Road Test: Lotus Esprit turbo

Breaking the rules

Improve on one of the most perfect shapes from one of the greatest automotive designers; that was the scale of the challenge Lotus faced in producing a new Esprit. For a decade and a half, Giugiaro’s razor-edged faceted wedge has remained largely unaltered, its impact lying in its proportions rather then its detailing. Broad and flat, as low as a Countach but costing a third of the price, the agile Lotus has always been the supercar which broke the rules: an Italian-styled mid-engined exotic no dearer than a luxury saloon; a glorious racing pedigree clothed in a glass-fibre body; a 150 mph projectile with a mere four cylinders.

But those things alone could not slow the passing of time: for several years the angular Lotus has looked increasingly dated compared to its peers; no less handsome, but quite plainly a product of an earlier generation of design. And it had its flaws: the assembly quality was erratic, there was barely any luggage space, no-one of more than medium height was likely to fit into it, and it was noisy at speed.

The Turbo’s dynamic abilities, on the other hand, have scarcely been equalled this side of the impossibly expensive Porsche 959, so improvements in that area were to some degree redundant. Benefiting from the separate steel backbone chassis which cradles the engine and transmission in a rear-facing fork, the Hethel team had a realistic option not easily available to mass-producers: it could consider a major re-skinning of the basic structure.

Thus the new Esprit has identical running gear (double wishbones in front, transverse links and trailing arms behind), but boasts a fresh, softened look. Door-frames and glass are the only externally recognisable parts, and in fact the only discordant element of the new shape is a hang-over from this: that hard-edged knuckle on the front of the quarter. light. Even the windscreen is now curved, to avoid the hollow look of the old flat and to help airflow around the A-pillars. This also puts a little more headroom into the roof.

Every other line has been subtly changed: the waistline tilts up just a fraction, the front wing now has a gentle downward curve, and the ugly air-inlet “ear” behind the door has gone. Instead, the rear side window now curves inwards to trap air, which works well, looks better, and, more significantly, allows more air to flow over the quarters to the smooth horizontal lip on the tail. That is why the new car has no need of the previous tall spoiler. Another consequence of this is that the kick-up on the trailing edge of the roof has been dropped, since its purpose was in fact to kill some of the effect of the big spoiler, after testing showed a front-rear unbalance.

A little extra internal length was gained by using the toe-board from the American-specification car, already, a little more roomy, and the rear bulkhead was squeezed back a fraction. The extra space gained is not great, but it is a help.

Most observers are agreed that the result is a tribute to Hethel’s in-house design team, which now numbers four designers and four design engineers under the leadership of Peter Stevens. Like the technical sections at Lotus, the design studio undertakes outside consultancy work, and the new Esprit must be an excellent advertisement for its abilities. Giugiaro’s reaction to the car? A hug for Stevens at the unveiling.

This project had to fit into a complex schedule of development on other models: Etna, the super-supercar shown at Birmingham in 1984, though still a live project which aims to steal the Countach’s thunder, has been taking a back seat lately to the new baby Elan-type sports-car, which we will finally see in 1989. Squeezed between these and some revisions to the Excel, shown at last month’s Motor Show, the Esprit job took only 15 months.

Apart from the restyling, there have been other changes, changes in the way the car is built. The details have changed little; a cursory glance might easily miss the telltale tightening of standards. Yet the rough edges are harder to find; the trim is less self-conscious. In sum, the Lotus exudes a maturity of execution which, if overdue, is all the more welcome.

It starts with the bold new shape and follows through the careful fit of the panels to the comfortable blend of soft leather and woven fabric inside. As the quality of Lotus’ own input improves, the parts borrowed from larger manufactures such as door handles and switches are less obvious than before, helped also by being sourced from higher-quality machinery.

What results is a vehicle of all-round poise, its external finish mirrored in the cabin, where the previous winged instrument pod has been softened to a more subtle housing sitting more happily on the angled fascia. That sloping top remains the striking element within the interior, but has practical drawbacks: it cramps the glovebox into being an inadequate wedge-shaped slot, and it means that the fresh air vents are too low to offer any real ventilation. Nor is there any other storage save a little pouch in the centre of the rear bulkhead, the same irritation as before. Even a road atlas has to be cradled by the passenger for the entire journey.

Electric door locks have been added to the specification for 1989, to round outs rather average range of standard equipment. Options available include the usual air conditioning (£1260), full leather interior (£720 for the Turbo), sports sills (£220 to paint them grey) and, recommended at £370, that lift-out glass roof-panel.

Ergonomically the Esprit remains a mixture of good and bad; it rates highly for the seat-wheel-gear lever positioning, and the distance to the pedals, but there is barely space around the pedals to wear size nine outdoor shoes without catching the throttle while braking, and the handbrake lever remains unreasonably far away. The extra cockpit length allows more rake adjustment for the seat-back, and the new removable glass roof-panel gives extra headroom as well as dispelling the claustrophobic effect of the low roof, but the seats do not offer as much grip as they promise. Luckily the belts are very well positioned, and help to restrain the body in the more exciting manoevres, but access to the car is still restricted by the miserable angle to which the doors open.

