Road test

The Lotus Esprit S2

Fast, fun and frenzied

Since Colin Chapman first put spanner to nut in Hackney there have been few road cars available at any particular period in time to rival the Lotus for sheer exhilaration behind the wheel. The maestro's touch has inbred a unique agility of handling and performance in every road-going chassis. There have been inferior models, like the Renault-engined Europa, though even they have retained much of the Lotus verve, and a reputation for unreliability has pursued the marque even since Chapman moved his products up-market with the introduction of the current Elite. Alas, the road test Esprit S2 lived up to that reputation, the severe weather creating a touch of colic in its electrics. But the traditional Lotus magic has a special ways of smoothing out these petty frustrations. There aren't many cars around like the mid-engined Esprit in which I've arrived at the end of every journey, no matter its length or the prevailing weather and traffic conditions, and thought, "Fantastic! I wouldn't mind doing that all over again."

Regular readers will remember that the Esprit caused Motor Sport bigger frustrations than did those electrical malfunctions: we were quite unable to obtain one for road test, which resulted in a bitter little attack on Lotus in our December issue. Obviously this had the desired effect, for a bright-yellow S2 rolled off its transporter outside Standard House in mid-January. Through no fault of Lotus this coincided with the worst snow and ice of the winter, so that the test had to be extended to give more opportunity for driving the car and taking photographs. Even so, weather and schedules prevented our photographers from getting to grips with the car, so that I had to take most of the photographs myself on the journey back to Hethel. I say this to absolve our photographers from blame if the quality of the exterior colour shots is not up to their usual high standard! The interior photographs were taken by Lotus' own photographer at the factory. I wish to thank the Imperial War Museum for kindly allowing me to photograph the Esprit with the TSR2 and Shackleton, part of their fascinating collection of more than sixty historic aircraft, including Concorde 01, displayed at Duxford Airfield. (Open to the public between March 17th and November 4th, 11am to 5pm., excepting Good Friday and May Day Bank Holiday. Admission charges are a reasonable £1.50 for cars including occupants, or 50p for pedestrians, children 30p).

The Series 1 Esprit made its debut at Earls Court in October 1975 and evaded our hands save for a brief session on the Hethel circuit with D. S. J. and J. W. (Motor Sport, January 1977). Lotus were well versed in mid-engined road car design thanks to experience with the Europa. The strictly two-seater Esprit was a logical means of extending this experience into their new up-market position to give them a crack at the Porsche 911, Maserati Khamsin and Ferrari 308 GTB exotica. It was a matter too of trying to match the handling and performance of the nimble little Europa Twin-cam Special, which has to be one of the fastest production road cars in the world from A to B on a winding road, even today, with the improved refinement of the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive Elite and Eclat. There was no question of thinking, "Where shall we put the engine?” Lotus had their conventional cars. They needed a mid-engined car to complete their market spread and damn the problems of practicality and crash testing. They already had a special motor show design exercise which Guigiaro had built on a Europa chassis. Chapman and Tony Rudd took this as their base and developed it on a new backbone chassis, around the Elite's 907, 16-valve engine and using their patented GFRP body manufacturing technology. By all accounts the resultant Series 1 Esprit was a bit of a disappointment in some of its handling behaviour - it was said to understeer too much - noise level and some design details. The S2, introduced last August, set out to combat the complaints.

Among the more obvious modifications included in the S2 are a new wrap-around, black-painted, aerodynamically more efficient front spoiler in place of the original bib-type, new rear light clusters incorporating rear fog lights and very attractive Lotus 14” diameter alloy wheels, all of which make this eye-catchingly pretty Guigiaro design into a very appealing car indeed. Rim widths have been increased to 7” at the front, 7½" at the rear, shod with 205/60VR and 205/70VR Dunlop SP Supersport tyres respectively. Instrumentation and auxiliary switchgear has been improved, illuminated by fibre optics, and a digital clock fitted in the screen rail. Air inlets added behind the fixed rear quarter lights give a flow of air through the rear luggage compartment/engine hatch and into the engine bay and carburettor intakes. The angle of the window between the driver and the luggage bay has been revised to cut down those mysterious reflections which creep into the driver's peripheral vision in most mid-engined cars; some of these mirage-like effects remain, but they are not too disturbing. A new engine cover has a hinged rear section which allows access to things like the dipstick without removing the whole cover. Engine cooling is improved by a larger front radiator and improved ducting.

