The perfect driving machine?
“What’ll she do, mister?” -the age old question on the lips of small bovs of all ages when confronted with a thoroughbred sports car, and a question I have answered countless times in the last few days. The answer? Over 140 mph, possibly over 150 mph. What else? 0 to 60 mph with a passenger and full tank of petrol in 6 sec, it corners in a way which compares favourably with a leech, it rides bumpy roads without any jarring, it returns 20 mpg when driven in such a way as to leave all other traffic a long way behind, it draws attention from pavements like nothing I have ever driven, it distracts other road users in a most disconcerting way as they cast envious glances over its slick lines and it attracts Police cars as surely as a 60-car Motorway pile-up.
The Esprit story goes back to the launch of the series one cars late in 1975. Powered bv the 16-valve, 2-litre engine designated 907, the new mid-engined car was everything a Lotus is expected to be, its road holding and handling were superb, setting new standards for the mid-70’s, and its performance was olltstanding for a 2-litre. The series two Esprits came out in August 1978, incorporating a slightly more powerful engine and a number of other improvements, while the series three cars were introduced last year, and come in three guises. Cheapest of the range is the S3, equipped with the normally aspirated 160 bhp version of the 2.2-litre engine (the 910 engine, developed from the 907) and costing £13,513 on the road, the Turbo Esprit costing £16,982 in basic form (just under £19,500 as tested) and the Essex Turbo Esprit at £20,900.
The items which bring the price of the test car up to just short of the psychologically critical £20,000 mark are a roof-mounted stereo radio/cassette player (of which more later) costing an incredible £1,029, air conditioning at £649 and full leather trim at £817. The full Essex version includes the leather trim and air conditioning as standard, together with a cheaper consolemounted stereo radio/cassette player, and features metallic paintwork.
Lotus have made a very successful job of turbocharging the 2.2-litre version of their 16-valve, dohc four-cylinder power unit, and this without the gadgetry one normally associates with a high performance turbocharged unit, such as inter-cooling, digital electronic ignition linked with electronic fuel injection and so on. In simple terms, a Garrett AiResearch T3 turbocharger unit is bolted into the exhaust sytem and this feeds pressurised air directly into the two Dellorto twin-choke carburetters. In fact a number of detail changes to the power unit have had to be made to accommodate the turbocharger, but none of them are particularly complex.
A special two-branch exhaust manifold is used, feeding directly into the turbocharger. The boost pressure is limited to 8 psi by a wastegate which feeds directly into the silencer. A carefully designed, tapering pipe carries the compressed air across the engine to the two sealed 40 DHLA Dellorto carburetters, which are mounted closer to the cylinder head, on short inlet manifolds. Intercooling is considered unnecessary as the inlet gases are cooled sufficiently by the fuel vaporising. Valve lift has been increased, but surprisingly, overlap has not been adjusted from the normally aspirated arrangement. The exhaust valves are sodium-filled and the compression ratio has been reduced to 7.5 to 1 by using low compression pistons in the very over-square engine (95.3 x 76.2 mm, giving 2174 cc). The cooling system has been improved to cope with the extra demands made on it, and the crankcase has been stiffened and converted to dry sump operation.
Tilted over at 45° towards the exhaust side (near-side), the engine is neatly installed immediately behind the bulkhead separating the mechanism from the driver. Accessibility for servicing is very limited, but oil and water checking can be carried out comfortably, the rear hatch lifts on gas-struts, exposing the luggage compartment and the carpeted engine cover. The oil dip-stick and filler neck protrude above the carpeted surround, making for easy checking, but filling is not so easy, as the neck is nearly flush with the carpet. The oil level is difficult to assess correctly, -the instructions say the reading should be taken within two minutes of coming to rest, but doing this three times within 300 miles resulted in three different readings. The cooling system header tank is just under the engine cover, which is readily removed by undoing two over-centre clips and lifting it out. Neither oil nor water were needed during the duration of our test.
Power output is quoted as 210 bhp at 6,000 rpm, and the maximum torque figure is an astonishing 200 lb/ft at 4,000 rpm. Equally astonishing for a four cylinder is the breadth of the torque curve, over 140 lb/ft being available at 2,500 rpm. The drive from the engine is taken by an uprated clutch through a modified Citroen SM trans-axle, which provides five forward speeds, fifth being an overdrive giving nearly 23 mph per 1,000 rpm.
