The pleasure principle



The basis on which Lotus will return to international GT racing and, at £64,995, the summit of the Esprit line (indeed, the whole Lotus range, since the demise of the Excel and Elan) is now the limited production Sport 300. As its name suggests, Lotus claims 300 bhp for the latest rendition of the faithful 2.2-litre twin cam turbo, which has a reworked cylinder head. That’s enough fizz, says the company, to realise 168 mph. It should take around four seconds to sprint to 60 mph from rest.

Just 50 such Esprits will be built annually, though Lotus stresses that figure excludes any used as the basis for a racing programme, such as that planned by Chamberlain Engineering. Manufacture should have started by the time this reaches print. At the time of writing, there had been five definite orders (accompanied by £6500 deposits) for a car that will be rather better than the pre-production hybrid we drove, which lacked the power steering that will be a standard feature.

I have driven three Esprits which helped to inspire this newcomer: the X180R IMSA racer; the latest power-steered S4 (£46,995); and the Sport 300 prototype. This is the metallic lemon machine pictured, which has the uprated Sport 300 running gear beneath a 1992 body bearing Sport 300/IMSA front end aerodynamics and unique Sport 300 enlarged rear wing. The demonstrator had been worked hard over countless development miles, as well as posing for the static debut at the 1992 British Motor Show. Yet, as we walked around our transport for the day – which stretched to include 45 fascinating minutes in the company of senior engineer Alistair McQueen and a thunderous lhd Lotus Omega around the bumpy company test track – there was no doubt this was the most exciting Esprit yet. The obvious aerodynamic additions are accompanied by necessary wheel arch spats that cover Chevrolet Corvette-sized Goodyear GS-C rubber a massive 315/35 ZR17 at the rear, 245/45 ZR16 at the front.

The external appearance is impressively functional, but an honest insider confessed that the complete car has not been in the wind tunnel. However, the only unfamiliar component to Lotus aerodynamicists was the rear wing, and the complete package has outstanding road and track stability. We were able to evaluate this through the 100 mph Windsock right-hander at Hethel… in a 15-20 mph crosswind.

Here, the car was quite outstanding.

There are important changes both on the surface and under the skin. The body is the lightest and strongest yet seen on an Esprit, braced by two steel bars and an alloy plate in the rear engine bay. It is ready to accept an FIA roll cage and the suspension mounting points will be particularly beneficial in competition. Kerb weight is said to be 242 lb lighter than the S4. The transmission is very special in that it marks the first public road use of Lotus’ patented limited slip differential, which has been fashioned around an extremely compact planet and sun gear layout by Tony Shute. It works on a similar mechanical principle to a Torsen unit. The Lotus Compact Torque Biasing Differential is a standard feature and proved immensely effective, especially on slower sections of the test track.

Beneath its suedette theme, the cabin has been further revised. Best features are a pair of retentive lightweight seats, shapely three-spoke steering wheel and – at last – a decently sized tachometer. The boastful 220 mph speedo is matched by the rampant posing position of the rev-counter, which is tilted to show the top of the 7000 rpm scale… past which the factory engine whips nonchalantly. Production cars will have the S4’s composite-look dash panel.

A boost gauge, now deleted on the S4, told us that one bar’s boost from the hybrid Garrett AiResearch turbocharger was a transitional rarity, the regular maximum being 0.9. Boost is delivered in marginal quantities from 2000 rpm, peaking between 3000-3200 depending on the temperature within the louvred engine bay. The driving position is back to the old, no-compromise Esprit days, but the race seats allow you to sit upright (if you are only 5ft 9in).

There is no mistaking the breadth of wheels and Goodyears here. Without power steering you need a bit of muscle at the suedette rim. The weight was noticeable whether parking or winding on unlovely amounts of lock to counter understeer at the slowest test track corners.

Lotus did itself no favours letting the press loose in the unassisted Sport 300 prototype, for the S4 (tested last month) had led us to expect effortlessly communicative steering. On track it required a lot of lock to coax it into an apex, followed by maximum boost before the huge rear gumballs would slip, swiftly, out of line. Copious understeer then gives way to massive oversteer, controlled via the unassisted rack and pinion and the efficient limited slip differential.

On the road the prototype wriggles over every camber, and there is never more than a slight lightening of steering loads through low gear/high boost corners. In fact, it proved just as enjoyable as an S4 over the same route, but in a completely different manner. The Sport 300 needs driving every step of the way. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Porsche’s 911 RS, albeit with better ride quality. Road noise levels, thanks to those oversize tyres, are elevated, even by Esprit standards. In contrast, the S4 is similar to Porsche’s Carrera 2 in demanding much less effort of the driver whilst still supplying enough satisfaction to have kept Mick Jagger happy all those years ago.

Over Norfolk’s gently undulating byroads the Sport 300 comes alive. The extended body width does not seem to matter, the Esprit dancing over roads that we know and love. The steering chatters as the mid-engined teenager romps over crests, cambers and bumps with communicative enthusiasm. The sheer grip of the giant tyres and the retardation of the outstanding Lotus-programmed Delco Moraine ABS provide the kind of enormous safety margins that insurance companies usually choose to overlook. At the bumpy test track, the ABS could be tricked into letting the brake pedal sag suddenly and briefly over the worst pockmarks, yet its sheer stopping power – the system has been adapted from the Lotus Carlton programme – is as good as anything I have experienced in a production car. Thanks to its 1992 American racing success and the vast improvements generated in turbocharged Esprits, the model is beginning to display the kind of pedigree a Lotus owner is entitled to demand.

The Sport 300 will be one of the world’s great driving machines in its final production trim, incorporating many of the improvements seen on the S4 that were absent on this early prototype. J W