S4 Sensational

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The S4S is the first new Esprit since the racy sport 300, from which it has borrowed some soul. Ryan Baptiste wonders whether this is the best incarnation yet?

Whilst filling in the accident report form, I went over the incident time after time. Each vision made me angrier, to the point when I just had to get up and leave it for a while. It wasn’t the incident which gave rise to such rage – some twit had decided to execute a U-turn across me at a set of traffic lights resulting in little damage, although the angle at which he hit me suggested, he was well on the way to doing a figure of eight – no, it was the aggressive attitude of the witness, a London cab driver who vented his feelings about fast cars and people like me. I’ll spare you the colourful language, but the moral cast indelibly in my mind is that one of the seven deadly sins, envy, is just too abundant.

The offensive (to the cabby) car in question is the first Lotus we’ve tested in quite a while. The S4S is the last turbo version before the advent of the normally aspirated V8. For the moment it bridges the gap between the 264bhp S4 and the Sport 300 which is basically a road-legal racer with, yes, 300bhp on tap, arid which was featured in MOTOR SPORT back in 1993.

Since then, the marque has come along in leaps and bounds over a period in which the Grand Prix fraternity has suffered the demise of the once great Team Lotus. The Elan and the Esprit remain the only production cars, which, thankfully, GM continues to hone, though the exciting new Elise is about to arrive.

Though getting rather long in the tooth, the Esprit still looks fresh to our eyes, partly due to its rarity, and partly to Peter Steven’s timeless re-working of Giugiaro’s original sharp-edged form. However, the adoption of a heavy-looking rear wing and wheel arches on the S4S diminish the little elegance the car once had.

However, in this case you pay £52,995 smackers for sheer brutality, not elegance, and if the S4 is a little tame for you then this might well be your beast. Lotus claims it will drive like a 300 and ride like an S4 presumably to please those partners who could probably cope with hours pummelling round the ‘Ring, but can’t hack a bone-shaking ride down the Kings Road.

No increase from the standard car’s 2.2 litres has been necessary to find the S4S’s extra power; indeed neither was it the case with the Sport 300.

Improved gas flow dynamics and enlarged inlet ports and valves are the main cylinder head modifications. A hybrid Garrett AiResearch T3/60 turbocharger and altered management programme endow the engine with even more torque over a wider spread. Of the 290lb ft maximum, 80% is ready to be unleashed by your right foot anywhere between 2500 and 6500rpm.

Elsewhere, the powertrain remains almost unchanged from the standard S4. The 16 valves are housed within twin red crackle-finished camshaft covers beneath a louvred engine lid, and coupled with the same five-speed transaxle which Renault used for its now sadly discontinued Alpine (A610). Positioned longitudinally and amidships, racing car style for optimum handling and traction, the little unit will propel the S4S to 60mph in under five seconds, and on to a respectable 160 or so, thus planting it firmly within the junior supercar division and making it the fastest British sports car bar three — the £177,000, 550bhp Aston Martin Vantage, TVR’s wonderful Griffith, and of course its own big brother, the Sport 300.

Esprits have always gone round corners well some versions better than others and although tweaked to complement the larger, stunning OZ Racing wheels and Michelin tyres; the suspension components of the S4S remain the same as the standard item – independent, with upper and lower wishbones and coil springs up front, and upper and lower transverse links plus radius arms at the rear.

Big ventilated discs and calipers are now by Brembo for when you need to stop in a real hurry and in style. The cost of all these improvements over the standard S4? Some £4000, which still makes the S4S a bargain when compared with the 300 Sport’s £64,995, for frankly appreciably little performance difference.

One Esprit factor Lotus cannot improve on without introducing a completely new model is the cockpit space. Gerhard Berger would probably complain — our 6ft 4in photographer certainly did.

For my modest 5ft 8in frame there was enough room, just, except for my disproportionately large size 8 1/2 feet. The offset pedal arrangement required some ballet movements on occasions even when not resorting to heeling and toeing, and the complete lack of seat/steering wheel adjustment left me relieved that I am among the favoured few who actually fit. Many drivers would suffer at the wheel of an Esprit some before they left the driveway.

