Road test: The excellent Lotus Excel

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The Lotus company is almost constantly in the news, its fortunes see-sawing alarmingly over the past couple of years. Towards the end of 1982 the collapse of de Lorean, with whom Lotus had a lucrative development contract, the death of Colin Chapman, and the wish of American Express to withdraw its financial backing saw the Hethel firm in the depths of despair, yet on a recent visit we found Mike Kimberley, the managing director, in surprisingly optimistic form. Leading the company to renewed prosperity is the Lotus Eclat Excel, a model which we judge to be the best Lotus road car yet produced, while future plans will culminate in the 1985 production of the M90 Toyota-powered sports car which will, in spirit, replace the Elan.

It is recent history that British Car Auctions boss David Wickins has stepped in to secure the short-term financial security of Lotus, gaining a place on the Group’s main board. The appointment earlier this year of a go-ahead distributor in the States, and expansion in home and overseas order books, have given Lotus a new impetus to face the future.

The Excel version of the Eclat was first seen at last year’s Motor Show, and has now taken over from the previous model. The Giugiaro designed two-plus-two bodywork is little changed, save for a new air dam which helped to reduce the drag to 0.32, but there were some fairly substantial changes underneath. Principally, a Toyota 5-speed gearbox was installed, along with the Japanese company’s differential, driveshafts, and even the disc brakes, while the rear suspension was modified to incorporate the Esprit’s top link and lower wishbone layout in place of the Chapman strut.

Lotus’s own type 912 alloy engine, four cylinders and 2,174 cc, powers the Excel with 160 healthy horsepower, now assisted by an improved twin exhaust system. It is mounted at the front, driving the rear wheels in conventional fashion so that there is adequate interior space for four people, leaving the pure sports mid-engine rear drive concept to the successful Esprit and Esprit Turbo models.

There is no doubt that the Excel looks every inch a sports car, attracting admiring glances everywhere it goes. There are no angular or awkward lines to mar the overall appearance, which is an important feature when someone is going to spend over £14,000 on a car, but still second-hand values are worryingly low as the sort of people who buy such cars are mindful of their retained or investment value as much as anything.

Lotus lead the world in injection moulding techniques for GRP glass-fibre bodywork, and the Excel is indeed flawless in body and paint finish. All the moving panels fit nicely, though despite throwing away the Marina door catches and adopting Toyota components the two doors did not lock very easily.

Optional leather inside the car (£773) blended well with the twill velour on the seats and made the interior feel quite sumptuous. The seats themselves have firm cushions, the squabs being rather flat and not giving quite enough support to the thighs, but have an excellent range of adjustment. Maybe Mr Kimberley’s height has had something to do with this, and maybe he can see the water temperature gauge which we found hidden from view behind the boss of the Personal (Giugiaro, again) steering wheel. Anyone shorter than six foot tall would certainly want the water temperature gauge to be swapped with the voltmeter, which is comfortably in view on the right of the fascia.

Accommodation in the back is not quite adequate for two adults, unless on a short journey. There is enough headroom but legroom is at a premium, especially if the front seats are well back.

A choke control is almost an anachronism these days, but we didn’t need it in summer conditions to fire up the engine easily. Twin Dellorto carburetters feed the alloy engine, and in the era of muted sports engines the gargle of the induction system made a very welcome change. The exhaust, too, has a pleasant and purposeful bark, so the Lotus is rare among its contemporaries in sounding like a sports car.

Despite its backbone chassis and glass-fibre body the Excel is only a little lighter than its contemporaries at 1,125 kg, some 70 kg lighter than the 163 bhp Porsche 944 which is, of course, steel bodied. Against the stopwatch the Excel reaches 60 mph from rest in 7.2 seconds and 100 mph in 21 seconds, respectable times indeed for a normally aspirated grand touring car. What it seemed to lack was the surge from 80 mph that we used to associate with Elans, so it does not quite come into the very high performance sports car class. But still, it got to 110 mph quickly enough, from which point the acceleration flattens out, and ultimately reaches 130 mph.

