When Lotus showed five new cars at the Paris Auto Show last summer, the British Sports Car brand raised a number of eyebrows amongst the motoring press. Not only was Lotus abandoning its lovable but hugely unprofitable enthusiast/trackday niche, but it was also reaching for Ferrari and Porsche-style brand recognition while offering an ambitious but underwhelming (on paper anyway) vision of its future product lineup. Five new vehicles (three mid-engine, two front-engine, four two-door coupes, one four-door sports sedan) is a lot of development work, and initial reports that Lotus would use Toyota power including hybrid drivetrains didn’t create much for enthusiasts to get worked up over. Lotus has since backed away from using Toyota power, but developing engines for five new vehicles creates a whole new set of challenges. And, as it turns out, Lotus has wuietly backed away from the most ambitious elements of its plan, and the firm now plans to launch only two cars at first. Has Lotus turned the corner from hype machine to credible competitor?
In stark contrast to its splashy, celebrity-driven re-launch, Lotus’s recent change of plans has occurred without much fanfare. In fact, the news seems not to have percolated through the internet yet, as word comes to us from the pages of the print edition of evo Magazine. According to evo’s reporting, Lotus’s first all-new car will be the Esprit, a Ferrari 458/McLaren MP4-12C competitor with a Spring 2013 launch date. Lotus wants its mid-engined supercar to hit a weight target of 3,300 lbs, which would make it only slightly heavier than the ultra-light-weight MP4-12C, and more importantly, Lotus wants to sell the Esprit for some 20 percent less than the 458 and MP4-12C’s $250k-ish MSRP.
The Esprit will be powered by a naturally-aspirated V8, which Lotus is developing in-house. Wolf Zimmerman, who formerly oversaw powertrain and then vehicle development at AMG before joining Lotus, will guide development of this all-new V8 that he says will emphasize light weight and high-revs. Zimmerman does not favor dual-clutch transmissions (especially with a weight limit like the Esprit’s), and he’s looking at “several alternatives.” But perhaps the most interesting design feature of Lotus’s next-gen sportscars involves the placement of the (still undefined) gearbox, namely in a transaxle layout. This will allow the engine to bolt directly to the gearbox for the mid-engined Esprit, or to connect to a front-mounted V8 via a torque tube for the front-engine Elite GT car (due later in 2013). In either application, the gearbox will be mounted in the same position, allowing engineers to share key components between the two cars, including suspension, driveshafts and hub assemblies. This is one of the first bits of news from the new Lotus that in any way reeks of pragmatism, and is accompanied by Zimmerman’s pledge that he wants to build Lotus’s brand as much on a reputation for “intelligent engineering solutions” as stripped-out trackday racers.
And there’s one other bit of pragmatic news coming out of Lotus: earlier plans called for an end to the recently-developed Evora, but instead Lotus has decided it will keep the Cayman competitor in the lineup and continue to develop the model. A mid-engined, V6-powered Elan which was part of Lotus’s five-car Paris lineup has been dropped from the company’s plans, as it competed too directly with both the Evora and the Esprit, and likely would have required the development of a new engine. Instead, the Evora will likely receive convertible and targa variants, as well as a track-tuned Exige-style trackday version.
Speaking of which, a new Elise isn’t planned until 2014, and it’s not clear if Lotus plans to develop its own four-cylinder engine for that application or if it will continue to rely on Toyota power. Nor is it clear how radically different it will be: Lotus says fiberglass composite construction is out for its new, larger models, but won’t say whether the Elise will move to aluminum body panels as well. Meanwhile, “purist” sportscars are out going forward: Lotus will continue to offer track-tuned versions of its cars, but the company vows to make things like cabin ingress and interior space and comfort less compromised in future iterations. The emphasis is now on “everyday useability.”
By keeping and developing the Evora, while focusing on two jointly-developed sportscar models, Lotus has clearly taken a step back from its monstrously ambitious but poorly-defined Paris plans. The new strategy, though not without its pitfalls, seems considerably more evolutionary and pragmatic thananything else we’ve heard from Lotus thus far. But the firm’s not out of the woods yet: Lotus is waiting on a “derogation application” to the EU in Brussels, requesting the governing body grant it the right to produce cars with double its 2007 C02 output levels.
Lotus is arguing that it couldn’t stay afloat with its previous business model, and claims it will still be greener than Ferrari, Lamborghini and the rest of its high-end European competition. But the plans for high-revving, normally-aspirated engines, even as the competition moves towards downsized, forced-induction and even hybrid drivetrains, could spell trouble. And if, nine months or so from now, Brussels tells Lotus that it doesn’t want another high-carbon automaker in its jurisdiction, all the development work on that in-house V8 could be for naught. And if that happens, Lotus could find itself short a lot of development money and without a lot of options. Though exhibiting a decided turn towards the pragmatic, Lotus’s newplans are hardly without their risks…