As for age, it is inside where the Esprit gives the game away. The huge instrument binnacle with small dials remains virtually unchanged alongside the angular expanse of leather — mercifully no longer rushed but how did the burred walnut get in here? What is this British obsession with wood? It may be at home in a sedan a Jaguar or Bentley maybe but in a supposedly high-tech ’90s sports car?

However, it doesn’t take long to forget the timber treatment. There’s plenty more to keep you occupied as you almost lie behind the wheel, once you’ve worked out the most efficient strategy for climbing in. Prime the fuel pump old habits soon come back when you sit in a car like this turn the ignition key and listen to the wavering purr. Not very inspiring, but quite purposeful. Blip the throttle and you feel that it’s not the world’s most responsive engine. Only a fraction of a second delay between the prod of the toe and the bark is enough to separate the best of the rest.

Dip the not unduly heavy clutch and shove the lever into first. The close ratio Renault box lacks the gate and positive action associated with a real supercar nor is it quick, as is that of the Honda NSX, for example. But we’re almost splitting hairs here. It’s not that the ‘box is bad or particularly baulky, but when you’re in this league, the standards are uncompromisingly high.

Lean forward to release the sill-mounted handbrake, carefully maintaining revs to avoid judder as you release the clutch too, and the cammy four hesitates through a flat spot before pulling cleanly away. Of course, the engine needs warming before any ‘action can take place, but even a crawl in the S4S snaps you out of the blasé attitude gained by driving characterless buzz-boxes day in, day out. Its wide, flat proportions and restricted rear views demand a higher level of awareness just to stay out of trouble.

With this much rubber on the road it’s a relief to have power steering, though the fat tyres and the hydraulics negate much of the feedback. Lotus treads a dangerously fine line in making the S4S almost a halfway house. The S4S may have a suspension set-up closer to the standard car than the racer. but it wears the fatter, less compromising rubber, and even at slow speeds on relatively smooth roads the suspension and tyres rumble and thump. On the ridged and pot hole-ridden surfaces of our wondrous roads, you have to love this kind of car already or you’ll come to hate the experience very quickly. Cabin decibels would get Pink Floyd walking off stage, while the massive glass sunroof on our test example promoted vibrations and rattles — evidence of reduced torsional body rigidity? Stop-start traffic is a minor torture and with vision severely restricted by the thick A pillars and the massive rear wing, parking is a bit of a nightmare. In town it is rare to get out of second gear, and never is the boost required.

Once away from the severe restraints imposed by town driving, the Lotus’s real soul emerges with the first real squeeze of the throttle — it shoves you deep into your seat to a crescendo of a thousand angry sewing machines, and the expletives of any unprepared passengers. Make no mistake, this Lotus is in the head-spinning league that turbo-assisted sub-five second shove to 60mph thrills the senses like little else. Turbo lag hasn’t been eliminated, but the boost kicks in from 3000rpm and simply never relents.

It is instantly and completely addictive once sampled there’s no going back. One hundred miles per hour is despatched in around 11 seconds. On the road, this sort of performance is really nothing short of breathtaking, particularly in second and third gear situations — it is difficult not to spew out a plethora of cliches to describe the S4S’s majestic effortlessness when overtaking a line of half a dozen cars in complete safety.

At speed the controls seem to lose their ponderous and stubborn nature and appear more willing to work for you. The weather conditions for much of the test were foul, which only served to heighten our respect for the engineers at Lotus. In really greasy conditions or snow the S4S will snake gently and with forgiveness, and thankfully the rather dead power steering wakes up at reasonably high velocities and transmits clearer signals to the fingertips. In more usual wet (even streaming wet) conditions, both traction and grip are simply abnormal. A car with 285bhp has no right to be accelerated, full bore, in the wet with nothing more than minor tramping getting off the line. To really unstick the rear wheels requires Quentin Tarantino levels of violence. That’s not to say you’re just a passenger far from it there are only a handful of current production cars offering this level of involvement. At speed, communication through the high-geared steering is good if not the world’s best, but it doesn’t writhe in the hands like a good old Porsche 911. However. the S4S turns in wonderfully well and deals with anything without understeer, apart from the tightest hairpins. Being rather wide and having little weight over those fat front Michelins would hamper it in Devon lanes, but show it some medium or fast sweepers and the number of genuine competitors shrivels. A TVR Griffith is quicker in a straight line (in the dry), but its driver would be on tip-toes trying to keep your Esprit in sight over the curvier stuff.

