Economic miracle

Given its recent history, it’s amazing that Lotus has made the GT3 so exceptional, but to offer it at such a low price is extraordinary. Colin Goodwin reports

No fanfare, no leaked information and no scoop shots. The Lotus Esprit GT3 sneaked up on us while we weren’t looking. And what a fabulous surprise. First, the biggest surprise of all: the GT3 costs only £39,450. A bargain supercar. Just how much of a bargain, you are about to discover.

The Lotus Esprit GT3 is in the mould of the Porsche 968 Club Sport and Lamborghini Diablo SV: lean, stripped of weighty extras such as air-conditioning and electric seats. What you get is no more than you really need for a great and pure sports car. The Club Sport was an even better version of an already excellent car; the Diablo SV is the first Lamborghini for years that stirs the soul of the enthusiast as well as the poseur. The Esprit GT3, too, is aimed directly at the serious driver.

Since the V8 has pushed the 2.2-litre S4S out of the Esprit brochure, the GT3 is now the only Esprit powered by a four-cylinder engine. The GT3, however, doesn’t use the 2.2-litre engine from the S4S. It uses instead a 2-litre version of the engine that was built for the Italian market, where cars with engines over two litres are clobbered by the tax man. The official reason for fitting this engine to the GT3 is that it pacifies those who paid considerably more than the GT3’s £39,450 price for their S4Ss. The unofficial and more likely reason is that the factory had racks full of 2-litre engines that needed using up. Whatever, it’s more than welcome.

This 240bhp engine is a pukka downsized version of the charge-cooled four, rather than a seriously tweaked edition of the older 215bhp 2-litre four-cylinder motor. Don’t take that 240bhp figure too seriously. Not that it’s a fib, it’s just that an intercooled Esprit’s performance varies greatly with the weather. Get up early and catch the cool, dense, early morning air and your GT3 might well be cranking out an extra 20bhp.

The engine may be right up to the moment in technology, but it has one old-fashioned trait: turbo lag. Below 2500rpm it is slovenly: still asleep. Once the crank is spinning at 3500rpm, it lights up in a frenzied fashion and carries on blasting out its power until the 7200rpm rev limit. Turbo lag can be a big irritation, but on this car it adds to the thrill. The GT3 is, after all, a car that is intended to be used hard. Somehow some of the excitement of a turbocharged engine is lost in today’s lag-less installations. In the Lotus you get that tingle of expectation as you squeeze down the throttle.

You find yourself altering your driving technique to get around the delay. In the GT3 you brake early for a corner then get back on the throttle sooner than you would in a naturally aspirated sports car or in a turbocharged car with a fast-spooling turbo. Do this and you find the boost and thrust arriving just when you need it. And does it arrive. Out on the road and under the timing light’s eye the GT3 is barely slower than the departed S4S. It will crack 60mph from rest in less than five seconds – the true demarcation between the fast cars and the very fast cars. Esprits have always posted good acceleration times as a result of an ability to put all their power down without fuss. The GT3 is further helped by its Hethel-plan diet. Sound deadening has been taken from the engine bay and cabin – the car sounds the better for it, in fact and since the GT3 will not be making the voyage across the Atlantic, some of the bulky emissions equipment required for the US market has been removed. The V8 Esprit will hit 172mph, the S4S 162mph and the GT3 159mph. All three figures are essentially irrelevant in this country, but tell a tale all the same.

The cliché goes that when you buy a Ferrari you are paying for the engine and the rest is thrown in free. With a Lotus the reverse is the case. Sure, Lotus has worked miracles with its four-cylinder turbocharged engines, obtaining sensational outputs per litre and not at the expense of reliability or civility. But they are not motors that fire the senses the same way that a Ferrari V12 does. Far from it. The fours have always sounded harsh, flat and uninspiring. Even the new V8 is woefully short of a stirring soundtrack. No, what Lotus has always served up, with no exceptions, is a fantastic chassis. The GT3 has one of its finest.

The current trend, certainly in Maranello, is for front-engined supercars. But for many of us, nothing has the excitement and presence of a mid-engined sports car. For those brought up on the sights of GT40s, Porsche 917s, Ferrari P4s and road cars like the Boxer and Miura, there is still something very intoxicating about a car that has its engine behind the driver. The knowledge that mid-engined cars tend to be tricky at the limit adds to the sense of excitement. You can’t put the Esprit GT3 in that category, however. You will not approach the GT3’s limits on the road. You will not even see them from a distance. On the track the GT3 is outstanding. No mid-engined car can match the Lotus’s manners, whatever its price.

In your hands you have a Momo steering wheel attached to a power steering set-up that has a lightness, precision and feel that no other system can match. Combine this with a chassis that is, even by Esprit standards, exceptional, and you are in for a thrilling, yet reassuringly safe, ride. There is little body roll, little pitch when braking or accelerating; little to disrupt the accurate messages sent through the steering. There are only two things that step in the way of perfection; the brakes and the gearchange. Despite Brembo calipers, the Esprit’s brakes fail to match the chassis and more importantly the performance. Anti-lock comes in too early and pedal feel is only mediocre. Judged against the new V8, the GT3’s gearlever floats between ratios as if embedded in candyfloss. Compare it with a 911’s decisive gear change action, though, and it comes up inadequate.

The Esprit cabin takes well to a bit of pruning. It is when Lotus goes for the luxury wood-andleather look that the flaws appear. Glue stains, trim that doesn’t line up properly… walnut veneer at odds with parts bin switches and warning lamps. The GT3’s lean interior looks far classier than the wood and hide cabins. Grey vinyl-trimmed lightweight seats from the Esprit Sport 300, and a panel of body-coloured composite atop the central tunnel look far classier and functional. The Momo alloy gearshift knob looks the part, too.

The GT3 is simpler than the S4S and V8 on the outside, as well as inside. There is no rear wing, for starters, and the GT3 rides on 17in wheels, not 18in as on the S4S. The narrow rims and tyres remove the need for wheelarch extensions, the loss of which makes the GT3 cleaner and prettier looking than the more powerful car. Not everybody will find the graphics tasteful and my taste will be questioned for liking them. So too, perhaps, will my liking for this car’s bright orange paintwork.

Looking back, 1996 will go down as a great year for Lotus. First off, the Elise was launched; a car that takes the roadster to heights of handling and dynamic ability that will be very difficult for anyone to match. Then came the Lotus Esprit V8. A new engine, built and designed in-house. Light, compact, clean and powerful. Sure, it sounds disappointing, but it is nevertheless quite incredible that a company, the natural state of which is turmoil, can produce such an engine. A racing version of this engine is now in an Elise GT1 racer that shows great promise. And in among these events, the company has at last found hope of stability with new owner Proton, the Malaysian car maker.

The Esprit GT3 illustrates just how deep the well of talent is at the Hethel factory. Almost out of the blue, at the tail end of a frenetic year, the engineers at Lotus have delivered to us a gem of a car. Our eyes were off the Esprit, even the V8, and were focused on the incredible Elise. With the GT3 the Esprit lives again, and at a price that must have sent shock waves through Blackpool and Stuttgart.