Road Impressions

The Lotus Eclat Sprint

Sheer exhilaration from remarkable performance and handling

It is not true to say that there is not much fun left in motoring - pick the right roads and the right car and there is but there are very few cars available which are fun to drive all the time. The Lotus Eclat Sprint is one of those cars.

We had not planned a full road test on this car because we thought it too similar to the Elite tested in March 1975. In fact the models are much further apart than we thought: Lotus have gradually made the Elite more sophisticated and luxurious, certainly in its more expensive option forms; the Eclat, particularly in its Sprint form, has been aimed unquestionably at the enthusiast, with performance, braking and handling so brilliant as to offer the competent driver sheer ecstasy. Striking though the Eclat Sprint's design may be - and the road test car gathered admirers wherever it went - this is not a car for boulevard show-offs, for the sheer eagerness and liveliness in the package, the car's true virtues, need exploiting properly to be obvious. It is a car very much in the vein of the old Elan, a real "driver's car", albeit much more sophisticated, comfortable and practical.

The Sprint tag on the Eclat is a £298.35 factory-fitted option available upon the basic 520 and 521 specification Eclats, neither of which has power steering. On the 520 the pack includes the black-and-white Sprint colour scheme and all-black interior, an oil cooler and a twin exhaust system, worth a seven per cent power bonus over the standard single system. The 520's four-speed gearbox and 3.73-to-1 final drive ratio are retained. As the 521 specification already includes a twin exhaust system, the Sprint pack fitted to this model partly makes up the financial difference by including a 4.1 1-to-1 final drive ratio instead of the 3.73-to-1 ratio which normally accompanies the 521's five-speed gearbox. Instead of the ordinary 520 Eclat's steel wheels the 520 Sprint has 5 1/2 J x 13 alloy wheels shod with 185/70 HR Goodyear G800 Grand Prix tyres, while the 521 Sprint has the Elite's and standard 521's wear of 7J x 14 Lotus alloy wheels and fat 205/60VR Dunlop SP Sports Super tyres. If this all seems confusing to the reader it has been made even more confusing to the writer by the fact that the road test car was a five-speed 521 fitted with the 520's smaller wheels and tyres, a specification which is not, at least at this moment, offered for sale. What is clear is that the 520 Sprint pack buyer gets much better value for money, with the extra exhaust and alloy wheels included in his £298.

The idea behind the Sprint is for "a more aggressive option model", denoted by the black and white exterior finish, but the insensitive use of black paint offended most people who examined the car. The broad, black stripe down the bonnet and the side-stripes are a real throwback to the "boy-racer" era, while the black bootlid in the sea of white makes the tail look unnecessarily clumsy. The Sprint name is carried patriotically in a Union Jack decal on the tail.

As the front-engined, rear-wheel drive Elite and Eclat models are identical mechanically and, from the centre roll bar forwards, visually, there is some justification for querying the logic of the dual existence. They even share the same body mould for their bottom halves below the prominent waist-line joint and the essential difference lies in the rear top half. Where the Elite has a hatchback rear treatment, in which the luggage compartment lies beneath an opening rear window and is separated from the passenger compartment by an interior window, the Eclat has a conventional boot in the tail, and a steeply-sloping fixed rear window. Both have four seats, but reduced head room in the rear of the Eclat makes its rear seats less practical, at least for adults. What it loses in head room it gains in boot space and luggage security over the Elite. Lotus seem to regard the Eclat as a 2 plus 2 sports car and the Elite as a four-seater sports saloon, a differentiation which is assisted by a claimed 200 lb. reduction in weight in the Eclat's favour over the equivalent specification Elite. In theory and, as it turns out, in practice, the Eclat is thus a more agile car in performance and handling, spheres in which the Elite is already outstanding.

Much work has gone into Lotus' own twinoverhead camshaft, four-valve-per-cylinder, straight-four, light alloy engine since we tested the Elite in 1975. It is now quoted as delivering 160 b.h.p. at 6,200 r.p.m., and 140 lb. ft. torque at 4,900 r.p.m. as against 155 b.h.p. at 6,600 r.p.m. and r35 lb. ft. at 5,000 r.p.m. All the Europe-destined 95.2 mm. X 62.9 mm., 1973-c.c. Lotus engines now use the "E-cam", the European emission camshaft which gives more lift with less overlap. Two twin-choke Dellorto DHLA 45E carburettors are fitted and the engine's compression ratio is 9.5 to 1. Lotus' own five-speed gearbox gives ratios of: 1st, 3.2 to 1; 2nd, 2.01 to 1 ; 3rd, 1.37 to 1; direct 4th and an overdrive 5th gear ratio of 0.80 to 1. With the larger wheels and tyres, the 4.1 to 1 final drive offers 20.83 m.p.h./1.000 r.p.m. in 5th, against 17.9 m.p.h./1,000 r.p.m. in the direct top gear of the four-speed, 3.73 to 1 final drive, small-wheeled car.