The series three cars differ from the earlier versions in having a significantly strengthened backbone chassis (which, incidentally, is galvanised and guaranteed against corrosion for five years) and a revised rear suspension layout. The earlier cars employed the solid drive-shafts in lieu of top suspension links, but now transverse top links are fitted, together with sliding drive-shafts, thus removing suspension loads from the transaxle. Long, twin radius rods on each side provide longitudinal location. The front suspension layout is unaltered, and comprises unequal length wishbones and coil springs. Telescopic shock absorbers are fitted all round, but an anti-roll bar only appears at the front. The tyres are Goodyear NCT’s, of 15″ diameter and 235/60 section at the rear, 195/60 section at the front, mounted on attractive Mahle cast alloy road wheels. The dual circuit braking system is servo
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tried it again at 70 mph, and again at 100 mph. and still couldn’t lock a wheel, despite nearly standing the car on its nose, and it pulled up dead straight on each occasion. In the wet, I am sure it would be very easy to lock wheels up, with potentially disastrous results, as a light pedal pressure produces such startling results in the dry.
Thrashing the car around the Oxford-Berkshire Downs soon showed how good the Lotus suspension is -ruts and bumps are taken in its stride, with surprisingly little effect on the car – even with those huge wheels and tyres and the stiff suspension, there is no jarring. The tyres ride the road, never fighting the surface, always following it, and the compliant suspension insulates the body from the road, providing a superb, taut but very comfortable smooth ride. As expected, there is no roll, even when cornering at speeds which would have lesser vehicles darting for the undergrowth or turning over, the Esprit stays flat.
Noise levels are commendably low, and with the windows shut, the engine and exhaust can only be heard under hard acceleration, most of the noise being from the wind around the large (but oh, so necessary mirrors) and from the tyres.
Conversation begins to be strained at about 110 mph, but at motorway cruising speeds, all is peaceful. With the windows down, the exhaust noise is most satisfying, especially on full power.
Visibility forward is good, but the strong screen side pillars intrude occasionally, although they are far enough away from the driver to be seen around with only a slight movement of the head. Rearward vision is terrible, and can be awkward when filtering on to major roads. The interior mirror gives a good view directly behind the car, and the two electrically adjustable door mirrors are perfect for planning lane changing manoeuvres. Reversing into limited spaces is not easy, even if one has experience as a HGV driver, for the mirrors cannot give the range of vision provided by the average lorry mirror.
In bright sunlight, the sharply raked screen becomes difficult to see through unless it is absolutely spotless, the slightest layer of dust obscuring forward vision, and exacerbated by the reflection of the leather covered, hooded instrument binnacle, which sits above the low dash in front of the driver.
The controls for the astonishingly expensive Panasonic radio/cassette player are mounted light-aircraft-fashion in the centre of the roof. The various adjustments possible take quite a time to learn, and until they are learnt, any alterations need to be made with the car stationary, unless the driver has eyes on top of his head, or there is a passenger to operate the thing. I suspect there was something wrong with the radio fitted to the test car, for in London the only stations I was able to pick up were Capital Radio and a rather woozy Radio 4, while in Maidenhead there was only Capital Radio and in the wilds of Wiltshire, nothing. The radio is FM only, which must be rather limiting for those who travel long distances, and the Lotus is an ideal car for travelling long distances . . . I would recommend anyone to try one of these radios before placing an order. Another extra which did not impress was the air conditioning. If ever there was a week to have an air conditioned car, it was the week of our test with consistent, day-long hot sun. And the air conditioning worked, but it would not maintain a steady temperature inside the car. It went on cooling until it was too cold, when a slight adjustment of the temperature dial upwards would bring hot air into the car, thus making it necessary to keep making fine adjustments to . maintain an even temperature. What was worse, was the part time nature of the unit. I can forgive it blowing a fuse (which it did), but I cannot forgive it for deciding not to work one cold night when I wanted the heat, until near journey’s end.
I used the car for commuting to London for a week, for a couple of cross country journeys and loved most of the 1,200 miles I covered. The miles I did not enjoy were those where I could see blue lamps in my mirrors, and they were many. I was stopped twice on my first day with the car -“It’s lucky you saw me sir, I didn’t get a chance to check your speed accurately, but suspect you were exceeding 70 . . . ” and from our village constable, “it must be difficult to keep her down to 30, but make sure you do …. ” And I was followed along the motorway on three occasions when Cortinas and Escorts were able to come past, at speeds which must have been in excess of 80, with apparent impunity.
Fuel consumption over the 1,200 miles worked out at 20.2 mpg, and with 19 gallons available in the tank, a range of 350 miles between fuel stops is comfortable. The tank full which covered the cross country journeys, when the car was being driven really hard, showed 18.7 mpg, while motorway cruising followed by London crawl gave better than 21 mpg.
A perfect driving machine? Well, nothing is perfect and the Lotus needs (and deserves) a better gear change, but I cannot think of improvements to the feel of the rest of the car. The external finish is superb, but some of the under-skin detail leaves something to be desired -the wiring looks particularly messy, and this 20,000 mile car has developed one or two aggravating rattles, while some of the controls.and locks seem to. come straight from obsolete BL models and rather let the overall quality of the car down. But these are minor quibbles; the Lotus Esprit Turbo is superb, and has set new standards of handling and road holding for the other, super-car manufacturers to try-to emulate.-PHJW.