Life at Lotus is never dull, and the 1986 change of ownership to the status of a General Motors wholly owned subsidiary has not eliminated the company’s penchant for internal and external brinkmanship. The courageous decision to manufacture a brand new sports car in front drive, rather than trade on nostalgia for the rear drive Elan, seems natural in the wake of warm press applause for the 1990 Elan, but it was the boldest of moves in January 1985. Especially as the project had been born as the rear drive M90 in the now deified days of Colin Chapman . . .
During 1989/90 we were afforded a number of opportunities to visit the Hethel HQ of a company that now employs 1300, some 50% of those devoted to engineering. Sometimes we would drive the stunning 265bhp mid-engined Lotus Esprit charge cooled SE, a test car that certainly felt capable of the claimed 163 mph, but which took several days before we could acclimatise to its poor all round vision and extreme girth. Once these basic handicaps are overcome the Esprit remains one of our favourite driving experiences, but the new Elan and environmental concerns may mark an end to such large supercars.
More frequently a private Honda CRX gave of its 7200rpm best to haul us up to Hethel to see the sometimes intensely argued progress in Elan styling. The latter an aspect of the 1990 Elan that seems to have attracted generally favourable comment, which makes it a particular sorrow that the man responsible for the team effort which yielded Lotus board approval in November 1986, Peter Stevens, has returned to full time consultancy outside Lotus. All is not sweetness and light within those corporate walls, but then progress in the Chapman era was hardly marked by operational niceties.
The essence of Peter Stevens’ design lives on in lines shrunk to a minimum around hardpoints. These included the carefully cooled lsuzu 16v turbo four cylinder, a DOHC motor that was only on the drawing board when Lotus came to a ten year agreement with the fellow GM-owned company in February 1987.
The spirit of the post-Chapman company is exemplified by Lotus Cars Managing Director Michael Kimberley and senior engineering personnel Colin Spooner and Roger Becker, who are credited with accepting the need for front drive. Their wishes were executed by a team of six including John “Grand Prix” Miles and Gerry Booen, whose names now adorn the patented front drive system.
Mike Kimberley summarises this landmark in front drive as follows: “Basically it is a raft principle which enables us to provide very accurate wheel control, and at the same time the compliance needed to reduce road noise, shocks, vibration and harshness as well as assisting in reducing torque steer.”
Lotus engineers also explored a single seater inboard rocker front suspension system on a Toyota production hatchback. They emphasised the importance of fully engineering the rear suspension that is so often virtually ignored on hot hatchbacks, but few multi-nationals would afford the Lotus system, which is based closely on that of the excellent but over looked Excel.
At an initial £19,850 for the 165 bhp SE we drove (£21,250 with options), Lotus reports 4000 orders Worldwide, 1400 of those from Britain. A simple lift off hardtop version is planned to follow in time to meet customer orders this Autumn. The initial signs are that only 5% are taking the 130 bhp option of saving £2000 via the normally aspirated basic Elan. As well as losing 35 bhp, the cheaper car lacks standard power steering of a 1990 Elan SE. UK sales begin in March, USA production cars in September. If you place an order now you will not get your new Elan until Autumn 1991.
Full technical details of the new Elan are appended in our separate specification panel, so now let us look at the point of the car, at the shapely 3-spoke steering wheel. The Elan has received such warm praise in the opening months of 1990 that you will probably yawn when you hear that we also thoroughly enjoyed our sunlit afternoon miles with the Lotus newcomer.
Those unused to steeply raked bonnet lines and screens may find the absence of any visual reference point ahead disconcerting, an impression compounded by the considerable girth: over 6 feet. I had to raise the lamps to see anything of the body, but the Honda I own is similarly sleek so placing the car was not a personal problem. In fact reversing is easier than a conventional saloon, just as it was for all those previous generations of British two seaters. Only when you raise the hood are there any appreciable visibility problems and at £20,000 I would have preferred a double skinned hood, one that also carried some quarter panel panes to assist three quarter rear vision, although it is far from the worst I have experienced. It does not look so good with the black cloth hood up, and a glass pane with heating element might have been more appropriate at this price. The cockpit is snug, too snug, for adults virtually rub shoulders over the central backbone (despite that plump overall width) and a rearward storage compartment got in the way when operating the slickest of five speed gearboxes. The lever is slanted to suit RHD, and the same courtesy will be extended in LHD. The change is marvellous, light and precise in the Japanese manner, but you could miss a clean down-change from third to second because of the cluttered backbone tunnel. A detail flaw rather than a serious fault, and the same applies to the lack of a footrest. An omission I find astonishing for a team of development engineers who were keen enough to go to Snefterton for a 24 hour fun and durability run.
Unlike the £14,250 Mazda MX-5, Lotus have shown scant respect for the virtues of British traditional instrumentation. Instead of the now acknowledged clarity of black and white dials, there were screaming red markings and needles on a black background. At least they are comprehensive, seven dials including a boost gauge that indicated a maximum of 0.5bar/7.1 psi from the compact IHI turbocharger. “Our” silver Elan SE also had leather upholstery, which was comfortably shiny but marred by a garish yellow speed stripe” slashed across its restful grey contours.
Motor away with the hood down, and the quibbles fade. Every control is lightly coordinated to remove the macho male element in sports car driving, which means you are immediately at home. The 1.6 litre Isuzu Lotus proved it would run from 750rpm without juddering under load. The boost gauge registered forced induction in fifth gear from fractionally under 2000rpm and a maximum indicated by 3000 revs; there is an audible flutter from the turbo at 0.25bar. By the time 5000 rpm is indicated in any gear you are really beginning to revel in the fizzing charms of this flexible motor.
