Steer crazy

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At press time, uncertainty marked the future ownership of Lotus Cars, Lotus North America Inc and Lotus Engineering. A management buyout from GM ownership is a distinct possibility. This would be the brainchild of current MD Adrian Palmer. This could be good news for the Lotus customer, for the carrot of a cheaper Elan is being dangled as a possible production returnee. On the other hand, it could be disastrous as most customers will adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy before buying from Hethel.

Any such postponement would be a shame, as the revised Esprit S4 is an extremely fine motor car. Lotus Engineering has a profitable clientele and the future of Lotus, in commercial connection with descendants of its famed Olympic racing cycle, needs immediate capitalisation.

The Lotus Esprit has been part of our lives since we went to Hethel in winter 1975. Then, it was a rough motor car around its 160 bhp edges, more a Giugiaro dream than a debugged production item. Today’s S4 remains a recognisable descendant of the original but, like the Porsche 911, a rounded body and replacement powertrain have transformed the feeling at the wheel. This is particularly true of the S4, the first Esprit blessed with power steering.

The galvanised steel chassis was originally revitalised for 1980’s 210 bhp Essex Turbo model, and was subsequently shared with the normally aspirated S3. This was always 50 bhp behind the turbocharged cousins which have since become the sole bearers of the Esprit name.

The S4 maintains Lotus’s tradition of pricing the model squarely in 911 territory; it costs £46,995, to the 3.6-litre Carrera 2 Coupe’s £46378.

Lotus has added GM Saginaw power assistance components to its rack and pinion steering with special emphasis on valving characteristics according to Roger Becker, associate director of vehicle engineering. He adds that the S4 also marks the first big change for the ‘Eagle’ chassis of the late ’80s, best known in its SE application. At that time, dealership feedback suggested that softer characteristics and plenty of understeer were required to complement mainly urban demonstration runs.

The S4 is a considerably harder proposition. Every major front suspension component seems to have been altered. The spring rates are up more than 20 per cent at the front, and three degrees of caster enhance considerably the feedback to your palms. A measure of body dive was encouraged on the previous model, but has been eliminated on the S4 to accompany a marginally lighter anti-roll bar.

There are less complex, though no less radical, changes at the rear, with spring rates upped by 35 per cent. No rear anti-roll bar has ever been specified for the production Esprit, but the Goodyear Eagles have grown an inch (215/40 front, 245/45 rear) in diameter to suit Speedline’s five-spoke alloy wheels.

Output of the 2174 cc, 16-valve fourcylinder is still 264 bhp (with 280 sporadically available on overboost), but the cosmetics of owning an S4 are considerably altered. At last the old Leyland door handles have gone. GM switchgear adds a clickstop precision to the steering column controls and one-key central locking actuates an alarm and immobiliser. Internally, wood trim (apparently too staid in this day and age) has gone in favour of a glossy composite finish, and there is no longer a boost gauge amid the VDO instrumentation.

Impressions of the S4 Esprit are dominated by the power steering. Increased sensitivity heightens driver satisfaction, and improved low-speed manoeuvrability (always difficult, given the car’s outline) is a real boon.

No improvement in aerodynamic drag is claimed (the back wing is now inboard) and weight continues to climb. There is approximately 80 lb more, most of it at the front end, raising kerb weight to 3058 lb. The marque’s late founder would probably have been happier with such a figure on a four-door saloon . . .

The overall driving experience is improved. Thanks to the precision of the reworked Renault five-speed transaxle and the revised suspension, there is less understeer and a general feeling of enhanced handling balance, most noticeable in slower corners. However, the suspension can be faulted for the extra ‘bump-thump’ that permeates the revised cabin, along with minor creaks and rattles. Still, the gains in cornering capability and driving pleasure, along with the improvement in road stability at speed, are worthwhile.

It won’t be too long before we drive our next Esprit, the limited production Sport 300 that will serve as the basis for Chamberlain Engineering’s assault on the 1993 International GT Championship with Group Lotus backing.

We have seen the first production Sport 300. Let us hope that the factory’s renewed interest in racing (Team Lotus, the F1 arm, is a separate entity) marks the dawn of a more prosperous era for Hethel and all who sail with her.

J W