New Cars: Lotus Excel SE

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Most car manufacturing companies have to introduce a new model in order to remind the public of their existence and to gain some always useful publicity. Lotus Cars, on the other hand, have of late had fairly constant exposure and yet have not revealed a new production model for over ten years. The rumour and wrangles about take-over bids centre on the company’s desirability as a research facility; like Porsche’s Weissach centre, the Lotus group of companies undertake a great deal of outside consultancy work in automotive, engineering, and materials technology. These skills are sold on to help finance the investment in the road car projects.

With the new small X100 being further delayed, the process of continuing improvement goes on within the Esprit and Excel ranges, and the latest variant is a faster engine in the latter. Known as the SE, this 180 bhp vehicle has more power, trim improvements (some of which also apply to the ordinary Excel), revised aerodynamics, and a price tag of £18,500— up by just over £1,000.

The Excel was restyled in 1985 with skinny blisters over the wheel-arches, which are perhaps not as successful as the previous alterations which fathered the Excel out ot the Eclat. Yet the angular lines remain well-proportioned, the canted-over engine block nestling under a very low bonnet, and the rather flat window and long overhang at the rear helping to disguise the long roof which covers four occupants.

Perhaps only Lamborghini’s late Espada and Renault’s new GTA (née Alpine) have so successfully incorporated four seats inside a dramatic sporting profile — I exclude the last Lotus Elite on aesthetic grounds, and cars like XJ-S and 928 on ergonomics. On the other hand the Renault has a structural member behind the rear passengers’ heads which intrudes awkwardly, while the Excel has the equivalent roof-rail between the B-posts, giving almost adequate headroom for adults behind. What does count against the rear seat sitting position, though, is the strict knees-up posture which, though comfortable in itself, does not allow the stretching and twisting any normal occupant will indulge in after an hour or so. Excellent within the limitations of the sporting package, then, but not a long-distance four-seater.

Running through the centre of the Excel, as in all current Lotus models, is a galvanised folded steel backbone chassis cradling the longitudinally-mounted alloy engine and five-speed gearbox which are set well back for good weight distribution. With the backbone providing a great deal of the strength, the occupants can be placed lower down, and yet the door openings can remain generous. Hence access to the Excel is good, as is the driving position, helped by the wheel tilt mechanism which is one of this year’s improvements.

Only one reminder of Colin Chapman’s innovative weight-saving suspension schemes has carried over to the Excel: a single transverse lower arm is located fore-and-aft by the anti-roll bar, with a conventional wishbone above. At the back, things are effectively reversed, with a wide wishbone below and a transverse link above. Coil springs and oil-filled dampers are mounted at each corner.

Lotus is a world leader in composite technology, that rather vague term covering reinforced plastics, and the vacuum-assisted resin injection process used for the car bodyshells is sold around the world. The Excel main body is moulded as an upper and a lower section which are joined where the black trim is visible encircling the car, and together with the bumper units this produces a structure of impressive strength and high quality finish.

Distinguishing the SE from the normal version are a virtually invisible stepped front air-dam, below and behind the normal one, and a much more obvious revised rear wing. These are claimed to reduce lift at high speed without affecting the overall drag; it is a pity that the rear wing looks and feels rather flimsy, and also cuts out the view of any close traffic in the rear-view mirror.

Both versions of the Excel benefit from the Oriental connection: the Toyota gearbox is unchanged, but now the tilting steering wheel and column have been borrowed from the Toyota Supra and bring with them improved switchgear and heat/vent controls. Unfortunately this includes one of those irritating ignition-key release buttons which can only be operated by people with two right hands, but in compensation the horn-push has been returned to its rightful position in the centre of the wheel. A new binnacle of more pleasing shape brings the face-vents up to a better height, but the radio cassette remains neatly hidden behind the gear-lever. The dashboard is faced in walnut veneer as standard in the SE, and an extensive but comfortable personal steering wheel is also part of the package. Our test car included the optional half leather trim £595 extra) the remainder of the upholstery being in tweed cloth, while complete leather trim costs £1,050. Other equipment fitted is as one would expect on an £18,000 sports car: electric windows and door mirrors, pneumatic lumbar adjustment on the driver’s seat, and those smooth alloy wheels with appropriately wide Goodyear NCT Eagle tyres. Even so the total falls short of what cheaper Japanese coupés offer as standard.

Making up the rest of the £1,030 extra that the SE costs over the normal Excel is of course the 180 bhp engine. Identified by its red cam covers, the new unit gains 20 bhp over the standard one through its very high cr of 10.91, higher lift inlet cams, and larger porting to inlet and exhaust valves, which, however, remain the same size and the whole lot is fed the vital mixture through a pair of 45mm twin-choke Dellorto carburetters. Torque is only marginally improved from 160 lb ft to 165 lb ft. however, and this gives a clue to the way the hotter engine performs.

Starting seemed peculiarly difficult on the test car: the choke was necessary much of the time, although the weather was not cold, and was rather critical in operation. I notice that the handbook lists three differing starting procedures for cold, warm, and hot engines, an extra complexity which seems a little out of place in this era of fuel injection.

Visibility for the driver is generally good, helped by new slimmer head restraints, with the exception of the aforementioned rear spoiler which seems to halve the view behind, and makes reversing harder. Parking is not a chore thanks to the variable-ratio power steering system which gives plenty of assistance at low speeds but fades out gradually once rolling.

Lotus road cars have made their reputation on a combination of ability, poise, and sensitivity, and these things are all apparent in the Excel behaviour once the driver begins to make demands of it. At lower speeds, say in town, only the light precise steering hints at what is to come, perhaps it is a touch over-light, but it feels accurate and pleasant. Ride quality at these speeds is surprisingly soft, though holes and bumps come through sharply, and the notchy but willing gearshift should make easy work of traffic lights and roundabouts. This is not the case, however, and the culprit is the engine.