The rpm-limiter allowed 7200 rpm of 8000 displayed on a rising graph adjacent to the 170 mph speedometer. At 7000 rpm the Elan indicated 38 mph in first, a useful 65 mph in second (Lotus claim 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds), 110mph in fourth. The claimed fifth gear maximum of 137 mph represents some 6600 rpm, and I would think 135 mph would be readily available with the hood up; the highest indicated speed I saw was “only” 125mph. Yet the point of the 1990 Elan, as with the original, is that it shoots into the 90mph band so much more readily than even the hottest of hatchbacks, more akin to the 200 bhp 4×4 rally homologation vehicles that Lancia and their rivals sell in limited quantities.
This ability to bounce back to astonishing speeds suggests that the chassis qualities, handling, steering and braking, are exceptional, and they are.
Handling, by which I mean the cornering composure and grip available, is unmatched for comfortable speed in my production car experience. The ride is absorbent by any standards and totally without parallel for a vehicle of such short wheelbase. There simply is not another vehicle that flows over the most wicked of British B-roads with such assurance.
Even the “Mother Hen” Esprit, which Lotus test engineers drove behind us all afternoon (to prevent any further investigation of Elan abilities at Snetterton) lost adhesion in sharper and slower corners before the Elan. Sounds like bar room bull? I can only say I saw it with my own eyes, our 205 MXX2 Michelins still gripping in mild understeer lock as the Esprit, on full second gear boost, disdainfully kicked 245/50 rear Goodyears into a magnificent tail slide.
Possibly others will follow the Lotus front drive suspension lead, but in this case let us hope they buy a licence to use the system (perhaps with pressed steel subframes to suit mass production techniques and prices?). The benefits for a 1990s performance hatchback, if Ford, GM or the more enterprising Japanese are listening, could be considerable.
I was happy enough with 1990 Elan steering precision, but this was one element of the car that I felt was power assisted into the world of the mundane, failing to involve the driver in the joy of driving a new Elan. Rim loads were disconcertingly similar throughout the nimble lock (2.9 turns, or 1.1 less than BMW provide in most 3-series) and the rack and pinion also has to relay the message that the frontwheel drive element has little more standing start grip than average.
Anything less than dry tarmac permits spectacular wheel spin under full power. A 4-WD conversion is a possible production prospect, but it is not as easy as many assume. An engineer told me that it would demand: a new section to the rear chassis that brought the “Y” fork forward and lowered structural rigidity; a new differential mounting and even the drilled rear hubs and uprights would need replacing.
The steering of the new Elan tells you, in the most subtle of inputs, that the influence of full boost power over steering has only been cowed, not banished. In other words, even Lotus cannot match the purity of purpose delivered by the steering of a good rear drive car. Most 1990 Elan customers will be delighted, but the appreciable number of old Elan customers will know that the numb delicacy of the 1990 model is not a steering match for the informative entertainment provided by an original Elan.
Finally amongst chassis capabilities, the braking. The quartet of discs kill surplus speed with such an absence of drama that it seems churlish to ask for anti-lock braking. I feel that most customers will not approach the driving skills of the Lotus development team and the wide availability of electronic systems should have been at least optionally offered. I now understand that Lotus engineers are working on such a system with a view to production, information that was not available to me when I drove the car.
Meanwhile the production brakes feature perfectly judged loadings to allow a flattering progression to be obtained in my experience. Some of my colleagues felt there was not sufficient feed back on this front, and some said this lack of involvement extended to the complete car.
Having absorbed the pleasures of motoring behind those steeply raked and solid front screen pillars, we stopped and tried the evening mileage “under the canvas.” I spent a comparatively painless couple of minutes, fumbling with two catches, and forgetting to stow the hood coverage panel, before pulling the hood back fully into place. Lotus have worked extensively on the cosmetics and efficiency of hood operation since last November’s presentation.
Lotus personnel opinions are still bluntly expressed and the engineers and executives we dealt with retained a frankness and originality that is perfectly expressed in the new Elan. But there are still the last minute hiccups, late night car preparation (our demonstrator displayed under 400 miles) troubled testing and production running changes. Will Lotus Cars ever achieve maturity?
On the evidence of the new Elan, and the initial experience of dealers who had run their demonstrators up to some 2000 miles when this was written, I think the Elan will go down as a reliability turning point for Lotus. They are still struggling on this front with the Esprit; “our” first SE broke its gear linkage, just like a sixties Europa-Renault. We had the hood down for 120 miles of 180 covered and the fuel tank accepted a substantial quantity of cheap unleaded after 145 miles. I believe those facts betray how much sheer driving pleasure I gained at the wheel of the 1990 Lotus Elan. A car that puts the final seal of approval on sporting front drive.
I used to read DSJ exhorting tbe pleasures of Lotus ownership as worth a price beyond other material possessions. I found the sixties and seventies Elans and Europas were more than worthy of that fanatical enthusiasm in the glassfibre flesh, and I think the new Elan a worthy successor.
When DSJ was writing those fervent Lotus tests I was 21 with two young children and lucky to have an 850 Mini. Now I use a sports coupes all weather long distance capabilities and an estate for family chores; their total value is about that of a new Elan SE. Hmmm . . . JW