Fast Lane

Troubled Spirit - March 1991

It’s always been a looker, the Lotus Esprit. So low and wide, it’s pin – sharp Giugiaro lines first captured hearts at the Paris Motor Show in October 1975. I remember thinking low exciting it would be to have just one go in a car like this.
Later, when working at a garage, I had a chance to have that go. It was a customer’s car in for a third set of rear wishbones in four years, pot holes were to blame. An Esprit Turbo, it must have been one of the first basic white cars built (after the extravagant Albert Hall launch of the Turbo Esprit in 1980, the first 100 cars were delivered in Essex Racing livery).
It was then that I realised just how impractical these cars were. True, the mid-engined layout had been improved beyond all measure from its humble start in the 1966 Europa. This was longer, wider and the boot was bigger, but it was no load carrier. Then there was the poor visibility (that left you squirming to see what was behind you), the noise, the huge backbone chassis down the middle of the car that restricts arm movement, not to mention the totally invisible instruments. A reputation for fragility had lurked not far behind the Esprit, as had Arthur Daly’s prophetic words “I hear they fall out of bed, price-wise”.
By gum this car went. Howling up the wide Norfolk roads, it felt jolly exciting. We were the men they couldn’t hang . . . at least for two days. All the same, I remember thinking that the Esprit was more impressive to spectators than owners. Just think of the bills.
And so to this one, the base model 1991 Esprit, complete with a Garrett TB03 blower feeding twin side-draught Delortos. The naturally-aspirated Esprit is now dead, and the carburettor model tested here will follow it when exhaust catalysts become mandatory next year (fuel injection will be needed for the precise requirements of a three-way catalyst).
The engine is the short-stoke, 2.2-litre, four-pot, four-valve-per-cylinder 9105 unit, which delivers 215bhp at 6,000rpm and 215lb ft at 4,250. Above this model are the fuel-injected, catalyst-equipped Esprit S, which delivers 228bhp, and the mighty inlet chargecooled, injected and catalysed Esprit SE which, with its 264bhp, is claimed to be one of the world’s fastest cars, with a claimed maximum speed of 163mph and 0-60mph acceleration of 4.7sec. That costs £11,400 more than the humble base Esprit (£24,900 including taxes), however.


The engine drives into a transaxle-mounted five-speed manual gearbox, originallydesigned for the Maserati-engined Citroen SM. Independent rear suspension is via upper and lower transverse links, with trailing links and coil springs. The front is via upper and lower wishbones with coil springs and an anti-roll bar. Telescopic dampers are fitted all round.
The comprehensively revamped body was launched at the Earls Court Motorfair in October 1987. Updated completely in-house by Lotus, the lines were softened and the car was given a more contemporary feel. Lotus is justifiably proud of its handiwork, and it is true that the chubbier flanks, blacked-out chrome and radiused curves have brought the car up-to-date. I prefer the original though, with its stark, almost folded edges and brutal looks. It was a statement, something the restyled car can never be.
There is absolutely no question about performance, however. A blustery day saw a mean of 148mph round Millbrook’s bowl, which validated Lotus’s claims of 150mph, allowing for tyre scrub. The claimed 0-60mph time of 5.3 sec was matched exactly, helped a little by a damp track, which allows the wheels to spin more freely, thus keeping engine revolutions and therefore turbo boost high.
The in-gear acceleration times are just as impressive, although the carburated engine cannot cope with very low speed acceleration in the way that the fuel=injected models can. An example of this is the 50-70mph increment, which in fifth gear takes 6.6sec, but can be reduced to 4.3, or even 2.9 if fourth or third are used. Even so, those figures mean that, 16 years on, Colin Chapman’s plastic monster can happily exchange punches with all the most modern mid-engined equipment written about elsewhere in this issue. It can put an Aston Martin Virage into the shade (0-60mph in 6.5sec, fourth gear 30-50 in 6.4, fifth gear 50-70 in 7.7) and can severely embarrass the giant-killing Caterham 7 and Lotus’s own Elan SE.


