The cars we loved.
Among British sports car builders, few can claim the respected for its technical prowlers than Lotus. Long a proponent of doing more with less, its Esprit looked the part of an exotic, but with half the displacement of a typical Ferrari. For Lotus squeezing every ounce of power out of engines as small as 2 liters required careful planning with a serious diet unbecoming of typical road cars. In 1980 turbocharging the 2.2-liter four cylinder would boost Esprit power to over 200, while top speed approached 150 mph. After that a string of turbocharged cars would carry the Esprit further into V8 super car territory with half the cylinders.
That formula work well for the Esprit for most of its life. It kept up with Corvettes and Jaguars while out cornering them too. Thanks to the Esprit’s fiberglass body it was light weight and willing to change directions quickly. The weight of the mid-mounted engine (behind the seats) was compensated for with careful component positioning. The low slung wedge shape Esprit could trace its shape to Giugiaro’s design of the early ’70’s. While in some respects it was timeless due to its simplicity, the wedge that was so cool in 1976 was starting to show its age. Small refinements kept it updated, but after a string of turbo models, the concept seem to have reached the conclusion of its evolution by 1995.
The four cylinder had evolved to the point that Lotus could no longer continue coax more power from it without damaging reliability. It was clearly time for a change. So in 1987 there was a substantial re-skin of the Esprit. Its hard edges gave way to aerodynamic touches like rounded edges while maintaining the same basic profile. New 16 in wheels placed the new Esprit firmly in to the ’90s. More updates would come in 1992, adding additional ducts and vents. The changes were subtle, but overall refreshed the Esprit to the point of looking totally modern.
The interior is where the Esprit needed a makeover most. Esprit dashboards of the past had a almost homemade pieced together look. The new dash and console looked as if it had come from Honda, with a all of one piece look. The original 70’s era ergonomics were sufficiently masked to the point of looking like a different car altogether. Only the high transmission/drive train tunnel reminded you that you were still in a Esprit. The new interior did little to increase interior volume. The Esprit was still strictly a two seater with hardly room for as much as a small purse.
The most significant change would appear under the hood, but not until 1996. Lotus had seemingly moved to the dark side, swapping four cylinders for eight. Not just any V8 mind you. In keeping with its philosophy of lightness, the all aluminum DOHC 32 valve design featured a healthy 350 hp (nearly as powerful as the bigger V8 Lotus created for the first Corvette ZR1). That was 50 more hp than a typical Corvette with a 5.7-liter LT1. The 5 speed manual transmission no longer needed to work so hard at lower speeds due to the larger engines improved drivability (thanks to more low end torque). The Garrett T25 twin turbo setup lacked the lag of previous systems, making power delivery smoother. The refinements placed the Esprit’s 0 to 60 time into Viper territory at 4.1 seconds. Top speed was a cool 175 mph. All those new ducts and vents would finally have purpose.
Driving a Esprit to those speeds was not for the faint of heart. Although its chassis was tuned liked a race car, it was no GT cruiser. Vibration and noise were common complaints at speed, all amplified by the small and cramped cabin. Esprit owners tended to be more driver enthusiasts, vs the owners of other sports cars. They were rewarded with competition grade handling but at a cost. The race car connection may have been stronger than many drivers would have liked due to the fussy nature of the complicated engine. Its been said that no one Lotus ownership experience was alike, a term that would could not be said about cars like Acura NSX or even the Corvette. Even exotic car buyers were beginning to expect the high quality and reliability thanks to the NSX. Lotus clearly had more work to do.
Despite being based on a design that originated in ’70s, the Esprit had still had its gremlins, even in its final evolution. Quality remained an issue for some drivers and Esprit needed to be carefully maintained. While the exotic car market was moving to more user friendly owner experience, the Esprit was still mired in a reputation of being a hard core enthusiast machine. That was not good for the Esprit, but the next generation of sport cars from Lotus would benefit from improve quality and a better owner experience.
By 2002, the final evolution of the twin turbo V8 powered Esprits were the most impressive yet. With 350 hp and a top speed of 175, it was the most exotic looking of the 24 models of Esprit over the car’s 28 year history. Only 292 were built when production ended in 2004. While not quite reaching collector status, the last Esprit car are likely to appreciate in value over time.