The handsome leather wheel lets the hands rest comfortably on it without obscuring the dials, which are grouped with the urgent ones framed by the wheel-rim. The less vital ones are set into the wings of the binnacle, as are push-button switches for all lighting, and the whole assembly no longer vibrates like a tumble-dryer at 110mph.

Over-the-shoulder views are still difficult, though helped to some degree by the angling of the small rear side-windows. However, despite the extraordinarily low height of the car and the consequent reclining driving position, there is a good view around the new slimmer screen pillars and in the softly rounded door mirrors, electrically-heated for the new model-year.

Things are not so good in the interior mirror, which is badly affected by reflections from the engine-cover in the “glassback”, a toughened glass sheet which closes off three-quarters of the trough between the C-pillar buttresses. This feature is also the only way to tell the rear view of the Turbo from that of the plain Esprit, which lacks the small aerodynamic benefit it induces.

Previously, Turbo cars boasted much more obvious nose and tail spoilers and wider wheels and tyres than their unblown brethren; now, in part due to the lack of time during the redesign, and partly for simpler assembly, the Turbo stands out only through the glassback, inset spotlamps (which improve the drag figures), and body-coloured door-mirrors. This may help to boost the image of the unblown £26,500 “starter model”, still an exceedingly rapid car but overshadowed by the £31,900 flyer.

In the boot, too, there has been an improvement: pull the lever set into the rear bulkhead and the long rear cover swishes up to the whistle of gas struts. Underneath, the luggage well has grown both deeper and longer. It is still an irregular shape, but now it will actually swallow a medium suitcase, which genuine boosts the low car’s useability.

Behind the luggage, the same cheap clips as before hold down the insulated engine-cover, which gives minimal access to the 16-valve all-alloy twin-cam. Time, and supercar rivals, have marched on since this relatively simple system was “state of the art”; no intercooler, no electronic anti-knock device, no fuel injection. Instead, a simple cast-iron manifold snakes up from the turbo snuggling against the rear of the block to feed the two twin-choke Dellorto carburettors, pressure sealed to allow them to cope with the boost.

Garret’s small T3 turbo with its watercooled bearings is now standard, dispensing with the need to let the engine idle briefly before killing the ignition, but the engine’s output is unchanged. Wind the needle round the VDO dial to 6000rpm, and the power surges up to 215bhp, but feather the throttle and there is still nearly 100 horse power at the 3000 mark. The rest is waiting in the wings, surging into action with the mildest pause when the driver chooses to get up and go.

Even without black boxes to trim the spark the Esprit’s engine boasts enviable flexibility, from the slightly coarse rumble when it is relaxed to the taut whine which says it is hard at work; such is the advantage of forced induction, for don’t forget that this small motor, (both physically and in capacity) operates at a fraction under the once-magical 100bhp/litre figure, without any of the low-speed weaknesses which were once inevitable. Only starting needs care: turbos can be reluctant to start when hot, while for winter mornings there is a now-rare manual choke to remember.

Fuel-thirst is acceptable, even a little better than other cars with this sort of power, averaging about 22-23mpg over a mixed week of London crawling, long motorway hauls, and fast A and B-roads through Lincolnshire.

Lotus has thoughtfully given the Turbo larger tanks carrying almost three gallons more fuel than the normally-aspirated Esprit, which offers 172bhp from an engine which is in most respects identical to the blown one. Because of the backbone design of the chassis, the petrol is contained in two tanks, one behind each seat, and each with its own filler. These tanks are inter-connected, but are an easy to choke and slow to fill that the only way to cram the maximum of 17.3 gallons in is to use both fillers alternately. For 1989, the filler-flaps are electrically operated.

Suspension settings on the new car remain as before, but where before the car felt harsh and chattery at anything like a suburban pace, now those shudderings have disappeared, thanks to greatly increased body rigidity. This, plus reduced noise from aerodynamic sources, makes the car feel very much smoother and more solid, as taut as before over the fast and hard stuff where it really flies, but a more acceptable place to be when the tarmac is suffering from neglect.

This relatively small change makes an astonishing amount of difference to the pleasures of Esprit piloting. The peaks of unbreakable adhesion and seat-squashing acceleration, of delicate directional control and quick hard gearchanges, stand out from a plateau of general competence instead of being linked by terrible troughs of jarring discomfort.

It is by no means an effortless drive: the unassisted steering is no light weight at 80mph, and becomes hard going at 10mph, but that is a fair price for its accuracy and response. The clutch action is sudden rather than heavy, but the hearty low-rev torque makes it easy to live with, and the action of the trans-axle, sourced from one of the Esprit’s rivals, the Renault GTA, is of an equally solid and strong nature, and fast to boot.

When last we tested an Esprit, I rated it a clear second to Renault’s rear-engine GTA, That lead has been closed, and while there is nothing Lotus can do about the Renault’s two extra seats (except sell you an Excel), the British company has effectively dealt with the most serious weaknesses in its top-priced car, in a very cost-effective manner. GC