The Eclat shares the Elite's construction of a GFRP body moulded in two halves by Lotus' patent method, mounted upon an undersealed, steel backbone chassis. Independent front suspension is by wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and an anti-roll bar and rear suspension by semi-trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic dampers. It has a front track of 58.5 in., a rear track of 59 in., a wheelbase of 97.75 in., is 14.6 ft. long, 5.95 ft. wide and a mere 3.9 ft. high.

The Eclat owner faces the same facia layout as his Elite counterpart. Clearly defined instruments, spoilt by excessive reflection, include speedometer, tachometer, fuel, water temperature and oil pressure gauges and a voltmeter cowled neatly in front of the driver. The major switching functions are looked after by Triumph-type stalks on the column. All the other switches are grouped in the full-depth centre console which splits the facia. They include the main control for the retractable headlights, switches for the commendably rapid electric door windows, hazard warning, heater fan, rear defroster, for the tiny lights in the neat little cubby holes on either side of the rear passengers and for the main panel lights. Illumination of the centre console panel itself is by an aircraft-type spotlight mounted in the protruding "Ring-of-Steel" roll-over bar in the roof. In the console too are a clock, cigar lighter, radio (standard in the 521), controls for the not notably powerful heater and ventilation vents. The passengers are segregated right from left by the deep backbone chassis.

The front seats are soft and comfortable, though some passengers complained of the fixed head-rest position. The driving position is very low, the scuttle quite high and the drop-away nose hardly visible. Pedals are close together, tiny, perfect for heel-and-toeing and like those of the Lancia Monte-Carlo tested elsewhere in this issue, demand weltless shoes. Although the leather-rimmed steering wheel is non-adjustable, a good driving position seems easily attainable. Rear seat passengers bury themselves in two deep, curved and rather hard bucket seats, angled to bring the head down and the knees up for better space utilisation and separated by the chassis. Headroom is certainly limited, but the cloth-trimmed seats are by no means impossible for adults, while a colleague's two children, the eldest eleven, revelled in their comfort. The rear seats lack the mirror vision-impeding headrests of the Elite, but the Eclat adopts another problem in their place: the base of the rear window is far too high, hampering mirror vision too a certain extent and, more annoyingly, confounding reversing vision.

The road test car's engine seemed eager the moment the key was turned: it fired instantly from cold after four or five pumps of the throttle instead of using the manual choke and never missed a beat thereafter. In fact it was quite the most "in-tune" road engine experienced by this writer for some time, without a hint of flat spots and with superbly smooth throttle response and power delivery. Lancia should learn a few lessons for the Monte-Carlo!

This free-revving engine was coupled to an exquisite five-speed gearbox, with perfect ratios and a narrow-gated gearchange which could be flicked around with the finger tips. The engine-gearbox combination encouraged the playing of tunes on the gearlever to an extent rarely experienced. Maximum revs of 7,000 r.p.m. should offer gear speeds of 36 m.p.h., 60 m.p.h., 85 m.p.h., 116 m.p.h. and 130 m.p.h. on the big Dunlops; the slightly smaller overall diameter of the test car's 70 series, 13 in. Goodyears and a slightly inaccurate tachometer caused us to use maxima of 31 m.p.h., 55 m.p.h., 80 m.p.h. and 112 m.p.h. on the test car, which would not pull maximum r.p.m. in fifth and recorded a more modest 126 m.p.h. In spite of an extra gearchange, we were able to better Lotus' claimed time of 7.9 sec. to 60 m.p.h. with a remarkable 7.4 sec. 0-50 m.p.h. arrived in 5.5 sec. against 6.1 sec., the Lotus times being recorded on the larger Dunlops. Could the engine number DEV 17 on the test car's chassis plate have had something to do with it? Whatever, the performance on the road was absolutely outstanding, instant response and acceleration being available in any situation. The Elite we had in 1975 had the same 4.1 to 1 final drive and five-speed gearbox, but considerably less performance than this very rapid Sprint; it had more weight to carry, a power steering pump to work and the large Dunlops to turn. While these extra burdens on the Elite must have made some difference, the latest "E-cam" engine specification felt to hold the main responsibility for the improvement. In the Elite test we grumbled about the poor low speed torque; this Eclat gave us no such qualms, 4th and 5th usually providing the type of acceleration when needed which would have had us changing to third in the Elite. In fact we used the Eclat gearbox much more than necessary just for the sheer fun of it -and for the exhilaratingly safe overtaking performance such "stirring" provided. At the other end of the scale this 16-valve engine was commendably flexible, capable of pulling fifth at below 20 m.p.h. and showing no signs of rebellion in heavy traffic.

