Putting up at our meeting point in Kent, my wonderfully Eighties Lotus suddenly looks a little under-endowed. Sure, it had fired me from UK Sports Cars near Canterbury to the photographic location with little tuss and ample pace, but with only tour puny cylinders I can almost sense it cowering in the presence of the belLowing V8 opposition. It literally shakes on its springs when Goodwin blips the throttle of his ferocious ‘Vette, and when Buckley hammers past where I’m parked, the 500E’s urgent, hard-edged exhaust note threatens to render the Esprit a bit-part player in a sequence defined by tortured rubber, thunderous torque and a heavy-metal soundtrack. Remind me, why did I choose an Esprit again?
Ah yes. I remember. My reasoning was simple and logical. It’s the cheapest way in to a true mid-engined supercar for starters. It’s got the power, but even more critical is its ability to deploy it in such a beautifully controlled way. The short drive over undulating B-roads to the photo location had confirmed that as a point-to-point tool the other cars wouldn’t stand a chance. This much I’d suspected, but the real surprise was just what physical driving experience the Esprit offered.
the original Giugiaro-penned Esprit is having something of a revival at
the moment, I wanted an updated Peter Stevens Esprit simply because the
early car is getting a bit close to classic car status. No bad thing in
itself, but if I had an Esprit I’d want to drive it hard. The reskinned
car looks and feels a bit more contemporary, and I’d feel less guilty
about driving it as it was intended. UK Sports Cars supplied a Monaco White
‘88 Esprit Turbo and I was all set for some V8-bashing.
Ideally, I’d be driving the chargecooled 264bhp SE version introduced in ‘89. That car was capable of 0-60 in under 5sec. This earlier car might still look surprisingly modern but power outputs have swelled so much in the Land of the supercar that the original 215bhp looks, on paper, pretty pathetic. Fortunately, with 220lb ft to back it up, a mid-engined configuration to aid traction and the added excitement of a mighty slug of boost arriving at around 3500rpm, the Turbo feels genuinely fast. Contemporary road tests put this Esprit in the sub 5.5 seconds to 60 bracket with a top speed on the naughty side of 150mph. Nice.
So with the bulk of the photography finished its time for a play. Dropping into the cabin, you can’t help but feel a size too big for everything. Headroom is a bit of a joke, the seat only just goes back far enough for comfort and you adopt a slightly uncomfortable reclined driving position. The pedals are offset, too, meaning you’re never fully relaxed. The gearshift’s a bit awkward, and then there’s the heavy, unassisted steering to contend with (PAS wasn’t introduced until the S4 launch in ’93) At low speeds it’s a bit of a pig.
for the turbo. It spools up quietly and then blows hard all the way to the
redline, the wastegate fluttering noisily on upshifts as it dumps unused
boost. Low speeds quickly dissolve into big numbers as the gears slot home
stiffly. The acceleration isn’t crazy — you’ll need a
Sport 300, S4S or a V8 for that — but it’s fast enough to get
your attention while the chassis holds it resolutely.
The steering always feels heavy but it constantly reminds you how much grip there is at the front end and really gets you involved in the process of driving quickly. The ride is firm but controlled, with only the very worst ruts and catseyes thudding back through the cabin. And when you get hard on the power out of any corner — the turbo’s effort just about to peak— the big rear tyres dig in, the steering lightens up a shade and the Esprit slingshots up the road with real venom.
It’s a surprisingly intense experience: hard-edged, involving and physically draining. But the rewards are great. Put in the effort on a decent stretch of road and you’ll be basking in the warm afterglow of surging adrenalin for the rest of the day. I’m convinced that if you’re seeking thrills and useable power, the Esprit is the real bargain of the group.
Of course, it’s not perfect. It’s a 15-year-old Lotus after all. Overheating has always been an Esprit bugbear and blown head gaskets are often the result. In severe cases a total engine rebuild isn’t out of the question, so watch out for automatic fan failure (there’s a warning light on the dash]. The non-assisted steering rack is weak and on early cars the Citroen-sourced gearbox is suffering from parts scarcity. Cracked exhaust manifolds are another concern, as replacing them can be an engine-out job and takes at least two days’ work. We’d advise you buy from a recognised specialist, demand a full service history and stretch your budget to get the very best car you can afford.
A used Esprit may not be a sensible everyday proposition like the Mercedes, or quite as charismatic as the big ‘Vette, but neither of them can deliver the kind of buzz that the Lotus offers. When the turbo is blowing hard and wrenching at the horizon and the cornering forces are tugging at your insides, the Esprit is a real event. Buy carefully and you won’t regret it for a minute.
Engine: Inline 4-cyl. 2174cc, turbo 16v.
Layout: Mid-engined, rear-wheel drive
Max power: 215bhp @6000rpm
Max torque: 220lb ft @ 4250rpm
Power to weight: 156bhp/ton
Top speed: 152mph
What you’ll pay
Stevens-styled Turbos can cost as little as £9000 for high-mileage ‘87/88 cars; the 1988 car pictured here is a 55,000-miler, for sale at £11,995. The 1989 SE offers 264bhp; you’ll need £12-15,000 for a good one. In ‘93 the facelifted S4 arrived; expect to pay £15-18,000. The 300bhp Sport 300 (’92) and S4S (’94) are the most sought after four-cylinder Esprits and command between £20-25K. Early V8 Esprits are already available for just over £20,000.
UK Sports Cars 01227728190
Past Matty Sportscars 01527 835656
Club Lotus 01362 694459
Esprit (Based on 1988 car worth £12,000]
Driver A: £1145.55 with a £500 excess.
Driver 8: £450.45 with a £500 excess.
Source: Privilege Insurance, 0845 246 8336, Driver A: 28-year-old marketing manager. lives in Croydon, 3yrs NCB, 3 points for speeding Feb 99. Driver B 36 year-old mate solicitor, Lives in Wellingborough, car garaged. full NCB, clean record.