I spent some time looking for resource friendly distros to run in virtual machines to set up a virtual network. I started with several very small live distros designed for running fron a cd/usb stick, but found that they were very difficult to actually get installed & updating to a hard drive. They just weren't designed for that.
I finally settled on Arch Linux, and was very pleased. Installed and configured with XFCE, it had good/very good performance in VirtualBox with 128Mb ram & 32Mb video ram. With the same specs, Gnome gave good performance, and with more ram, performance was excellent. As for the repos, I can't say how up to date they are, but pacman (pkg mgr) is just as easy to use as apt-get.
The only downside I would give Arch is that it is only available for i686 & x86-64, so you would need to port it for other architectures.
Although you asked about Linux, if it meets your needs, you might consider FreeBSD. It has the benefit of having packages available in both binary & source, with a relatively easy build process, so you can fine tune where needed. It requires slightly more effort to keep everything synced, but it might be a viable option.