Such engine characteristics and performance are brilliant, especially in a car which weighs over 21 cwt. and packs a mere 2-litres under its bonnet. But when such performance is allied to chassis behaviour of a standard which any manufacturer in the world would be hard pushed to match, the result is excitingly pleasurable. The Eclat Sprint shows that a really good conventionally laid out sports car can be more enjoyable than most mid-engine cars, if only for the fact that mid-engine roadholding is often too good to make the handling interesting. It is an incredibly agile car with racing car-like response that can be Chucked about, driven on the throttle and hurled around corners. Normally one just steers it and the Sprint corners neutrally with tremendous adhesion, even on the narrow Goodyears. Eventually the tail begins to drift, but the steering is so quick and positive that oversteer can be instantly coped with and the Sprint returns to line with perfect smoothness. The manual rack and pinion steering is slightly higher geared at 3.1 turns lock-to-lock than the Elite/Eclat power steering but there is no problem with excessive heaviness, at least on this narrow tyred car.

As always with Lotus cars, the handling characteristics are matched by exceptional brakes which allow the performance and other chassis characteristics to be exploited to the full. Though the test car's pedal felt a bit soft at times and continual heavy braking led to some roughness, the Sprint continued to stop on a proverbial sixpence, the brakes always amazing by their efficency. They are 10.4 in. discs on the front, 9 in. X 2 1/4 in. drums on the rear, providing an efficient handbrake.

Wet roads need more care, for the back end breaks away much more easily. The heroics need to stop in these conditions, although relatively high speeds can be maintained. While generally we felt that the narrow tyres made the Sprint's handling much livelier, more fun, the wider tyres would be of benefit in the event of emergency braking and action, say in mid-corner or over a blind crest.

This Sprint had a harder, choppier ride than the road test Elite, which led us to believe that stiffer spring and/or damper rates must have been used, at least at the rear. Lotus say that there is no difference between the two cars' rates and the harder ride is attributable simply to reduced weight. This is not to say that the ride is uncomfortable -far from it for the Sprint is a most comfortable car.

Stability under all conditions was perfect and wind noise almost non-existent. The high power output engine was extremely well subdued, with none of the mechanical clatter of the early engines. The lower final drive was of no detriment to high speed cruising in 5th, whilst a tremendous aid to acceleration through the gears: ideal gearing, in fact. The GFRP is very effective in cutting out any sort of body resonance and insulating road noise. Overall, this Sprint was at one relaxing and invigorating to drive, while recording 20-21 m.p.g., with extensive use of the gearbox and power. Touring consumption ought to be at least 25 m.p.g. on the 14.75 gallon tank.

In 1975 we called the Elite 503 too expensive at £6,674. Now the 503 costs £10,108, showing how the world has gone mad. The equivalent Eclat models are cheaper, so the 521 option, to which the test car's £298 Sprint package should be added (bearing in mind that a customer car would be supplied with the more valuable big wheels and tyres) costs £8,316. We won't make any comment as to whether it is worth it or not, for on the one hand some of the test car's detail finish was not worthy of the price, yet on the other hand it was a more satisfying car to drive than most other cars at any price. As a comparison, the softness of a Jaguar 4.2C costs £8,182. The solid engineering of the cheapest 911 Porsche, with four-speed gearbox, £9,999, while the Porsche 924, which cannot be compared with the Eclat Sprint in terms of driver satisfaction, starts at £6,999. It would be remiss of us not to mention that Lotus have had quality and reliability problems, particularly as this writer has in front of him a letter from a reader describing his first too days of Eclat ownership as "sheer purgatory" in terms of faults and inadequate rectification. If the outcome of the patience required to overcome such problems is a car as satisfying as the test car, such purgatory would be worthwhile. C.R.