Victory Vee

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What the Esprit had always lacked, according to many were cylinders. Now that it’s got a few more Mark Hughes finds out if it’s been worth the 20-year wait.

A V8 in a Lotus road car? It’s a concept likely to be viewed either as an anathema to all the high efficiency principles Colin Chapman held dear or the final jewel in the crown of the 20-year old Esprit design, the very thing that it has always needed to take on the Italian supercars on equal terms.

The true significance of the engine could dwarf such academic points of debate, though. Because, if all goes as Lotus hopes, this engine may go down in history as the company’s saviour.

For now though its showcase is the new Esprit V8, a model which replaces both the S4S and Sport 300. In place of the 2.2-litre turbo fours of those cars is the new flat-plane crank, four-cam, 32-valve, twin turbocharged V8 of 3.5 litres. It actually takes up less room in the engine bay than the four and its 40kg weight penalty is more than compensated by the extra power (349bhp instead of 300).

Taller gearing means that it is no quicker than the S4S off the line (60mph coming up in 4.5secs) but it’s noticeably more muscle bound in the gears. Going from 80-100mph in fourth gear will occupy just 3.6secs, a full second faster than the S4S. All-out it will now approach 180mph. These are figures which give it a straightline edge over the sort of machines which have traditionally left the four-cylinder Esprits a little breathless. Neither the Ferrari F355, Porsche 911 or Honda NSX can beat those statistics.

Statistics are one thing though, sound quality something else. The flat-plane crank arrangement means that there is no traditional V8 rumble. This layout has been chosen as it gives better top end power and pulse resonances that are more advantageous in driving the turbos. But it sounds ordinary, like a four-cylinder. Ferrari and TVR (with its AJP engine) have both shown that flat crank V8 engines can still make for an exciting sound, but this one lacks their banshee wail.

But there’s nothing wrong with the way it works. It’s not just the performance, it’s the way it’s so smoothly and undramatically available. Bury your foot and the scenery simply starts whooshing by much quicker. Turbo lag is hardly detectable, but it doesn’t have quite the crisp, immediate response when you blip it as the normally aspirated units of its rivals.

Normally this might prevent you from making perfectly timed heel and toe downchanges, if that’s your thing. But in this case it doesn’t really matter because the gearbox itself is so obstructive. Like before, it’s from the Renault GTA, but the new engine means its linkage has had to be re-routed. It’s slow and stiff and finding reverse can sometimes be a two-handed operation.

But dynamically, that is about the only piece of criticism you could level at the car. The yin to that engine’s yang is a braking system of stupendous power yet delicate feel, with a new ABS system that eradicates completely the S4S’s inconsistent pedal. And through the turns, the chassis is as deliciously full of feedback as ever.

The Esprit remains the mid-engined car which is least likely to bite you near the limit. It has a gorgeously fluid feel into and through the turns, the wide body staying flat, the steering sending back all the messages you need to keep on top of what the car’s doing but filtering out the stuff that needn’t concern you (unlike a 911, for example). At the sort of cornering speeds which would just not be conceivable in a conventional saloon, the initial shallow understeer of the Esprit is convertible to smooth power oversteer with little of the twitchiness found in most midor rear-engined designs. This is one of the all-time great chassis.

Such finesse seems incompatible with the quality of ride, especially so once you’ve noted the extremity of the tyre profiles. Most surface irregularities it can shrug off as well as most luxury cars, though obviously more serious pothole type bumps stretch its limited travel suspension. As you’d expect though, body control over fast contour changes is impeccable; an unexpected mid-corner bump just where the camber falls away? Relax its composure will be barely be tested.

At £58,750 the V8 may be substantially cheaper than the similarly powered F355 but you may still feel a little short-changed when you first sit inside. Never are its 70s origins more apparent, its iffy ergonomics and sharp wedge shapes verging on kit-car, no matter how much leather is used to cover them. The pedal area is too small and rearward visibility still poor. Build quality is much improved nowadays though, no rattles, no bits dropping off and a quality of finish inside and out that allows you to forget completely that this is a plastic bonded car, not a metal one.

The new engine is a superb piece of kit by any objective measure, even though some may be disappointed that it doesn’t sound as good as it goes. Furthermore the addition of four cylinders and 1.3 litres hasn’t upset the fabulous handling balance of the Esprit, always its highlight, and the brakes have now been properly sorted. But both gear change and interior layout are sub-standard, factors that still prevent the car from achieving its full potential 20 years after its introduction. It will probably take the financial security of the company to be assured before such matters are put to rights. And that superb new engine, and future derivatives of it, could well be the key to such security.

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