Opel let us drive the new Speedster as quick and as fast as we were able, then told us we'd have to move to Europe to buy one. Rats!

Cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden by the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, but apparently it is legal when Opel does it in Portugal to Americans. I will explain.


European car was invited, along with a number of other publications, to go to the Albufeira region of southern Portugal, just before the Geneva Show, to drive the spanking new Opel Speedster, a limited-production roadster rumored to be coming to the United States as an addition to the lineup in Pontiac showrooms.

We went, of course, first to sample the behavior and mien of the car itself, and then to find out what, if any, plans Opel and GM had for the importation of Speedsters into the U.S. market. As it turned out, we found out the latter before we had a chance to find out the former.

Opel officials told us during a hot and heavy Q-and-A session that the car will be limited in production to only about 10,000 units over three model years, 2002 through 2004, with production scheduled to run about 3,300 cars per year in a mix of left- and right-hand-drive versions, in both Opel Speedster for export and Vauxhall VX22 livery for the UK only.



But, they said, and this was a big but, with the engineering load so high and the volume so low, there simply was no room in the Opel budget to go through the expensive and time-consuming task of federalizing such a car for the North American market. And even if there were budget money, there was no will in the engineering community, because federalization would have meant lots of additional weight and bulk, two things that the Opel Speedster is not about. So, the coolest Opel ever built is not coming to the U.S. as a Pontiac or as anything else, but we're going to tell you about it anyway.

The Opel Speedster is really a co-design and a co-production with our good friends from Hethel, Group Lotus. And, as soon as we heard that, we started thinking about think-steer response, race-car handling, a highly tuned engine and brakes stout enough for a locomotive, all hallmarks of any car that Lotus has ever had anything to do with. Was this a Lopel or an Opus? Which flavor would carry the day?


We were not disappointed, because it turned out to be a Lotus first and an Opel second. The car looks a little bit like an Elise, but the strong Opel nose design tends to leaven the Lotus look. It's cute and menacing at the same time, with nice proportions, big lamp units and big tires and wheels. In short, everything a two-seat sports car should have, including, unfortunately, a tiny rear trunk good for two briefcases. It takes a few minutes to learn where all the switchgear is and how to dispose of the convertible top segments, but after that the Speedster is easy to live with.

The Speedster is first of all a super-light, minimalist race car for the street, with as few concessions to weight as possible. Its nominal weight, according to Opel, is a mere 945 kg, and that includes 75 kg for an average driver. So what we're talking about here is a two-place car that weighs only about 2,100 lb ready to go out and kick some butt. The chassis is constructed of bonded, extruded aluminum, and the body is made of bonded composite panels with fiberglass reinforcements.

The speedster package is a tidy one, 149 in. long overall, on a 91.7-in. wheelbase, 67.2-in. wide and only 44-in. tall, with a front track of 57 in. and rear track of 58.6 in. It rides on Bridgestone Potenza P175/55R-17 fronts and P225/45R-17 rears--not too tall, not too fat, just right for this application.

The Speedster comes with a transverse-mounted all-alloy Opel 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine with 16 valves, coil-on-plug ignition and EFI that produces 147 bhp at 5800 rpm and 152 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, in the same neighborhood as a Mazda Miata engine, but numbers that might been sneered at were it not for the car's light weight. Opel says 0 to 60 mph comes in just 5.9 sec., with a top go of 130 mph. But it's an engine built for European high-speed running, perfectly capable of making the car do the things we like to do with cars. It has a wonderful growl, lots of guts, and it's mated to a transaxle that really works well in terms of gearing and shifting. And, of course, since it's so close to your ear and your rear, the engine's presence is about double what it would be in a conventional car.

What is most important to know about the Speedster is that the suspension is borrowed from the Lotus Elise, a car so racy that it can only be exported for racing in this country. That means fore and aft double wishbone suspension with coil springs and shocks at the front and a muti-link arrangement at the rear. The braking system consists of four ventilated 288mm discs and standard ABS.

Opel's Speedster is one of those rare cars you put on like a Speedo. You have to put your butt way low to the ground, back it into the car, drop into the seat, and swing your legs in over a side sill that's about a foot wide. It provides tremendous strength to the chassis but takes some climbing skills to conquer. The interior has LOTS of bare aluminum in it, including the central tunnel, proffering even more race-car feel, and there's a lightened footrest on the floor of the passenger side so that your traveling companion can brace himself or herself when the going gets interesting.

So there you are strapped in, heinie only a few inches off the ground, arms out, legs out, shoulders sinking back into the 21st-century minimalist bucket seats, peering through a foreshortened windshield at a jealous world. The slopeaway hood is barely visible from the driver's seat, a healthy B-pillar is behind your head, and the fold-up cloth top segments are folded away behind your seat.

With this car, you can feel and hear the linkage working on every shift, because there is no sound deadening material over the alloy tunnel, adding still more race car feel to the Speedster experience. The engine, though, just behind you, is well muffled, and the exhaust note is rorty and sporty without being intrusive. The power brakes with ABS went largely unchallenged during our drive day with the Speedster, able to haul the lightweight down again and again from insane speeds in the Portuguese mountains.

When you put a lightweight like this with power this good and tires this big on roads like these, the left-seat occupant tends to want to go out there and find the limit, and we tried really hard, but we couldn't find it all day. The Speedster sticks incredibly well, doesn't beat the occupants to death with overly stiff springing or shock absorber valving, and the tail does not wag the dog. The steering is wonderfully direct and nicely weighted, with excellent center feel, and the car maneuvers with the speed and grace of a peregrine.

A most interesting sidebar to the Opel Speedster story is that this rip-roaring, hairy-chested, rubber-melting sports car was done under the leadership of a woman, Dr. Doris Bernhardt. The 38-year-old Bernhard holds a doctorate in high-performance ceramics from the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart. Dr. Bernhardt joined Opel in 1991, testing new materials and processes and directed the project between Opel and Lotus from the International Technical Development Center (ITDC) in Ruesselsheim.

Opel Speedster Specifications
Engine  
Location/type Mid, transverse/dohc, four valves per cylinder, inline four
Bore x stroke 86 x 94.6mm
Displacement 2198cc
Compression ratio 10:1
Power 147 bhp @ 5800
Torque 149 @ 4000
Transmission  
Drive axle Rear-wheel drive
Type Five-speed manual
Gear ratios (1) 2.58; (2) 2.02; (3) 1.35; (4) 0.97; (5) 0.81; (R) 3.31; (FD) 3.95

Chassis
 
Suspension, f/r independent, double wishbone, coil springs, shock absorbers/independent, double wishbone, multi-link, shock absorbers
Brakes, f & r 288mm ventilated discs, ABS
Cd 0.39
L/W/H 3786/1708/1117mm
Wheelbase 2330mm
Track, f/r 1450/1488mm
Turning circle 11.6m
Curb weight 945kg
Performance  
Top speed 217 km/h
Acceleration, 0 to 100 km/h 5.9 sec
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