Wings and roundabouts

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On June 15 1992, Adrian Palmer, managing director of Lotus Cars, announced the demise of the infant Lotus Elan. The bold, front-drive sports car had sold 3857 units in approximately two sales years.

What now?

The Esprit has to soldier on, effectively bearing sole responsibility for the commercial car-making future of GM-owned Lotus (the Ketteringham Hall Grand Prix team is owned by a private consortium).

At first glance, it faces a daunting task. The basic layout dates back to 1975 and 1987’s softening of Giugiaro’s original angular lines was a mere ‘freshen-up’ rather than a fully contemporary preview of the ’90s. Sales volumes subsequently reflected a strong surge in demand for the Esprit, approaching 1000 units in 1988. This had dropped to a steady 700 by 1990, and then the market crashed. In 1991, only 173 new Esprits were sold worldwide.

At the time, the Elan provided some compensation, with over 2000 1991 sales. Today, there is a choice of two Esprits and the obsolete Lotus Excel (front-engined, reardrive descendant of the second Elite) at £27,880. That’s all that remains between Lotus and the absence of road car manufacture.

Given these circumstances, it seemed relevant to put the current ‘big wing’ Esprit SE through our full test procedure. Its performance was a pleasant surprise. For a 2.2-litre four-cylinder to generate 264 bhp is exceptional. It achieved an honest 161 mph, engulfed 0-60 mph in 5.5s and averaged 21 mpg.

As ever, the cornering capabilities were remarkable not just in terms of grip, but also for the pleasure they gave while the Esprit’s ability was being fully exploited. For the remorselessly aggressive, a thoroughly developed ABS system is a welcome addition.

Everything has its price, and Lotus is once again tracking Porsche 911 prices (which start at £48,311). Hethel demands £47,790 for the SE. but does provide air conditioning and a leather interior to complete a very much more convincing Esprit than we had expected.

The signs are that the Esprit still has much to offer. At the recent Motor Show, Lotus revealed a prototype Esprit 300 Sport, a 300 bhp lightweight based on the X180R racer that Motor Sport track tested early in 1992.

UK range

Now much simplified, the 1992 line offers just a ‘basic’ (carburated, non-intercooled) 215 bhp Esprit at £36,030 or the SE, is tested here, with fuel injection, intercooler and 264 bhp. The SE is also accompanied by the showroom appeal of burr elm facia finish, air conditioning and full leather interior.

Prospective Esprit customers should bear in mind the very significant Esprit 300 Sport. This will be one derivative that bridges the gap between the present Esprit and any further upmarket successor. Lotus has yet to sanction production of the 3005, which is some 250 lb lighter than the SE, but public reaction at the NEC should ensure that it brings some cheer to Hethel employees amongst the mothballed Elan lines.

Technical analysis

As the basic configuration of the Esprit has been with us since 1975 (albeit mildly rebodied in 1987 and mechanically revitalised by the launch of the chargecooled SE in May 1989), it is easy to be blasé about the four-cylinder engineering beneath that familiar outline.

Appropriately for something which offers Lotus its only hope of keeping car production at remotely commercial levels, the Esprit does bear Lotus’s true technical heritage. Its mid-mounted engine uses aluminium for its efficient, dohc, 16-valve layout, but the original dry sump lubrication disappeared a decade ago.

The short-stroke 2.2-litre carries Mahle’s 8:1 compression forged alloy pistons that co-operate with an official 0.85 bar maximum boost level from the Garrett TB03 turbocharger. The company allows this boost level to be maintained only for 30s, when 280 bhp is released at the usual 6500 rpm peak. Boost is eased back under maximum continuous power, yielding the aforementioned 264 bhp; torque output is not altered by this higher rpm action, though extra torque is retained beyond 4500 rpm during that halfminute of ‘overboost’. By 6500 rpm there is a bonus of roughly 10 lb/ft over the sustained torque figure.

For road driving purposes, it is more relevant to note that over 230 lb/ft is provided from 2500 to 5750 rpm. This makes it very easy to avoid the engine’s harsher periods when the desire is merely brisk progress.

