Improve on one of the most perfect shapes
from one of the greatest automotive designers; that was the scale of the challenge Lotus faced in producing a new Esprit.
For a decade and a half, Giugiaro's razor-edged faceted wedge had remained largely unaltered, its impact lying in its proportions rather then its detailing. Broad and flat, as low as a Countach but costing a third of the price, the agile Lotus had always been the supercar which broke the rules: an Italian-styled mid-engined exotic no dearer than a luxury sedan; a glorious racing pedigree clothed in a glass-fibre body; a 150 mph projectile with a mere four cylinders.
But those things alone could not slow the passing of time: by the mid 1980's the angular Lotus had looked increasingly dated compared to its peers; no less handsome, but quite plainly a product of an earlier generation of design. And it had its flaws: the assembly quality was erratic, there was barely any luggage space, no-one of more than medium height was likely to fit into it, and it was noisy at speed.
The Esprit Turbo's
dynamic abilities, on the other hand, had scarcely been equalled this side of the impossibly expensive Porsche 959, so improvements in that area were to some degree redundant. Benefiting from the separate steel backbone chassis which cradled the engine and transmission in a rear-facing fork, the Hethel team had a realistic option not easily available to mass-producers: it could consider a major re-skinning of the basic structure.
Thus the new Esprit had identical running gear (double wishbones in front, transverse links and trailing arms behind), but boasted a fresh, softened look. Door-frames and glass were the only externally recognisable parts, even the windscreen was now curved, to avoid the hollow look of the old flat and to help airflow around the A-pillars. This also allowed a little more headroom into the roof.
Every other line had been subtly changed: the waistline tilted up just a fraction, the front wing had a gentle downward curve, and the ugly air-inlet "ear" behind the door was gone. Instead, the rear side window curved inwards to trap air, which worked well, looked better, and, more significantly, allowed more air to flow over the quarters to the smooth horizontal lip on the tail.
That is why the Esprit did not need the previous tall spoiler. Another consequence of this was that the kick-up on the trailing edge of the roof had been dropped, since its purpose was in fact to kill some of the effect of the big spoiler, after testing showed a front-rear imbalance. A little extra internal length was gained by using the toe-board from the American-specification car, already a little more roomy, and the rear bulkhead was sqeezed back a fraction. The extra space gained was not great, but it was a help.
The tail-lights were sourced from the Toyota Corolla Coupé. Giugiaro is said to have liked the restyling, claiming it was perhaps too close to his original design.
Most observers agreed that the result was a tribute to Hethel's in-house design team, which numbered four designers and four design engineers under the leadership of Peter Stevens of McLaren F1 fame. Like the technical sections at Lotus, the design studio undertook outside consulltancy work, and the new Esprit was an excellent advertisement for its abilities.
A Bold New Shape
Apart from the restyling, there were other changes in the way the car was built. The details had changed little; a cursory glance might easily miss the telltale tightening of standards. Yet the rough edges were harder to find; the trim was less self-conscious. In sum, the Lotus Esprit exuded a maturity of execution which, being overdue, was all the more welcome.
It started with the bold new shape and followed through the careful fit of the panels to the comfortable blend of soft leather and woven fabric inside. As the quality of Lotus' own input had improved, the parts borrowed from larger manufactuers such as door handles and switches were less obvious than before, helped also by being sourced from higher-quality machinery.
What resulted was a vehicle of all-round poise, its external finish mirrored in the cabin, where the previous winged instrument pod had been softened to a more subtle housing sitting more happily on the angled fascia. The sloping top remained the striking element within the interior, but had practical drawbacks: it cramped the glovebox into being an inadequate wedge-shaped slot, and it meant that the fresh air vents were too low to offer any real ventilation. Nor was there any other storage save a little pouch in the centre of the rear.
Ergonomically the Esprit remained a mixture of good and bad; it rated highly for the seat-wheel-gearlever positioning, and the distance to the pedals, but there was barely space around the pedals to wear size nine outdoor shoes without catching the throttle while braking, and the handbrake lever remained unreasonably far away. The extra cockpit length allowed more rake adjustment for the seat-back, and the new removeable glass roof-panel gave extra headroom as well as dispelling the claustrophobic effect of the low roof, but the seats did not offer as much grip as they promised. Luckily the belts were very well positioned, and helped to restrain the body in more exciting manoevres, but access to the car was still restricted by the miserable angle to which the doors open.
The handsome leather wheel let the hands rest comfortably on it without obscuring the dials, which were grouped with the urgent ones framed by the wheel-rim. The less vital ones were set into the "wings of the binnacle, as were push-button switches for all lighting, and the whole assembly no longer vibrated like a tumble-dryer at 1l0mph. Over-the-shoulder views were still difficult, though helped to some degree by the angling of the small rear side-windows. However, despite the extraordinarily low height of the car and the consequent reclining driving position, there was a good view around the new slimmer screen pillars and in the softly-rounded door mirrors, electrically-heated from 1989.