At £11,754, the Esprit S2 sits on its own little price pedestal in the specialised sports car market, discounting its conflict with various versions of the Elite and Eclat, which it now outsells. Closest on price down the scale comes the TVR Taimar Turbo at £10,844, but the nearest higher up the price range is the Porsche 911 SC at £14,549. Clearly the Esprit has to sell on the novelty of its wedge-shaped, mid-engine two-seater image, for perforce it offers less value in practicality and refinement than the other Lotus models.

I described the Porsche 928 (Motor Sport January) as a car for the eighties. Aesthetically the Esprit too is well-placed for the next decade, but whereas that expensive Porsche relies for efficiency on complexity and integrity of engineering and a large, multi-cylinder engine, the Esprit's recipe for efficiency on complexity and integrity of engineering and a large, multi-cylinder engine, the Esprit’s recipe for efficiency is one of simplicity, lightness and a small engine. As result there remains a certain feeling of crudeness and lack of refinement redolent of Lotus' kit-car days. This is emphasised by the choice of familiar off-the-shelf components like Marina door handles and steering column switches. But there is nothing "borrowed" about the chassis behaviour and performance, which is pure Lotus, a unique offering which makes the marque so special, its deficiencies so forgivable.

What makes Lotus so unusual in Europe as specialised, small manufacturers is the amount of in-house sourced material which goes into each car, especially in these days when even the larger combines such as Renault, Peugeot, Chrysler and Volvo are pooling resources. The only major components of the Esprit to be sourced outside Hethel are the Citroen SM five-speed gearbox, for which Lotus make their own bell-housing, a few General Motors parts in the front suspension, brakes, clutch, electrical components, carburettors, instruments, springs, dampers, driveshafts, wheels and tyres. The bulk of everything that the Esprit driver sees and feels originated at Hethel. The GFRP body is built in two halves in the Norfolk plant, the paint being instilled in the moulds, and is mated along the waistline. This is mounted upon the traditional Lotus backbone chassis, its location points extended by spaceframe members and steel bulkheads. A new £170,000 Trumpf tape-controlled cutting machine for sheet steel has recently been installed to facilitate chassis manufacture. The 907 engine is made at Hethel, of course, with production now being extended to cater for Chrysler’s exciting Lotus Sunbeam. Since I last visited Hethel the trim shop capabilities have been extended too.

The bared Esprit chassis in the Lotus entrance hall confirms the simplicity. Attached to the front end is unequal length wishbone suspension with coil springs, telescopic shock-absorbers, an anti-roll bar, rack and pinion steering and outboard, 9.7” front disc brakes. A tubular lateral link is attached to the bottom of each rear upright while each fixed-length driveshaft doubles as a top link. A sheet steel, fabricated, diagonal trailing arm runs forward from the bottom of the upright to the chassis. Coil spring/damper units are used as at the front. Disc brakes of 10.6” diameter are mounted inboard. The Citroen gearbox sits behind the engine and the driveshaft line.

The mid-mounted, in-line, slant "four" has a pair of the latest "E" camshafts driven by tooth-belts and operating 16 valves in the aluminium cylinder head. Its 1,973 c.c. (95.2 mm x 69.2 mm) deliver 160 b.h.p at 6,200 r.p.m. and 140 lb. ft. at 4,900 r.p.m. Its crankshaft runs in five main bearings in the aluminium cylinder block, the compression ratio is 9.5:1 and its two Dell’Orto DHLA 45E twin-choke carburettors are still fed by an SU electrical pump, not the Bendix which was anticipated when the SU unit curtailed J. W.’s and D. S. J.’s testing and the S1 at Hethel.

To drive this Esprit is to wear it, just like a racing car. It is a mere 3' 7¾ " high, its screen raked back over the seat line and the sills wide, so accessibility will not be kind to older limbs. The seats are enticingly form-hugging, locking the body in place between the high, upholstered backbone chassis, which bisects the cockpit, and the full-length arm-rests on the doors. The seats in the test car had the optional (£236) Connolly leather trim, my own preference and very neatly trimmed they were too, although the rear panel of the driver's seat came adrift. The driver is confronted by a winged instrument binnacle even more futuristic than that of the 928 though in the Lotus' case both the binnacle and the steering column are non-adjustable. I found the reclined driving position one of the most comfortable and relaxing I can recall - even the head-rest can be used as such, which is rare. The typically tiny and closely positioned pedals preclude the use of clumsy fashion shoes. I couldn't have asked for a better steering wheel position and the wooden-knobbed gearlever atop the high centre console is placed right where the hand falls naturally. Not all prospective customers will be so happy with their lot and taller drivers could be hampered by restricted seat movement, limited by the bulkhead, and lack of rake adjustment for the smoothly contoured seat.

