Road Test: Lotus Esprit turbo HC

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Cross-Channel cruiser

It sounded like the recipe for an enjoyable trip, a sprint over to Paris and Reims to photograph the international gathering to celebrate the quarter-century of the Ferrari GTO (see Motor Sport, July 1987). Obviously a fast car would be a good idea, and coincidentally there was a Lotus Esprit Turbo HC due at the same time. Lotus very promptly organised Green Cards and Customs declarations, ferries were booked, and after a Sunday Brands Hatch meeting, the bright red two-seater traversed seemingly endless road-works on its may to Dover.

Ferrari’s Paris agent was the Monday morning rendezvous for this rally of GTO owners, and the Lotus was able to keep up a very high average to reach Paris by midnight, despite slowing for the fixed speed trap on the A1 some miles before the toll-booths north of Paris.

Our hotel being very close to the Ferrari dealer, there was plenty of time to inspect the cars before they left for the short drive to Reims and the remains of the Grand Prix circuit. We diverted briefly into town, discovering that although there is no view over the shoulder, the Esprit can be hustled through the Arc de Triomphe traffic by virtue of its bullet-like performance and precise steering. A stop-start suburban crawl finally led us to the autoroute for Reims, a relatively tight and sinuous road which demonstrated the car’s high-speed abilities.

This was not the first time I have visited the derelict concrete pits and grandstands of what was once a major circuit, but it remains a slightly eerie experience. The massive stands are cracked and peeling, all glass has been knocked out of the four-storey control tower, and the paddock is completely overgrown. Yet this time the pit-lane was alive with cars and people waiting for the highspeed conducted tour that the Ferraris were to make.

Essentially triangular in shape, the Reims circuit is too straight to make any demands on a modern road car at any sensible speed, given that it has reverted to mere public road, so driving round it was no great test of the Lotus’ character. It was on the uneven, roads winding up into the village of Hautvillers, home of Dom Perignon, that its combination of superb handling and an over-hard ride began to show. Pushed hard, the front end wants to run wide, but a little more lock or less throttle immediately brings it to heel, even at high speeds.

Ours was a rapid sprint there and back, no more than 36 hours, but it served to illustrate how much country can be covered in a car of this nature. The return leg direct from Reims to Calais was very rapid indeed, leaving Champagne country, at 5pm, we were back in London by 11 at night. I could not say that we were fresh after this run: this is a hard, noisy car, which sacrifices some comfort for sheer speed. But given the right roads, it can be very exhilarating.

With or without the deep nose and tail spoilers which distinguish the Turbo from the plain Esprit, the chisel shape is one of the most striking on the road today. A beautiful and simple form in itself, the Giugiaro design is now well over a decade old, and undoubtedly looks like a product of the Seventies, albeit one which has lasted well. But we will have to wait another couple of years before a new Esprit arrives.

Underneath that squat and angular GRP shell is a folded steel backbone chassis of very compact layout, cradling the longitudinal engine and transaxle at the rear. A transverse box-section with two coil-spring turrets takes the loads from the unequal length wishbones at the front, while each rear hub is located by an upper and lower transverse link plus a radius arm forwards to where the backbone forks for the engine. There is a disc at each corner, the plain rears being 10.8in and the ventilated fronts slightly smaller at 10.2in. An unassisted rack and pinion controls the front wheels,

The latest tweak to the long-serving inline four gives it a higher compression ratio, filling out the torque curve and cutting acceleration times significantly. Not only does the 215bhp unit now dispose of 220lb of torque at 4200rpm, but even at a coasting 2500rpm something like 190lb ft is available, giving the Turbo HC that relaxed flexibility which its stablemate the Excel SE is so noticeably lacking.

It is becoming rare now to see carburettors on performance cars, and it is an even rarer thing to find a blown engine using multiple carbs, but the canted Lotus block is fed through two twin sidedraught Dellortos pressurised by the turbo at the rear of the block. It feels punchy and powerful, but hardly silky: it rumbles at lower speeds, winding up to a busy roar with the exhaust noise of, say, an RS2000 rather than a sophisticated pedigree. During gearchanges in full-throttle acceleration, the waste-gate chuffs and puffs cheerfully as the by-pass system keeps the turbine spinning for those moments when the throttle is closed.