The motor is highly developed by road car standards, routinely releasing 121.5 bhp per litre (with a transient maximum of 128.8). It is to the credit of Lotus that it releases such figures in catalysed form, and is quite happy to run on a diet of cheaper 95 RON unleaded. There is also the comfort that Lotus powertrain director Hugh Kemp is happy to sign off the 300S at 138 bhp per litre, with only a slight durability modification (the air conditioning front radiator is linked to the chargecooler system).

In racing trim the unit has run for hours at 330 bhp and beyond; this is not the fragile motor of saloon bar legend. If there is an Esprit competition weakness these days, it lies in the transaxle, and that is significantly uprated for outputs beyond 300 bhp, both in the prototype 3005 and the X180R.

The 1992 production Esprit changes are limited to revised exterior panels and an enlarged cockpit. The company quotes 5.5 in additional headroom (yes, really), 1.57 in extra leg space and 3.15 in greater clearance between seat and steering wheel.

In addition to the double pylon rear wing, other 1992 features included new tailgate design and revised front bib (it has a flexible rubber extension). These combine to give lift and drag reductions. The improved aerodynamic handling balance, stability and drag reduction have led to an increase in maximum speed, Lotus claiming 165 mph.

Lotus aerodynamicist Richard Hill revealed that the 1992 body is significantly more efficient than its predecessors. There was a small gain in drag (0.33 drag co-efficient rather than 0.34), but the real benefit lies in “balancing the car up” to cut high-speed understeer and provide a detectable gain in crosswind stability.

Action

We had not fully tested the Esprit SE in chargecooled format, so cannot say if there is an increase in maximum speed resulting from the revised aerodynamics. We can report that the car was exceptionally stable at 160 mph (a record for a production 2.2-litre?) and suitably geared, peaking at 6500 rpm. The Esprit easily exceeded 161 mph on a 440-yard section of the Millbrook bowl, but adverse wind conditions dropped the overall average to a little over 156. Wind noise was controlled up to 140 mph, but distinctly audible thereafter. The only black mark accorded at these speeds concerned the amount of suspension travel left.

It was obvious those extended aerodynamic devices were more than styling tricks, for this Esprit pressed itself upon the banking to such a degree that it would corkscrew slightly over bigger bumps, there being little suspension articulation left to accommodate such inputs. The problem is most unlikely to be apparent to road users, for even in Germany maximum speed runs will (hopefully) be made without the loading effects of the banking we must employ.

The short-stroke 16-valve unit remains vocal, its coarseness intruding by the end of a 400-mile day. Yet the worst excesses of its once drumming ferocity have been deadened.

Utilising just 3400 of the 7400 available revs releases the Esprit from rest with startling speed. The 9.6 in wide Goodyears coating the tarmac lightly with rubber extracts, 30 mph was breached in less than two seconds.

That is the sort of result you would expect from a three-litre 911 Porsche – turbocharged or normally aspirated – or a particularly well sorted 4×4. We were definitely impressed by Esprit efficiency in the traction stakes, though it must be said that you certainly knew from which end the drive was emerging on a wet public road (cue wheelspin).

At the red line, first gear exceeds 40 mph, second is pushing the overall legal motorway limit, third allows 101 and fourth fractionally exceeds 136. As 0-120 mph occupies less than 20s, there is no obvious drop in acceleration rates for public road purposes. Provided you are in the right gear, or there is more than 3100 pm registered on the diminutive VDO dial, satisfying acceleration is yours.

Our standard 50-70 mph acceleration tests tell part of the story: the Esprit SE actually manages to defeat the Renault Alpine A61 (which has the advantage of two more cylinders and an extra 800cc). Even lower down the scale, the four-cylinder turbo can defeat many larger-engined opponents, and that is not the result of a traditional Lotus flyweight at the kerb.