The interior mirror was crook, being badly affected by reflections from the engine-cover in the "glassback", a toughened glass sheet which closed off three-quarters of the trough between the C-pillar buttresses. This feature was also the only way to tell the rear view of the Turbo from that of the plain Esprit, which lacked the small aerodynamic benefit it induced. Previously, Turbo cars boasted much more obvious nose and tail spoilers and wider wheels and tires than their unblown brethren; with the new model, part due to the lack of time during the redesign, and partly for simpler assembly, the Turbo stood out only through the glassback, inset spotlamps (which improved the drag figures), and body-coloured door-mirrors. This helped boost the image of the unblown £26,500 "starter model", still an exceedingly rapid car but overshadowed by the £31,900 flyer.
In the boot, too, there had been an improvement: pull the lever set into the rear bulkhead and the long rear cover swished up to the whistle of gas struts. Underneath, the luggage well had grown both deeper and longer. It was still an irregular shape, but the Stevens design Esprit could actually swallow a medium suitcase. Behind the luggage, the same cheap clips as before held down the insulated engine-cover, which gave minimal access to the l6-valve all-alloy twin-cam. Time, and super-car rivals, had marched on since this relatively simple system was "state of the art"; no intercooler, no electronic anti-knock device, no fuel injection. Instead, a simple cast-iron manifold snaked up from the turbo snuggling against the rear of the block to feed the two twin-choke Dellorto carburetors, pressure-sealed to allow them to cope with the boost.
Garret's small T3 turbo with its water-cooled bearings was now standard, dispensing with the need to let the engine idle briefly before killing the ignition, but the engine's output was unchanged. Wind the needle round the VDO dial to 6000 rpm, and the power surged up to 215 bhp, but feather the throttle and there was still nearly 100 horse power at the 3000 mark. The rest was waiting in the wings, surging into action with the mildest pause when the driver needed desired.
Even without black boxes to trim the spark, the Esprit's engine boasted enviable flexibility, from the slightly coarse rumble when it was relaxed to the taut whine which let you know it was hard at work; such was the advantage of forced induction, and don't forget that this small motor, (both physically and in capacity) operated at a fraction under the once-magical 100bhp/liter figure, without any of the low-speed weaknesses which were once inevitable. Only starting needed care: turbos of this era could be reluctant to start when hot, while for winter mornings there was a rare manual choke to remember.
Fuel-thirst was acceptable, even a little better than other cars with this sort of power, averaging about 22-23mpg over a mixed week of London crawling, long motorway hauls, and fast A and B-roads through Lincolnshire. Lotus had thoughtfully given the Turbo larger tanks carrying almost three gallons more fuel than the normally-aspirated Esprit, which offered l72bhp from an engine which was in most respects identical to the blown one. Because of the backbone design of the chassis, the petrol was contained in two tanks, one behind each seat, and each with its own filler. These tanks were inter-connected, but were so easy to choke and slow to fill that the only way to cram the maximum of 17.3 gallons in was to use both fillers alternately. For 1989, the filler-flaps are electrically operated.
Suspension settings on the Stevens Esprit remained as before, but where before the car felt harsh and chattery at anything like a suburban pace, these shudderings had disappeared, thanks to greatly increased body rigidity. This, plus reduced noise from aerodynamic sources, made the car feel very much smoother and more solid, as taut as before over the fast and hard stuff where it really flies, but a more acceptable place to be when the tarmac was suffering from neglect. This relatively small change makes an astonishing amount of difference to the pleasures of Esprit piloting. The peaks of unbreakable adhesion and seat-squashing acceleration, of delicate directional control and quick hard gearchanges, stand out from a plateau of general competence instead of being linked by terrible troughs of jarring discomfort.
It was by no means an effortless drive: the unassisted steering was no light weight at 80mph, and became hard going at 10mph, but that was a fair price for its accuracy and response. The clutch action was sudden rather than heavy, but the hearty low-rev torque made it easy to live with, and the action of the transaxle, sourced from one of the Esprit's rivals, the Renault GT A, was of an equally solid and strong nature, and fast to boot.
Lotus Cars Ltd, Hethel, Norfolk.
Mid-engined two-seater sports. Engine: 2174cc (9E.3 x 76.2mm) all-alloy straight four, dohc, 16 valves, cr 8.0:1. Garrett water-cooled TB03 turbocharger, twin Dellorto DHLA 45 carburetors. Power: 215bhp at 6000rpm. Torque: 2201b ft at 4250rpm.
Five-speed transaxle, single-plate clutch.
(Front): Double wishhbones, coil springs, telescopic dammpers. (Rear): Transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Steering: Rack and pinion.
Dual circuit, vacuum servo. (Front): 10.2in ventilated discs. (Rear): 10.8in solid discs.
Wheels and Tires:
(Front): 195/60 VR15 tires on 7JK alloy rims. (Rear): 235/60 VR15 tires on 8JK alloy rims. Performance: 0-60mph: 5.2sec; 30050mph: 5.9sec; 50-70mph: 4.5sec; 70090mph: 4.4sec. Max speed: 152mph. Economy: 22.8mpg overall.
£31,900 (UK in 1988).