Out on the road, the low-speed coughing of the carbs is not really a problem. No one really drives around at 20mph in fifth unless they live in Worthing and wear a flat hat and, above 1,500rpm, the Esprit can be relied upon to give smooth and relatively seamless acceleration up to the 7,000rpm red line. Keeping the engine on the boil is never a problem, especially with the quality of the gear change, which belies its long throws to give fast and easy shifts. The twin-cable linkage isolates the lever so that it is difficult to tell whether the gears are synchronising properly, but on the whole it is very good and massively better than earlier models.
New for the 1991specification cars is standard anti-locking brakes, which gives impressively high levels of retardation without cycling the brakes, something Lotus was very keen on achieving. Despite very hard braking on the road, the all-disc snit-locking system never cut in. Only a brutal application on the Millbrook track started the system, as which point it cycled the brakes perfectly adequately. The latter are a bit lifeless, however. Their cold performance leaves something to be desired, and only when they are properly warm can snatch-free braking with proper levels of speed reduction be attained, albeit without much feel and progression. Confidence is not helped by the cramped footwell, which barely accommodates large feet. As a general principle, Lotus wanted the Esprit to be the nearest they could get “to a street legal Grand Prix car”; a careless statement of the type that are thrown away by motoring industry executives all the time. Certainly, Lotus wanted to give the Esprit the high power-to –weight ratio and road holding that it has. If you like, it gives Joe Public a motion about what a Grand Prix car would be like . . .if they ever got a chance to drive in one.
In theory, the mid-engined configuration gives a lower polar moment of inertia, which should help to give a lower resistance to changes in direction and a better response to corning and steering inputs. It should also allow a more equal front/rear weight distribution, getting closer to the magical 50/50 percent split, which equalises some of the demands made of the front and rear suspension.
These features on their own do not confer good handling (there are intervening factors like suspension design and performance, tyre slip angles and yaw), but they do help. Mid-engine layouts unfortunately suffer from other inherent problems. They can be twitchy, because of the same low polar moment of inertia that gives them their quick responses. They tend to have very high levels of roadholding, which can encourage the uninitiated to travel faster than they are capable, but they do not give the progressive warning signs of breakaway that a front / rear-wheel drive car might exhibit. Rear suspension designs are often compromised, because the engine and gearbox are in the way. They are expensive as parts cannot be taken from ordinary cars, and they can be cramped, because the layout invariably takes up a lot of passenger and luggage room.


To answer some of the earlier criticisms, Lotus has dialled quite a lot of feel into the steering system of the Esprit and some understeer into the chassis. The steering still feels heavy and a little dull (a criticism of Lotus), despite all the information that reaches the driver through the wheel at even low to medium speeds and it will still not tell you with sufficient warning when you are about to slide off (a criticism of the mid-engined layout).
With a trailing or steady throttle, the Lotus will understeer hard, but not as hard as the turbo models with their slightly different weight distribution and suspension setup. Small amounts of throttle will pull the nose into line, but the tail of the car can be brought round all too easily without due care.



Inside the cockpit, the car is awkward and dated. High on the list of impracticalities is the inability of anyone over 6ft to see any of the instruments or switches, except the cigar lighter and the rather tacky ice warming gauge. “Good evening Officer. No I have no idea what speed I was doing, but you must be jolly cold out there, have a cigar.” The very poor side and rear visibility (in spite of the large rear-view mirrors), bent spoon driving position and central chassis tunnel, which traps your elbow when trying to steer, must also be cited.
Whether or not the idea of a weekend jaunt with your Mistress in a high-performance two-seater (with room enough for a pair of tooth brushes and camisole) is dated, could be argued. If it isn’t, then it must have been Elvis serving the fish and chips last night. Also long gone is the Victorian street sweeper, who would clear a crossing in the road for those who could pay. Even rich people get their feet dirty nowadays, and light cream leather upholstery and carpets must be one of the most impractical ways to finish the inside of any car. Black or dark grey would be just as attractive, and more practical.
Although it is getting on a bit, the Esprit can still match the performance of many other mid-engined supercars. Lotus has revisions in hand that will increase the grip, power and keep the Esprit up to date with the best. Interior aside, it is a pretty good example of the mid-engined genre. It seems a shame that this blown carburettor model has only a short period left before catalysts become mandatory and fuel injection is needed.


But is the mid-engined car an anachronism? It recalls a period in the 1970s when men really existed who thought they could defy the laws of nature. Every week, series like Mission Impossible and Department S promoted a myth that the latest technology could be tamed by men with Zapata moustaches and enormous medallions. With a wide, open road, and considerable courage, the mid-engined layout is supremely capable; probably more capable than any other engine/drive configuration. In practice, however, with tight roads, and less than perfect surfaces, the poor early warning inherent in the layout, lack of visibility and high potential speeds mean that, if one gets into trouble, even split-second reflexes will not help you regain control before you plough a country bus stop or end up on the wrong side of the road; you’ll be going too fast, and need too much road to get it back into line. Lotus admitted as much when it dialled artificial understeer into the chassis to provide a margin of safety, which it undoubtedly does.
Lotus test engineers also freely admit the latest Elan SE, even with less power, is a faster A-to-B car. You can see out of it, it communicates early enough to do something about it, it’s cheaper and large people can drive it too.
My feelings have not changed about the Esprit in spite of the improvements made. It is still a better car to admire than to own.