Naturally there is a big difference between low-rev performance and what happens when the blower is cramming air through the big Dellortos, but unlike many a turbocharged car, the Lotus will pick up immediately the throttle pedal is depressed, surging ahead at a mild but respectable rate until the tach needle is passing the figure 3, when the surge expands to a rush, accompanied by a mild hissing from behind the car. This sort of willing response is available at all revs and in all gears, although the enthusiast will probably be choosing his gearchange points to keep within that exciting stretch between the twin peaks of torque and power — 4200 and 6200rpm. But there is room for manoeuvre — if a tight overtaking place demands both hands on the wheel for a second or two longer, the needle will happily tootle round to 7000 before demanding attention.

A comfortable spherical black knob (showing 1,2,3,4 and OD, oddly enough) controls the gearshift, which has a weighty feel to it; metal rods can be felt clanking back and forth, and the result is not a quick change. Positive, yes, but not fast; for the first 100 miles or so, I found myself double-declutching up as well as down, just to fill in the time. The lever does seem to respond quite well to a bit of force during full-throttle upshifts but overall a relaxed change works best, especially when heaving the lever through the double-bend for fifth. And reverse is quite an effort to engage, needing an awkward lift and shove.

There is not too much room around the pedals, but Lotus has probably made the best use possible of what there is: a sliver of footrest takes the weight off the clutch foot while cruising. A pleasantly-shaped Personal steering wheel is fitted, which points noticeably but not uncomfortably towards the centre-line of the car. Somewhere by the driver’s right ankle is the hand-brake; this is of the type which flops out of the way whether on or off, so as not to obstruct the door opening, but although I would notice it on the way in, that was usually the last contact we had. It really is so far away that I abandoned my principles and just held the car on the foot-brake.

Straightforward BL column stalks control the usual flashers and wipers, and the horn, too, although there was a perfectly good horn-push available in the centre of the wheel. Lights and the heated rear window (yes, there is one, and yes, it is sometimes needed) are operated by slide-switches or the wing-tips of the flying binnacle which perches on the sloping dash and enfolds fuel gauge and voltmeter outside the wheel-rim, with oil pressure, coolant, revs and speed ranged each side of a central boost gauge. All of these are small and indistinctly lit.

Ahead of the gear lever and a little close to it is the radio/cassette, easily reached, though a rapid shift up to third is likely to switch you suddenly from Afternoon Theatre to some dreadful opera on Three. Below this are three rotary knobs for temperature, fan and airflow which are simple to use and produce adequate ventilation. Power windows are of course standard, with the rocker switches on the centre panel, which provides a padded armrest.

Visibility is unimpressive in any direction: rear three-quarter view is negligible over a wide sector, the door mirrors are well out of the normal sight-line, the interior mirror is too small, shudders constantly, and does not dip properly, those slats over the rear window cut out much of the view, and even the windscreen suffers from terrible glare reflected from the pale-coloured dash.

There is a shallow glovebox (containing a fire-extinguisher), but that apart, the only interior storage space of any description whatever is a shallow pocket on the rear bulkhead, which on our Continental foray was immediately crammed to bursting with atlases, Green Card, tickets, passports, wallets, and the other vital paraphernalia of foreign travel. We even resorted to keeping toll money in the ashtrays, things were so tight, and personal items stayed firmly in the boot.

Squeezed into the tail of the vehicle, the irregularly-shaped boot swallowed more cargo than I expected: two soft bags plus a hold-all full of photographic gear went in, and it did not seem to get too hot, despite its proximity to the engine. A single long hatch uncovers luggage and engine, and is released by tugging a lever behind the driver, whereupon it flies up in the air, greatly impressing bystanders. A subsidiary and thickly-insulated cover, secured by a couple of rather cheap metal clips, opens up to give fairly limited access to the engine, whose simple four-pot bulk is livened up with bright red cam-covers and intake manifold.

Handbrake apart, most drivers will find the helm a well-arranged one, with very good support and restraint from the unusually-styled seats which have a limited but valuable adjustment for rake. The wheel is rather high for the race-track recline of the pilot, and can call for a lot of effort when swinging lock-to-lock through mini-roundabouts, but the overall response is superb: lightning twitches of the wheel are followed anplicity by the car’s nose, giving the whole chassis an accuracy and confidence well in tune with the racing history of the company. Bumps and holes can be seen as well as felt, the rim flicking back and forth under the driver’s palms, which is fine on decent roads, but rather wearing on the long stretches of chaussee deformee which constitute much of France’s secondary road system.