The test car's engine was a very poor starter hot or cold, even after the original defunct starter motor had been replaced with the car immobilised in my driveway. Past experience suggests that the poor starting was not typical and when Lotus PRO Don McLauchlan said, “Try my own Esprit," it started at the first flick of the switch. A grumble from the test car's rear as the engine turned over on the starter showed up unwanted contact as the engine moved on its mountings and sympathetic rattles and resonances set in within the cockpit as the engine warmed up. The choke, a flimsy affair in the leading edge of the centre console panel and flanked by switches for the electric windows, refused to have any effect on the throttles to allow the 1,500 r.p.m.-2,000 r.p.m. warm-up tickover suggested by the handbook.

After a couple of minutes' warm-up the test car's engine ran cleanly, though not so smoothly in tune as the 907 fitted to the Eclat Sprint tested in 1977. It was flexible down to about 1,000 r.p.m., though it didn't really come on song until about 4.500 r.p.m. Maximum revs of 7,000 r.p.m. are permissible at which limit a rotor arm cut out intrudes, but 6,500 r.p.m. is the more normal maximum recommended and not really worth exceeding. One thing for sure, the Esprit does not have the sewing machine sweetness of the Porsche flat-six, the powerful smooth rortiness of the 308 GTB, nor even the lumbering, gruff power spread of the Taimar's Ford V6. Right from turning the key the engine behind one's ear in the Esprit makes itself felt as a harsh, noisy and buzzy four-cylinder unit. This is not for want of sophistication in four-cylinder engine terms, for the same engine behaves in a much more refined manner acoustically and vibrationally in the Eclat and Elite. Yet no criticism can be levelled at the way this Esprit goes. Conditions prevented any performance testing during my tenure, but Lotus’ own figures, which I very much doubt the 5,000-mile-old test car could have matched, give some idea of the potential: 0-30 m.p.h, 2.4 sec; 0-40 3.5 sec; 0-50 5.2 sec; 0-60 6.8 sec; 0-70 9.2 sec; 0-80 11.7 sec.; 0-90 15.1 sec; 0-100 19.4 sec standing quarter mile 15 sec. A 138 m.p.h maximum at 6,300 r.p.m. in fifth is claimed and the test car cruised willingly at an indicated 120 m.p.h.

The gear change is not the joystick delight of that in the Eclat Sprint we tested, but I would hesitate to criticise it, for it is one of the best in any sports car with an engine behind the seats. Though notchy, it is very positive, with short movements through the conventional Alfa-pattern gate. The engagement of the gears, their beautifully stepped ratios, the smooth take up of the light clutch and the unfussed temperament of the engine make this an extraordinarily easy car to drive fluidly. Slow moving traffic in the bad weather of the early days of the test and a predominance of town driving suggested that the Esprit might be overgeared in relation to maximum torque at a fairly high 4,900 r.p.m., yet once conditions improved the overall gearing proved well nigh ideal, the power spread wide, though lacking the effortless thrust of a big multi-cylinder unit. From rest the engine needs good synchronisation between adequate revs and feeding in of the clutch to avoid fluffing or stalling, at least when stopping and starting in slow, town traffic conditions. Fast standing starts need some brutality with clutch and revs to prevent the excellent traction bogging things down. Maximum revs of 7,000 r.p.m. produces useful maximums in the all indirect gears of 40, 60, 88 and 120 m.p.h. Fifth is very much an overdrive, offering 70 m.p.h. at a modest 3,200 r.p.m. and 100 m.p.h. at less than 4,600 r.p.m. This 0.76:1 gear in conjunction with the 4.375:1 final drive doesn't offer a lot in the way of acceleration at legal speeds and even motorway conditions demand frequent changes into the 0.97:1 fourth for swift manoeuvres. Third and fourth offer superb mid-range performance and combine with good throttle response to make the Esprit into one of the fastest, and thus safest, cars on the road in overtaking manoeuvres.

