New cars: Lotus Esprit Turbo SE

A new high

Just eleven years ago, production came to an end of the first Lotus Esprit series, a borderline 2-litre supercar with 104 bhp less than the Esprit reviewed here. Fewer than 1000 had been made.

These Giugiaro-Chapman two-seaters, 150 bhp mid-engined machines which were pushed to exceed 135 honest mph, required some seven seconds for 0-60 mph, and 21 for 0-100 mph. As ever the road tests spoke of new standards set by Lotus in road-adhesion and handling, but there were serious noise flaws in a machine that was introduced at a steep £5844.

Through the usual S1, S2, S3 and limited editions, Lotus gradually reduced objections, enhancing performance dramatically from the 2.2-litre 210 bhp Lotus Essex Esprit Turbo of 1980 onward. A thorough overhaul of style and function in October 1987 enhanced sales considerably. The Hethel-based Group reports sales “in excess of 1500” for the latest Esprits and their turbocharged cousins, which cost £18,980 and £22,200 in 1987.

Now the company breaches both the £40,000 and 160 mph barriers with its latest Esprit Turbo SE. Unlike any previous Lotus, it has been engineered to world emissions standards for sale in any market with a catalytic convertor, and even British owners will have to run lead-free.

Fresh to Europe is a Lotus with fuel-injection, for the Dellorto-carburettored models (which continue at 215 turbo bhp and 172 “atmo” horsepower) now support a sophisticated electronic-injection Turbo Esprit as their 264 bhp flagship. The injection hardware is from an assortment of GM Delco and Rochester divisions. Lotus software microprocessor development was based on the original American Esprit GMP4 injection version of the familiar 16v dohc alloy 2.2-litres.

Whilst the turbocharger remains the water-cooled Garrett TB03 of recent years, Lotus investigated the intake charge required for a more powerful Esprit. It had the constraint of 0.35 co-efficient of which was creeping ever higher under influence of wider wheels and tyres (Ruote OZ size 7J x 15 fronts balanced by 8.5J x 16in rears wearing Goodyear 215 245/50 ZP). Ride height has been increased to allow extra wheel movement and retention of a fine ride quality.

Lotus engineers came up with the compact lower-drag solution of a separate system to serve a Behr intercooler, and production bhp-per-litre benchmark 1989 of 121.5 bhp (for perspective, a Grand Prix Vanwall had 108.4 bhp per on 100/130 octane petrol and 114 bhp per on alcohol). Constant power rating is 264 bhp at 6500 rpm on 12.4 psi boost, torque peaking by 3900 rpm and 261 lb ft.

Lotus reports “transient” horsepower figures in the 280 bhp region” — which means whenever the engine bay can operate under less testing circumstances than a constant 163 mph at 7056 of the now-extended 7400 rpm maximum.

We were allowed only to passenger at speeds around 160 mph on the Millbrook bowl, but a day driving two examples confirmed the credibility of Lotus claims on maximum horsepower. The latest Esprit surges in similar accelerative manner to a 288 hp production racing Sierra I employed last year.

Acceleration claims are startling, Lotus leaping a disappointing 1270kg-plus kerbweight to 60 mph in a claimed 4.7 seconds. Equally staggering is the assertion of 0-100 mph in 11.9 seconds — about the level Motor Sport obtained from a 1971 fifth-wheel test of 5-litre Chevrolet Camaro Z28 racer …

However straight-line speed, impressive though it feels within leather-clad cockpit confines, is hardly the point of any Lotus. For £42,500 customers expect much more, and we are pleased to confirm the company has reached new standards of paint and glass-fibre finish. The gleaming exterior has appeal worthy of showroom comparison amongst prestige marques, and external modifications extend to a deeper front spoiler and the aerofoil-section rear wing to cut lift, balancing this broad (6ft 1.1in) two-seater at speed.

There are still disappointments in the crude manner of door, bonnet and rear engine cover detailing, plus stray switchgear of distinctly downmarket associations, but the overall effect (complete with effective air-conditioning and leather trim) marks a new high point for Lotus.

Comprehensive driving impressions must await a full road test to do justice to the many detail changes. Yet there was never any doubt in our shortish acquaintance that this Esprit handled and rode beautifully — qualities backed by a sting of genuine power which takes the Esprit into middleweight Porsche and Ferrari contention.

More importantly, such memorable speed is delivered with much less engine-bay clamour than before. It is a world-class car, one which whets the appetite for the “new Elan” M100 which will be officially unveiled this autumn.

Can Lotus really make a front-drive Isuzu 16v layout worthy of the Elan name? Motor Sport will keep you posted, but can confirm that the styling is even more promising than sneak photography has yet revealed. JW