Lotus’s much rumoured V8 power unit, which we believe is now near reality, will transform the Excel we have no doubt. It does not need to be match more powerful, but extra torque would be very welcome, and in fact it may not be any less economical. We were rather disappointed with a consumption figure of 20.6 mpg overall, feeling that we hadn’t driven the Excel that hard, so the Dellortos are presumably not as efficient as the admittedly more expensive electronic injection systems now available. A bigger engine, working more lazily and perhaps with higher gearing, could be the answer for the Excel.

Another item of optional equipment on the Excel was power steering (£650) which felt nicely weighted, assisting a high ratio rack. Few people on this side of the Atlantic like super-light steering and the Excel cannot be faulted in this respect; in fact apart from the ease of parking, one was only reminded of the power assistance by the faint hiss of the servo at full lock.

Handling is, of course, the forte of Lotus and the Excel continues the tradition. The front/rear weight ratio is exactly 50/50 with a half tank of fuel and as you’d expect, the Lotus has extremely neutral handling as a result. There is a trace of body roll to remind the driver that he’s in the higher speed realms (there is an anti-roll bar at the front, but not at the back), and at all times the Excel feels utterly secure — the driver would have to be extremely inexperienced, ham-fisted or brave (or all three) to get into difficulties with the car. Goodyear NCT 205 section 60-series tyres were fitted onto Lotus Speedline 7 JK-14 wheels, and we did not have any wet roads on which to check their full capabilities.

As for the ride, it felt a little bit firmer than on the earlier Eclats, with more feel of the road coming up through the suspension. Inevitably there is some trade-off between comfort and handling, and especially at low speeds it feels as though handling is winning, perhaps inevitably with such a lot of rubber on the road.

The Toyota components blend in to the Norfolk product as though they had been designed for the job. The tunnel mounted gearshift has a short, wristy movement, snicking slightly as each ratio is selected. First is good for 33 mph at 6,500 rpm, second for 57 mph, third for 85 mph, fourth for 108 mph and fifth for 130 at 6,150 rpm.

Braking is quite excellent, the Japanese-made ventilated disc brakes at front and rear — with servo, naturally — doing the job of retardation without any fuss or bother. The pedal pressure felt quite high for hard braking from fast speeds, but we would find that reassuring on wet roads. The positive handbrake is immediately aft of the gear lever, nicely placed for hill starts, and in general the Excel feels as though it had been designed by engineers who know about sports driving; that may sound a statement of the obvious, but it is not true of all the fast cars on the market. Space in the pedal box feels rather cramped until you get used to it, drivers with wide shoe fittings perhaps needing another couple of inches down there. Full marks, though, for the ventilation system, which is clearly labelled and blew out a welcome amount of cold air (except when the car had been standing in the sunshine, after which hot air came out for a few minutes). We didn’t bother to test the heating, but the system seemed so good that we will assume that is satisfactory too!

All the equipment was in keeping with the price label which starts at £14,273, though the value of the car “as tested” was around the £16,000 mark. The electrically operated windows are fast-moving, twin electrically operated exterior mirrors are fitted, and a Lotus brand stereo radio/cassette system with four speakers performed well.

The single wiper has two speeds plus intermittent wipe, and although it does not clear quite as much glass as twin wipers would it does so in a more satisfactory manner. There is no wiper at the back, and in winter this could be quite a drawback since the rear-view visibility is not good anyway. The rising rear “parcels shelf” (in inverted commas, since it is inclined at about 45 degrees to meet the rear window line) completely obscures the near-ground, so a walk round the back before reversing in a confined space would make good sense. If anything, this might be our strongest criticism of the car, and it would be so easy to reverse into a low post or worse still, a child, in a careless manoeuvre.

The fuel tank holds 67 litres (14.75 gallons) of four-star which unfortunately is not good for much over 280 miles at our rate of consumption, and being so large it does limit the luggage space to a rather boxy area sufficient for two suitcases and some soft baggage. The full-size spare wheel is neatly located in the floor, and is perfectly accessible. We started off by saying that this is the best Lotus road car ever made, and despite a few criticisms we would stick by that statement. It could do with a little more power, and should be more economical than it is, but when the V8 version eventually appears we will expect to be reaching for our book of superlatives. In the meantime, the Lotus Excel is,a good, mature GT car that feels more refined than its predecessors and deserves to succeed. — Michael Cotton