The Lotus Esprit has been around for quite a while. The car has weathered several oil crises, has seen the American speed limit imposed and, ahem, modified, and has come through none the worse. Although the plant as the old World War II airfield of Hethel, near Norwich in East Anglia, doesn’t exactly resemble the latest exercise in robotics, the small factory is proud of it’s craftsmanship and the limited-production nature of the products which are quite literally molded into shape in the hangers that once housed B-24 Liberators of the 389th Heavy Bomb Group.
For 1988, Lotus introduces an all-new body for it’s flagship. The original body, designed by Gioggetto Giugiaro at Colin Chapman’s request on a modified Lotus Europa chassis, had that folded paper, automotive origami styling so in vogue in the Seventies, best exemplified by Giugiaro’s design of the original VW Scirocco. While many a more recent design has aged more rapidly, the Esprit styling has stood the test of time very well, but is now beginning to look just a bit dated. To inject some more life into the design, and to campaign in the American marketplace with renewed vigour, Lotus has designed an all-new body shell for the old mechanicals, still attached to the same steel backbone, but this time to body is an in-house design by Lotus’ own Peter Stevens. The body is made by Lotus’ patented VARI ( for vacuum assisted resin injection) method, allowing greater strength and better consistency than the old bucket and brush hand lay-up methods.
The new body exhibits a smoother, more rounded shape, the rear buttresses have been cleaned up, combustion-air inlets have been blended in behind the rear quarter windows, and a sheet of smoked glass open at the bottom for ventilation, has been added to improve aerodynamics, replacing the sopped backlight and black louvers of the earlier models. Also gone is the tacked-on appearance of the skirts and bumpers: the new car has a much more integrated look. Not surprising, because the older body had to change over the years to meet changing times and performance levels. For example, in the original road test (R&T July 1977) the Esprit ran 0-60 mph in 9.2 seconds, the quarter mile in 17 flat, and topped out at 120 mph. The Turbo, as last tested (June 1986) did 0-60 in 5.6, the quarter in 14.3, and had a top speed of 152. That sort of top-end performance will exact its toll in aerodynamic changes, hence the somewhat cobbled-up look of the last of the Giugiaro-based Esprits.
The new car should be faster still, thanks to its improved aerodynamics. Lotus claim a Cx of 0.33 to 0.35 compared will well over 0.40 on the older body. Much of the car comes from parts bins, but that doesn’t detract from the grace of its design. The taillights, for example, are taken directly from a mass-produced car, but work well in this design.
Moving on into the interior, one meets the expected Connolly hides, done as only the English (and yes, the Italians) can do them. In the new Esprit, a subtle 2-tone effect is used, with two welts of slightly contrasting colors forming a stripe running transversely across the seats and door panels, again making an integrated design statement. The shapes are familiar to those accustomed to the more recent models of the old Esprit, but, again like the exterior, exhibit a cleaner, rounder, more thoroughly thought-out look. The seats are (finally!) adjustable for rake. The instruments are housed in a binnacle which also contains pushbuttons for the road lights. Binnacle and dash are thoughtfully done in black leather to minimize annoying reflections in the windshield.
One thing I didn’t like, though, was the instrument panel layout. The instruments could be made a little larger and legible; the present small tach and speedometer are split by a boost gauge which could be located in some less important place. The smoked rear fairing detracts from the view through the vertical backlight behind the seats, the top half of the picture being considerably darker than the bottom, but one quickly gets used to this. The horn actuation, also, will require some getting used to: it’s on the left-side steering column stalk. A hot steering wheel hub would be a better solution; in fact, the wheel appears to have such an area, but it’s non-functional. The wheel buy the way, is a traditional 3 spoke design with nice indications to hook one’s thumbs into; many a carmaker has gone to trendier but less effective designs. Another feature I would have liked to see is a deal pedal: admittedly the wheel well intrudes quite far, but there is still enough room between it and the clutch pedal that needs to be filled. The side mirrors are still located aft of the A-pillars; locating them at the base of the pillar would improve visibility and soften the appearance of the gusset located there.
The mid-engined, double-overhead-cam 16-valve four fires up readily, as is to be expected with Bosch K-Jetronic. This car requires very little familiarization with pedals and shifter to make the driver feel quite in control; in fact, I was thrown in at the deep end, driving the U.S. specification pre-production car at high speeds, on the “wrong” side of the very narrow English country lances, with oncoming trucks – BIG trucks-leaning over into my lance. The best gauge of how far I could go to the left was the sound of bushes whacking against the bodywork. Yet the Esprit Turbo gave me a feeling of complete control over its every action.
Over-steer is there at the limit, but it’s not killer over-steer; one can pull the car back from the brink, it’s controllable at the limit and very forgiving for such a high-effort corner, the rear end will come out, as if to say “Why did you do that? Make up your mind!” but it can be caught by application of opposite lock. At speed, wind noise is present but not particularly obtrusive. If the revs are kept up, turbo lag is not noticeable. The shifter, controlling the Citroen-built transmission (for U.S. cars only; the rest of the world gets a Renault box) is still on the heavy side at low speeds and the reverse lockout still requires a hefty tug upwards, but at speed the shifter and clutch harmonize very well. The body impacts a very solid, relatively rattle-free feeling, thanks to detail engineering in the structure and the greater stiffness of the new design. In short, the car exemplifies the handling which one expects of a car carrying the Lotus badge. If the Esprit had a downside, it’s the engine. Not that there is anything seriously wrong with it, mind you, the power-plant is responsive (when it’s on boost) and has a lovely exhaust note. It’s just that for a base price of $62,500 ($69,500 for the commemorative edition) buyers may reasonably expect to get a least a V6. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lotus is charting some major changes in the engine room.
The new Esprit will be carried over the road by its predecessor’s suspension. Although Lotus is the leader in active suspension technology, the systems are not yet production ready (cost is a stumbling block). Lotus defines active suspension as one in which energy is added to the system. Other makers have adaptive suspensions, with control of damping or spring rates or self-levelling, although several other carmakers’ R&D labs are now playing catch-up.
Lotus had big plans for the future: the active suspension project M300 intended to compete square in the same class as the ultra-exotics such as Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche’s 959; and project M100, a small, more affordable sports car. Meanwhile, we have the new Esprit Turbo. An exotic by any standards, offering high performance in a limited-production car, Lotus hopes it will re-establish the company’s image in the U.S. as a maker of fine sporting machinery and pave to way for Loti of the future.