Performance isn't much good without a chassis to handle it and in this the Esprit S2 excels. In my own opinion this Lotus has the best balanced, most forgiving handling of any mid-engined car in current production. The S1 may have understeered over-much, but that criticism cannot be levelled at the S2. On the face of it the sheer width of the car (6' 1 ") might spoil the benefits of superb chassis behaviour, yet this is not so and I found the Esprit to be a car I could "place" with supreme confidence, steeply raked screen and drop-away nose notwithstanding. I'm glad I excluded Lotus from the theory that one of the main priorities for sporting motoring is a narrow motor car, mentioned in last month's test of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1.6. Even heavy London traffic held no qualms because the feel of the Esprit is so precise and positive, although to pass between parked cars in a couple of back streets I had to fold back the twin exterior mirrors which protrude beyond the body line. These mirrors, new to the Esprit S2, are electrically controlled by a joystick and changeover switch on the driver's armrest.

The Esprit's handling - and roadholding - is more than just practical, it is fabulously enjoyable. I'm not the greatest fan of mid-engined cars: most of them hang on to high limits then break away violently without warning and they can't be "chucked about" with the verve of a good conventional car. The Esprit is an exception. It is incredibly responsive and forgiving, feeding real feel through the seat of the pants and accurate steering. The steering jiggles not unlike a Porsche 911, giving very direct feed back. This, and an inherent slight twitchiness in a straight line, which varies little with speed, takes some getting used to and shouldn't be construed as a sign of instability, for this is a highly stable car, even at 130 m.p.h., the maximum I reached. The wide tyres are a little bit susceptible to aquaplaning, but never caused me any real concern. Gentle understeer is the dominant handling characteristic, but the faster the Esprit is pushed, the more this trait is neutralised. I could not have asked for better proof of good handling balance than the Esprit's behaviour on snow and ice, conditions which I hate to tackle with mid-engined cars, except for the Fiat X1/9. Most such cars try to spin like a top once the tail loses grip, or plough straight on. Not so the Esprit, which is quite exceptionally responsive to opposite lock correction and has first-class traction into the bargain. There was only a brief chance to try the test car on dry tarmac, on that run up to Hethel, when its roadholding proved phenomenal, as its excellent grip in wet and slippery conditions had already suggested could be the case. Also not unexpected was superlative braking, the type that hauls a car down from high speed like the switching on of an electro-magnet. There is plenty of feel for modest effort (the clutch pedal is reasonably light, too). Yet good though they were, I've experienced slightly better brakes in feel and ultimate performance on other Lotuses. I suspect that a lot of enforced slow motoring had glazed the pads. There was just a touch of lock-up a couple of times when braking very hard to a halt on greasy surfaces, but nothing to worry about, unlike with the Lancia Beta Monte Carlo.

The ride is a bit fidgety, but the comfortable seats prevent it from being any annoyance. Bad bumps neither deflect the Esprit, nor cause undue disturbance, for this is a softly sprung, but well-damped car, in the usual Lotus manner.

One major fault mars the Esprit's delightful road behaviour: noise, vibration and harshness, the awesome "NVH" of a research and development engineer's work. There is considerable boom and resonance, especially on the over-run, engine noise is frenzied and furious behind one's ear and the inevitable question is: "Why, when Lotus can make the Eclat and Elite so quiet and refined with the same four-cylinder engine, can they, not achieve the same level of NVH control in the Esprit?"

There is too the inherent mid-engine problem of practicality. Save for an unlockable facia glovebox, a map pocket on the rear bulkhead and a tiny bit of space behind the seats if the occupants aren't tall, there is no interior stowage space. There is a reasonable amount of space around the engine, but only if baggage is soft or small. This area can be cloaked by a press-studded fabric cover and is accessible through a tailgate, released by a toggle in the driver's door post and, being handle-less, awkward to both lift and close. Its heated screen continually fused. The front boot, released by a bent wire bar under the facia, is cluttered by the unprotected servo, under-size spare wheel, screen washer bottle and so on: a formed cover would make it much more acceptable as a luggage bay.

Esprit rear vision has been criticised by many writers. I didn't find it unduly bad by mid-engined standards and contrived to park without too many problems.

The air-mixing heating and ventilation system is adequate, but its controls are placed awkwardly behind the steering wheel in the binnacle, the wings of which house slide switches, there clear labels having lighting of variable intensity. Talking of lighting, the four pop-up halogen headlights give a good beam, but offer an inevitable delay for daytime flashing.

The Esprit has its share of problems, especially lack of refinement. I don’t include mid-engined practicality amongst them, because if the layout is unsuitable the customer can always plump for an Eclat or Elite. The question is whether the inadequacies should be present in a car with a near £12,000 price tag. Yet at the end of the day there aren’t many cars around so enjoyable to drive as this latest mid-engined Lotus. I would love to have one in my garage if somebody else’s money bought it. - C. R.