According to the torque curve, there should be plenty of pull allow speeds, despite the very high revs (5000 rpm) at which the peak figure is generated but the unit seems very easy to bog down. Consequently driving in traffic requires third and often second gear, while pulling away from standstill means a good prod on the throttle and sharp clutch release to keep the engine spinning somewhere near its operating region. Moreover, the unit is far from smooth as it winds itself up to the 4000 rpm take-off point, sounding and feeling harsher than such a car deserves. Once in its stride, though, it becomes a different animal, responding instantly to the throttle pedal, revving easily to its 7000 rpm limit, a muted roar just penetrating the cockpit over the tyre noise.

In other words, the SE unit displays all the characteristics of a heavily tuned engine with high-lift cams — super when being used in the way it ought to be, but rather unhappy when the real world impinges on this ideal. Both acceleration and top speed fell a little short of the Norfolk company’s claims, the latter by 5 mph at 128.9 mph, with the rather artificial 60 mph arriving in 7.2 sec as opposed to the official 6.8 sec. Intermediate figures, on the other hand, proved slightly faster than expected, again emphasising the excellent performance when on the cam.

Stability is of a high order, in particular the resistance to cross winds, and the Excel’s composure on the motorway should make for relaxing long-distance journeys. But like the engine, the chassis is just waiting to be given the right sort of road to enable it to shine. When the motorway has been left behind and a winding secondary road opens up ahead, the Excel driver at last finds the car coming together, performing superbly on all levels — with the revs between 4,500 and 7,000 in the upper four gears, clear views through sweeping bends, and not too much other traffic, the car can be made to fly — 60, 70, 80, is reached very quickly with neat small movements of clutch, gearstick and wheel, and is even more quickly dissipated by firm rather than strong pressure on the brake pedal: the car immediately sits down and straight as the speed diminishes, and the system shows no fade in repeated road use.  Off the brakes, snick into third, open the throttles and the car instantly starts to describe the intended curve very little roll disturbing the driver as the lateral force pulls him against the seat-belt. Not only the level but the balance of the road-holding inspires confidence: minimal transient understeer turns into a long, long plateau of stability: only as the result of a change of mind, of road surface, or of gradient will the rear start to break away. If it does, then the car displays that feeling characteristic of the combination of fine steering and a well-balanced chassis: it appears to pivot around the front wheels without affecting them, giving rise to the sensation that the car is correcting itself if the driver only keeps the wheels pointing in the desired direction. Such accuracy is rare, and all the more delightful, in a power assisted system.

At these speeds the ride smooths out most iregularities and imparts a feeling of fluid rapidity which is very satisfying indeed, and the car does not feel its width of a fraction under six feet. This is where the Excel SE fulfils its name: it is a shame that it falls short in other circumstances, because as so many other high-performance vehicles prove it is quite possible to build a rapid engine which also boasts around town flexibility. At one point, before I had the chance to take the Lotus into the country, I exchanged it overnight for a Toyota Supra, and came back wondering how Lotus could justify the £6,000 extra over the Supra, with similar accommodation and power, better equipment, and a much smoother, torquier engine. Certainly the British car has its walnut dash and leather, and the more prestigious name; but it took a sunny afternoon in Berkshire to demonstrate that combination of abilities which sets the Lotus apart when the conditions are right for it.

A good-sized boot, adequate ventilation, and small oddment cubbies in the centre tunnel make for practicality in this rapid coupé, but there is a certain lack of unity about the interior styling and trim which I found disappointing given the £18,000 purchase price, and some of the leather trim was imperfectly fitted.

Considering its rivals — Porsche 944, Renault GTA, Toyota Supra — the Lotus 912S engine has to work very hard to display its virtues against their higher refinement levels, using as they do six-cylinder engines or balance-shaft fours. It is willing to work, but asks the same of the driver, before its potential is realised. On the other hand, Lotus can justly be proud of their chassis, which fulfils the promise of the car’s name with no effort from the driver, and does so with a poise other manufacturers must envy.  — G.C.

***

Motor Sport Test results — Lotus Excel SE

Maker: Lotus Cars Ltd, Norwich, Norfolk.

Model: Excel SE Type: 2+2 Coupe

Engine: Front. 2174cc (95.3 x 76.2mm), all-alloy 4-in-line. DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder. Belt-driven cams. cr 10.9:1.  Two twin-choke Dellorto DLHA 45D carburetters. 180 bhp, 165 lb ft torque.

Transmission: RWD, 5-speed manual gearbox, single dry-plate clutch.

Steering: Rack and pinion, variable servo-assistance.

Suspension: Front, upper wishbone, lower transverse link, fore-aft location by anti-roll bar, coil spring, twin tube damper. Rear, lower wishbone and upper link, coil spring, twin-tube damper.

Brakes: Servo-assisted, four ventilated discs, drum handbrake.

Wheels and Tyres: 7 x 15 Speedline alloy rims, 215/50 Goodyear NCT Eagle VA tyres.

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 sec; 30-50 mph, 2.7 sec; 50-70 mph, 4.1 sec; 70-90 mph, 6.1 sec; maximum speed, 129 mph.

Dimensions: Length, 172.5 in;  Wheelbase, 97.80 in;  Track (F&R), 57.5 in;  Width, 71.5 in;  Height, 40.4 in.

Kerb weight: 1135 kg.

Price: £17,980,  plus £595 for half-leather trim.

Summary: Superb ride, handling, and steering, good accommodation but big-valve engine inevitably sacrifices flexibility.

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