The Esprit SE, complete with air conditioning and all the mod cons that Colin Chapman kept confined to his personal Mercedes, rather than share them with his customers, scales 1.28 tons. Ostensibly that means a power to weight ratio of 206 bhp per ton at the rated horsepower, but if we remember the brief overboost facility and the transient 280 bhp-cum-262 lb/ft of torque you can see that Lotus ingenuity is not dead. The effective power to weight ratio approaches 219 bhp per ton.

On the road this means the Lotus is very, very rarely baulked by traffic. It is the kind of car that provides a taste of motorcycle overtaking capabilities. It’s just that the ‘bike is over six feet wide!

Chassis and braking capabilities were better than I remembered of the 1989 SE, which was itself an astonishing tool. A slim footrest and talkative steering ally with a remarkably good ride. We drove to York and back from the south on a particularly miserable day, but enjoyed every mile. The reduction in grip on slippery surfaces does require your conscious attention, particularly when the turbocharger starts to deliver boost in the 1900-3100 rpm band. However, the consequences are not as serious as they would be in a Porsche 911. The Esprit balances pleasure and safety with commendable conscience.

The ABS braking action is probably the best in the world for coping with high stress situations. It is uncannily effective over mixed grip surfaces and can be used creatively to provide a variety of cornering entry lines. The Lotus-Delco ABS has been proven by some of the most skilled drivers to work on production cars, and such driving development mileage rewards the Esprit customer. That does not mean we think the brakes themselves set any new standards for sheer retardation, although they are much improved in fade resistance since Lotus adopted an outboard layout for the rear discs.

As to the cornering capabilities, dry weather grip is worthy of the Lotus legend and the understeer that characterised previous models has diminished. Lotus engineers reported that some of the racing inspired geometry changes would be making it across to the production car, and this experience provides apparent confirmation… Or it would, were it not for a recent outing at Hethel in a slightly modified Esprit. This had oversize wheels and Goodyear tyres. Special mention was made of the fact that the production understeer had been reduced, provoking the thought that the revised front end geometry had yet to make the low volume production line. An insider admitted as much, but it would not be a proper Lotus without at least one area of fluctuating specification, would it?

If it was not for recent experience of TVR, we would award Lotus absolutely top marks for the leather trim cockpit. However, there were a few ruffles in fits around the tighter corners, especially in the area of the glass roof (a solid panel sun roof is a no-cost option) and A-pillars.

Traditional annoyances persist, such as the total absence of three-quarter or true rearward vision. Other items that could be changed include an offside handbrake that is a long stretch away, a vague gear change (which worked superbly on the test track, baffling us totally) and small diameters for the seven scattered dials.

Compensations included the enticing black leather steering wheel, moulded for some serious twirling, plus a convincing wood dash panel trim, coldly efficient air conditioning and useful pouch attached to the central cubby.

The owner of an earlier Esprit would not recognise the comfortable cabin with its adjustable seat backs and bearable engine noise levels. Unfortunately for Lotus, others have made more progress, and the open Esprit door, exposing a rustic bare hinge, grates when assessing a car approaching a £50,000 list price. Equally irritating are all the dated minor controls and cheap flap door handles, especially if you have experienced what TVR has accomplished on the quality front.

Verdict

Much better than expected, as the ‘big wing’ body had instilled prejudice against this Lotus stalwart in our hearts. After a week of perfect performance, and entirely acceptable fuel consumption (it never returned less than 20 mpg, and averaged just over 21), the Esprit revealed itself as a much improved product. This SE was notably effective at the test track, and offered a surprising ability to fit into a routine life. It is not as practical as a benchmark 91 I , but rated well amongst mid-engined machines for daily docility.

This is a true Lotus, capable of generating enthusiastic driver responses amongst a sea of bland products — clones that hide behind technology for technology’s sake, rather than customer benefit.

Only the Porsche 911 Carrera 2 and Ferrari 348 series have such strong charisma and convincing heritage as the Esprit. The British car is a striking alternative that would be nicer still with a smoother motor and more solid gearchange.

Even though it is 17 years old, this Lotus teenager is heading towards an even more exciting adulthood.

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