Cult Cars Road Tests

Cult Car: Lotus Esprit

Time 7:45 am, September 10, 2010

lotus3It’s the 35th year since Lotus debuted the Esprit at the Paris Motor Show. It marked a real change in the brand’s approach, moving upmarket into the higher echelons of supercardom. How fitting, then, that the firm should be doing the very same thing this year, too – at, yes, the Paris Motor Show…

If the unveilings this year are as dramatic as the original Esprit, Lotus will be set for a bright future. For, out of all the cars it has ever made (and there have been many) the Esprit is probably the most time-honoured. The majority of people know the distinctive wedge shape for one reason: James Bond. 

The Esprit was the car that swam. That it was seen in The Spy Who Loved Me – actually quite a decent Bond film – has helped its immortality, and given it plenty of cred to even the most passive car buffs. Mind you, Lotus helped such prosperity along here: the Esprit was sold from 1976 to 2004, and the wedge profile was not really changed during that time. 

Giugiaro designed the original, as a British rival to continent-crossing cars such as Porsches, Maseratis and Lamborghinis. Ever the entrepreneur, engineering genius Colin Chapman utilised lots of off-the-shelf parts to keep the costs below those icons, which helped the Esprit gain viability in the marketplace. 

Sadly, this approach also saddled it with a four-cylinder engine that was to burden it for pretty much the rest of its life. Rivals offered six-pots or V8s; the roughness of the Esprit’s mid-mounted 160bhp 2.0-litre didn’t really cut the mustard. Thankfully, most forgave it this failing, because of one thing: its utterly brilliant handling. 

Even in original Series 1 guise, this big Lotus drove impeccably, with among the best steering systems of any car in the world – ever. Rave reviews followed, praising Lotus’ approach, and even celebrating the fact it had kept the kerbweight so low. Thanks, in part, to that four-cylinder engine, of course. 

The glassfibre construction was another reason here. Again, this kept construction costs reasonable but also gave marketable advantages the firm could really exploit. And how it did; enough to justify an improved S2 model a few years later, with a punchier 2.2-litre S2.2 arriving in 1980 to ease some of the powerplant gripes. An S3 came in due course, but what really gave the Esprit a timely boost (if you’ll forgive the pun) was 1980’s Esprit Turbo. 210bhp doesn’t sound much by today’s standards but it turned this into a 150mph car that could hit 60mph in 5.6 seconds. At last, supercar performance had come to Lotus’ supercar. 

By the late 1980s, it was looking dated. This could have signalled the end of the Esprit – but instead, it was given its first (and only) major facelift. McLaren F1 designer Peter Stevens did the honours, transforming the Esprit into something modern again.


It received more power, but the biggie came in 1989: Lotus bolted on an intercooler, pushing the Turbo up to 264bhp, with 280bhp available for short (ahem) bursts. 0-60mph fell to 4.7 seconds and a top speed of more than 160mph meant Lotus had to fit a rear spoiler and flash side skirts. Result? The Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, a model so iconic, it even had a computer game named after it. 

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And so it continued, through ever-more focused iterations based on Lotus’ success in sportscar racing with its long-running stalwart. So able were the Sport 300 and GT3 models, it was therefore a bit of a surprise when a long-awaited V8 engine arrived in 1996. Yes, 20 years on, the Esprit got a bespoke 3.5-litre V8!

With 350bhp, 175mph and 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds, it should have been magnificent. Alas, being based on a racing design meant it didn’t really ‘sound’ quite as it should, lacking the aurals of a fizzy Ferrari. The Esprit carried on for another eight years with it in the back, but the expected image lift we’d seen in the past didn’t really arrive. 

It was killed off in 2004; since then, rumours have swirled around a replacement. Now, though, they may at last be about to come true, if the excitement around the Paris announcement is anything to go by. In what form, we do not know, but it certainly won’t be cheap – rumours say this could be the £100k-plus Lotus… As the Esprit proved, though, it can be done, if the car is right. Will it be? Lotus dealers the world over will certainly be hoping so. 

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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