 134.1 cui NA
valvetrain DOHC 4 Valves / Cyl
displacement 134.1 cu in
power 145.0 bhp @ 5800 rpm
hp per litre 65.97 bhp per litre
torque 150.0 ft lbs @ 4000 rpm
drive wheels Transverse Mid Engine / RWD
body / frame Fibre Reinforced Plastic over an Alumnium Chassis
Both NA and supercharged Speedsters use the same suspension with minor improvements for the Turbo. The spring and damper rates have been increased at the front and rear by 7% and 11% respectively to improve body control and high speed stability. The upgraded suspension doesn’t completely sacrifice comfort, though the ride is stiffer.
Front suspension Double Wishbones, Coil Over Dampers, Anti-Roll Bar
Rear suspension Double Wishbones, Coil Over Dampers
The same braking system was offered as standard for all Speedsters. It used 11.3 in vented discs all with alloy callipers from AP Racing for front and Brembo for rear). For the Turbo there were as an option drilled discs.
An important difference over the Lotus Elise was that the Opel offered brakes with servo and ABS. They got a sporty calibration though and helped provide powerful and progressive braking.
The rack and pinion steering was as good as the from the Lotus Elise and it is one of the most attractive features of the car. The communication with the front wheels via the Momo steering wheel was considered by many as telepathic.
Tires & wheels
Front wheels / tires 17 x 5.5 in / 175/55ZR-17
rear wheels / tires 17 x 7.5 in / 225/45ZR-17
The interior impresses with the low slung, sit on the floor in a race-car driving position, surrounded by all that exposed aluminum. But is is not only, it is also small. Getting in and out of a Speedster can be a complicated maneuver for anyone over 5 feet tall.
The driver’s seat is slightly adjustable as it can move forward or backward. But, the smaller passenger seat isn’t adjustable at all. The carpeting and the upholstery was kept to a minimum level, only for certain sections of the seats and the floor. The stock Speedster came with air conditioning and a CD player, but nothing more for comfort.
The Speedster Turbo had some minor interior differences to the NA model. Important wsa the instrument panel, the got dials with silver rather than white faces, a speedo going to 160 mph and a tachometer gaining a ‘shift up’ light.
The minimalist interior combined with the direct driving feel the car offers make us see that this is not a car designed for the daily commute. The Road and engine noise can become an annoyance on long drives but, we most not forget why are the reasons for that. The Speedster was not reported as an uncomfortable car, but it just isn’t as comfortable as someone might expect a $40,000 car to be. On the other hand, the car is a lot faster than expected from a vehicle with this price tag.
The Opel Speedster is a little roadster with an extraordinary chassis and a pretty ordinary engine that make it an excellent starting point for tuning. With already astonishing performance due to low weight, this vehicle can get in the hyper-car league if tweaked properly. As the standard design is not very aggressive, we decided to add a little nerve to it. We replaced the front bumper with a new one that incorporates aside the usual mid air intake two lateral grilles that serve for brake cooling. The side intakes that get to feed the engine radiators were also increased in size and got lowered, as were the side skirts. We also added a blue tint to the front lights that gives them more attitude. The paint-work of our choice for this car is three-colored. Two of those tones have to be gray and white, because we don’t want the car to look like a rainbow. The third one can be any color that you like, we recommend a nice blue or red. Because big wheels always look good we set on the Speedster 19” Lambo rims with low profile tires. At least visually, your Opel is now ready to confront F430s or Gallardos.