Over a dense sequence of undulations or ripples the going gets a bit skittery; otherwise; you turn-in with precision, the chassis understeers little and rolls even less, and you power through earlier than with almost any car I’ve ever driven. Don’t get the impression that the S4S is all grip and cornering on-rails stuff. Magnificent, and more to the point, safe fun can be had in bucket loads as you play with the throttle on exit. The acute angles from which the chassis can be effortlessly retrieved under a full bloodied powerslide bring serious thoughts of taking up racing again. How the S4S flatters again and again. You can balance it on the throttle, particularly in the wet, and just play with it. On the combined test photo-shoot the photographer said it all. “Why do you need four-wheel drive when you can have grip like this in the wet?” In extreme conditions the Lotus does understeer, before betraying its mid-engine characteristics — and its low polar-moment of inertia means that when it goes, it’s gone in a flash. Respect is necessary. Naturally, the engine needs to be kept on boost for maximum progress but this is no detriment to the sheer delight of driving the S4S hard.

For every pleasure there must be some sacrifice and the S4S doesn’t escape this law. Braking from any speed in the dry is powerful and confidence-inspiring, once the pedal has been pushed through a ‘dead zone’ and you feel your right calf being pumped-up, but there is little alternative with this chassis configuration. If the brake pedal were much sharper, the risk of putting the front ABS through uncontrollable spasms would certainly be magnified. It’s the nearest thing to a weakness in the S4S: braking heavily in adverse conditions means treading carefully. Pleasures of long-distance driving will also be outweighed by short to medium sprints. The Lotus can be very tiring to drive unless you are autobahn cruising, which gets very boring in anything no matter how rapid, particularly when high wind noise levels intrude as they do here. There’s also precious little luggage space for you and your partner in the small boot behind the engine, and with the exception of the glove compartment and a couple of slender pockets behind the seats, forget keeping anything in the cabin. Take one cassette which you like a lot. And a cautionary sartorial note. don’t wear flares. They’ll be soiled in no time by the muck which gathers on the wide sills.

Not surprisingly, heating and ventilation are at best adequate. We found it difficult to get warm air to our frozen toes. Otherwise, the cabin is a pleasant environment and you could easily become lazy, resting your left elbow on the centre console. One expected sacrifice which didn’t materialise was the fuel consumption, which remained — impressively — in the lower 20s, except for one particularly hard drive when consumption rose considerably.

VERDICT

The Lotus Esprit is a glass-fibre British sports car which has been under continuous development for over 20 years — and it still has rough edges witness the bolt heads in the door jambs and imperfect body panel fit. But it has survived the company’s rough periods, and has been refined, as with the Porsche 911, to the extent that it is now arguably a genuine supercar. And also like the 911, its essential profile has remained timeless, yet each new version looks better than the last. The S4S is accessible where a Ferrari 355 is exclusive — you won’t get much change from £90,000 for the cheapest model from Maranello. The Lotus has sophistication where a TVR Griffith has brutish simplicity. Yet it can flex its muscles with them all, without embarrassment. It has truly awesome dynamics, and though a Caterham Seven and TVR Griffith may be better in individual areas, they are too specialised to match the Lotus’s overall package. I haven’t had the privilege of driving early Lotuses, but I’ll stick my neck out and profess the Esprit S4S to be the best Lotus yet -in tact, I’ll go one further, for which I may well be hung, drawn and quartered. I think the Lotus Esprit S4S is. for the moment, the most complete British sports car period. If only that London cabby knew how good the Lotus really is, he might have had real cause for just a little envy.

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