Revitalised Lotus shows its British mettle
Independent British sportscars are now a distinct rarity in the rarefied atmosphere of internationalism, writes Iain Robertson, and while Lotus Cars is owned by a Malaysian parent company, its Britishness is still its greatest attribute.
There was a time, when British cars, let alone its sporting models, used to rule the waves. From our small island cluster, a massive business operation exported hundreds of thousands of motorcars to its Commonwealth and innumerable export markets. Sadly, it is no longer the case, even though the Japanese brands, like Toyota, Nissan and Honda, have ensured that UK-based automotive enterprise and expertise has not been totally squandered. To them, to a certain extent, we ought to be grateful.
However, British sportscars were a specialist undertaking, predominated by the Jaguars, Triumphs, MGs and Austin-Healeys of old, supported by Squires, Ginettas, Listers, Bristols and Morgans (of even older), on the back of which grew a multi-level line-up of glass fibre models, such as Marcos, Clan, Davrian, Rochdale, TVR, Ultima and Westfield, as well as a cottage industry of lesser brands. Some of them survive today, among which is Lotus.
Naturally, it takes a lot to survive. Lotus grew from the motorsport aspirations of one man, Colin Chapman. To state that he was a brilliant tactician and a genius engineer is almost an understatement, as he was both and a whole lot more besides. His oft-quoted comments form elements of automotive dialogue around the world today, even though he died in December 1982. Yet, his forward plan was so succinct that, despite more than a few attempts to rock the boat, Lotus Cars and Lotus Engineering survive today.
The company has suffered a few shaky moments in the past couple of decades, having been saved from the potential ignominy of ‘collapse’ by Romano Artioli, a one-time European Lotus concessionaire, who also ‘saved’ the Bugatti brand (now licensed to VW Group) and brokered the sale of Lotus to what was Proton and is now DRB-Hicom, the Malaysian conglomerate that also saved Proton. Apart from the Danny Bahar years, which were charismatic but largely unproductive, Lotus continued to be shoved from pillar to post until the arrival, in May 2014, of its current CEO, Mr Jean-Marc Gales, whose sense of commercial reality arising from a broad cross-section of major brand responsibilities is already bearing positive fruit.
To put that statement into perspective, under his stewardship, Lotus has grown by well over 50% in comfortably less than one year. His consolidation of the company’s products and its outlook has resulted in more positive profits forecasts and signs of a future that might have been denied otherwise to the Norfolk-based carmaker. His remit is a strong one that enables Lotus to promote confidently its core features of inherent strength, consummate engineering talent, stunning design and a lightness of purpose that enhances its high-performance delivery. There is no illusion. There are no smoke and mirrors. Lotus is hardcore and it is back from the brink.
These facts are never more competently expressed than through its latest products. The almost entirely new Evora 400, just recently revealed at the Geneva Motor Show, which replaces the former multi-award-winning Evora range, is a drop-dead gorgeous supercar that boasts and achieves performance levels that are no less than simply stunning. That it can lap the test track at Hethel (the home of Lotus) no less than SIX seconds faster than any other Lotus road car, while being more accommodating, more powerful (400bhp), lighter (by 22kgs), stronger and even more beautiful is grist to Lotus’s mill.
I shall mention the new Exige V6 Automatic (in either coupe, or roadster forms) but I shall reserve comments to a more comprehensive road test in due course. That leaves the subject of this diatribe; the new Lotus Elise S Cup.
Critics will state that the mid-engined Elise, which I was privileged enough to see being unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show almost 19 years ago, is now an ‘aging’ model. Yet, it has been revamped most successfully throughout its model life, which can be regarded as a gargantuan exercise for a small, specialist player like Lotus. What I can tell you up-front is that it remains as ‘box-fresh’ as it has ever been, it still looks fantastic and its performance is electrifying.
In S Cup form, it is powered by a supercharged, 217bhp, Toyota 1.8-litre, transversely mounted engine, driving its rear wheels through a six-speed, close ratio, manual gearbox. Taking the racing (Cup R) model as its base and toning it back ever so slightly to create a road-going sportscar is no less than a masterstroke, of which only Lotus is a viable manufacturer. The result is the most focussed version of the Elise ever.
Its power-to-weight ratio is an exhilarating 235bhp/tonne, which warrants its supercar-baiting 0-60mph benchmark acceleration time of 4.2 seconds, before it rushes to a maximum speed of 145mph. However, with lightness at its core, its Official Combined fuel economy is given as a realistic 37.5mpg (I attained well in excess of 34mpg during the test session, despite delving deeply into its remarkable performance range), with a CO2 rating of just 175g/km. As a result, the Elise S Cup proves its viability as a usable daily runner that does not break the bank.
Yet, the revelation lies in its on-road (and track) chassis dynamics. The ride quality is firm but not so hard that the fillings are rattled from your teeth. In fact, thanks to the exceptional torsional strength of its extruded and glued aluminium sub-structure, the suspension is allowed to perform whatever tasks are requested of it. It is a sportscar, therefore it features double wishbone front suspension to ensure that the tyres maintain optimum contact with terra firma. Yet, there is more to this truly compact two-seater, which comes from its direct relationship with a long line of immensely successful racing cars.
On-track victories demand especially focused chassis dynamics, where not power but agility is the key. The Elise possesses those innate skills in abundance, with deliciously weighted but non-assisted steering that provides ‘feel’ in spades and bump and rebound damper rates that highlight the car’s on-circuit competence. The track focus means an aerodynamics package that provides an unerring advantage even to a model intended for predominant road use. It centres on a complete lack of ‘lift’ that would upset its handling balance but enhances the overall grip of the chassis with a down force of no less than 145lbs at 100mph (an astonishing 275lbs at its maximum velocity), which can be attributed to those little fillets of composite trim at its extremities and via the side-located ‘barge-boards’ of the car.
Yet, away from the test track, where the S Cup’s real capabilities can be stretched and experienced, digging into the traction management of the electronic differential lock and the Lotus developed Dynamic Performance Management programme in Sport mode, its road manners are exemplary. It will potter painlessly and frugally along A and B routes but the way in which the public back lanes near to the Lotus factory can be covered at legal but enjoyable speeds is the stuff of legends and, what’s more, it stops as well as it goes and slicing up and down the gears is a delight more normally the premise of a £100,000 exotic.
Thankfully, the Elise is small and agile enough to tolerate bucking and twisting surfaces, let alone tortuous bends. While it is a different type of muscle flexing to a racetrack’s demands, the S Cup is no less rewarding to drive, lacing together corners with the eagerness of a polecat, yet always faithful to driver input. The S Cup is confidence inspiring and always engaging but never demanding of the driver. Although I would never allow a maiden aunt to borrow the car (well, not mine anyway), were she to drive an Elise S Cup to the shops, or the Darby & Jones Club, she would arrive unflustered and only slightly moved by the experience, certainly no more than riding on her twin-tub!
Conclusion: Lotus is back and big time! There are no more half-truths about future models, just a more realistic and manageable plan, by which existing resources are exploited and the sportscar ethos is explored to more natural ends. The Elise S Cup is not merely competent but highlights the tremendous talent inherent to the Lotus brand. The S Cup is a ‘must own’ sportscar to demonstrate that thrills and enjoyment can still exist in a motorcar. Yet, it remains usable, immense fun and affordable, even at £43,500, especially when you remember that it can deliver on-track, as well as on-road.