1987 Lotus Esprit Turbo SE
The Esprit was the flagship sports car for Lotus from 1976 to 2004. Originally designed by the famous Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, its shape was an early example of the “folded paper” school of design, the angularity of which was becoming the trend in exotic sports car design as the 70’s emerged. The polygonal, steeply raked shape of the original car was startling, but it was the clever engineering that made the Esprit stand out amongst the supercar crowd. The geometric themes continued inside with a steeply raked windshield pushing the dashboard forward in a flowing cockpit style driver and passenger quarters separated by a high tunnel for the transmission.
It had long been the Lotus tradition to make more with less, a trait shared with many Japanese manufactures. The fruit of this engineering doctrine was well illustrated in the Esprit. With rear wheel drive and propelled with a 2.0 L 4 cylinder engine, the Esprit sounded more like a typical econo car on paper – at first. Maintaining light weight (via a fiberglass body) and superb chassis dynamics (mid engined) was a priority with Lotus and the resulting attention to detail made the Esprit a true road car able to run with the world’s best on curvy roads. With only 160 hp initially, the Esprit was critized for lack of power, especially in markets were pollution controls reduced power further.
Lotus continually addressed the problem of power as displacement and output grew slightly. The Esprit came into its own with the introduction of turbocharging in 1980. The single turbo allowed engineers to maximize the output of the small 4 cylinder, while maintaining respectable fuel economy by sports car standards. At only 2.2L, the little four produced 210 hp and was able to move the lightweight Esprit to 60 mph from stand still in only 5.6 seconds. Not bad for a four-cylinder.
The Lotus mystique goes beyond pop culture,as the company has made a name for itself as an engineering force, often tuning special editions of other makers cars, including Isuzu, Hyundai, Chrysler, Toyota, and GM. Lotus co-developed the legendary V8 engine used in the first ZR-1 Corvette.
The Esprit underwent a final redesign from a in-house team lead by Julian Thompson in 1993 before abandoning the turbocharged 4 cylinder configuration for V8 power in 1996. The latest design kept with the rakish overall look, but now, the grill, vents and ports were smimplfied somewhat and made to look more functional. The overall effect was very subtle. Still fast and a capable performer, now with twin turbocharging and over 350 hp, Esprit performance moved up a notch in keeping up with the times. Some mechanical issues dimmed the otherwise glowing reviews of the first V8 powered cars.
The Esprit continued with only minor cosmetic changes until the end of production in 2002. Rumors floated for some time that a new Esprit was just around the corner. Images on the internet seemed to confirm that a new Esprit was in development, but to date no new car yet. For now If you have just got to have a second-hand Esprit, there are plenty of pre turbo cars floating about in the market for under 20K and turbo ones for not much more. fortunately, these cars were rare and expensive enough when new that they never really made it into the hands of those who would have modified them with sill boy racer add ons. Good examples of early pre turbo cars can be had for as little as 15K while post 1987 cars still fetch in the high 20s and low 30s. Either way when and if a new Esprit comes out, it should be worth the wait if recent offerings from Lotus are any indication.
Development of the turbo continued, although it never went beyond 2.2 literes. Just before the 90’s approached the Esprit got a major redesign by in-house designer Peter Stevens. The Stevens design was significantly more modern with rounded ends where angularity once existed. Ground effects, vents and ducts rounded out the look and a revised rear wing improved aerodynamics and high-speed stability. Under the hood the turbo engine, still at only 2.2 literes now produced over 260 hp due to an improved intercooler and other modifications. Other variations of the turbo pushed horsepower up to 300, all still with a 4 cylinder engine and a rear wheel drive layout, much like the original 1976 car. Sales were good and the Esprit soon became the petro darling of the motoring press. Praise usually centered around the cars handling and rocket like acceleration. The Lotus could easily keep up with V8 powered Corvettes, turbo 911s and the occasional Ferrari. Many Americans were introduced to the Esprit in the James Bond films from the seventies. A new generation saw the Esprit cast in popular films a decade later like 1990’s “Pretty Woman”, where star Julia Robert’s character Vivian teaches Edward played by Richard Gere how to drive a stick using his friends silver 90′ Esprit (the car was sold years later for 54k).