Compounding this is the ride: the Esprit certainly handles like a kart, but unfortunately has about as much suspension movement. Spring rates have been stiffened for this year, and the effect is crashy and tiring, only smoothing out at speeds which are out of the question in this country. It seems to have been tuned to cruise at perhaps 120mph, which it certainly will do with ease on the far emptier autoroutes of the Continent, and there is 30mph still to explore, although at these speeds the dash shakes so much that it is difficult to read the instruments. Quite a contrast to the supple and refined deportment of the Lotus Excel, with its lovely power-steering. Now, an Excel with this engine would be a very desirable car.

Stability, however, is excellent, only minimum effort being needed to follow the lane markings, and remains so during firm braking for the toll-booths. The exception is when side-winds blow, when like most mid-engined vehicles, the stubby sportscar starts to nose about. On the subject of wind, there is a great deal of atmospheric and tyre noise at speed.

With 215 horsepower and lots of torque, it is to be expected that this light and low machine will constantly be looking for a way round slower traffic. With its blistering acceleration and precise, adhesive grip, the Esprit cries out for sweeping A-roads, preferably smooth-surfaced, to exploit its impressive abilities. It copes remarkably well in the city too, where the strong engine reduces the number of gearchanges needed, as long as speeds are low enough not to make the driver grimace as he thumps in and out of the appallingly badly repaired trenches now stitching London’s streets together, courtesy of Telecom and the Gas Board.

To improve on its performance would be hard: anything else (except a Caterham Seven) in the five-second bracket costs much more. Seen as a Ferrari or Lamborghini rival, which it is in dynamic and visual terms, the Lotus would seem cheap. But it is way behind these in mechanical refinement and practicality, even by mid-engined standards. At either end of the scale there are more useable mid-engined cars: a Ferrari Testarossa or a Toyota MR2 both enjoy better visibility and more convenient cockpits, though neither is as impressive to look at as the Esprit.

Other ways of spending £26,000 or so on a sports model include the Audi Quattro, Jaguar XJ-S, Porsche 944 or Mercedes 300SL, all offering more creature comforts, but again not in the same league for street presence, which must surely be a strong element in choosing the Lotus’ fat wedge shape. One of the TVRs is perhaps closer in spirit to the Esprit, but unfortunately for the Lotus another rival meets it head on: Renault’s GTA V6 Turbo.

Yes, the French car is slower to 60 mph by some split seconds, but its equally striking supercar styling looks fresh, and encloses four useable seats. It has V6 smoothness, develops just a little less power, has nicer fittings inside, a better ride, and costs £1000 less. Certainly, the Lotus will teach it a thing or two about racetrack handling and ultra-flat cornering, and the British car looks by far the more luxurious when trimmed in leather. But are these, plus the higher status of the Lotus badge, enough to keep customer’s thoughts in the direction of Norfolk instead of Dieppe? GC

Model: Esprit Turbo HC.

Maker: Lotus Cars Ltd. Norwich.

Type: Mid-engined two-seater.

Engine: 2174cc 16-valve dohc four cylinder. Two twin Dellorto carburettors with turbocharger, electronic ignition. Power: 215bhp at 6200rpm. Torque: 220lb: ft at 4200rpm.

Transmission: Rear-wheel drive, fivespeed transaxle. hydraulic clutch.

Suspension: Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. anti-roll bar. Rear: upper and lower transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Steering: Rack and pinion.

Brakes: Discs all round, ventilated at front, vacuum servo.

Wheels and tyres: Front: 7JK alloy rims with 195/60 VR15 tyres. Rear: 8JK alloy rims with 235/60 VR15 tyres.

Performance: 0-60rnph. 5.7sec. Max speed, 152mph.

Economy: 20.3mpg overall.

Price: £25.980 basic. Test car extras: Leather upholstery £1150. Blaupunkt radio/cassette £320. Total: £27,450.

Summary: A sportscar of exceptional dynamic abilities and presence, but low on practicality even by mid-engined standards. Still one of the best turbo installations. but slow gearchange: cheap details, tiring ride.