The gasoline-powered Lotus ultimately chose dynamic purity over sheer power.
Lotus was born out of innovation but has spent much of its recent history in stagnation. Founder Colin Chapman transformed Formula One and other top sports car racing series and sold light, smart road cars. With the launch of the Esprit in 1976 – the second most popular car after the Lamborghini Countach – the British company also became the original pioneer of the mid-engine sports car.
But after Chapman’s death in 1982, Lotus’s fortunes declined. The company is transferred between owners who are often cash-strapped, the development fund is in short supply, and its history over the past quarter century can be introduced in a few sentences. Elise’s novelty bonded aluminium frame was launched in 1996, the larger and arguably more practical Evora launched in 2010, and the monumental plan to launch five new models then collapsed with the heartbreaking departure of CEO Dany Bahar in 2012, make the current sample have range to the soldier on. Evora continued to sell in fewer and fewer quantities until it retired last year.
Now, there’s an all-new Lotus sports car, the last model the company will launch before switching to an all-electric powertrain. Emira was developed using a significant sum of money from Chinese automaker Geely, which took control of Lotus in 2017.
It will go on sale later this year with buyers able to choose between a turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 derived from Toyota and —Next year— a turbocharged 2.0-liter straight-line four-cylinder engine from amg. Earlier, we had the opportunity to drive a V-6 engine prototype on the track at Lotus’s Hethel plant in Norfolk, England.
Although the car we drive looks much neater than the shaggy, camouflaged test mule used during initial development, it remains in pre-production specifications. According to Gavan Kershaw, Lotus’s director of attributes, this is a VP2-level prototype that has been borrowed from the group of cars being used to test driver assistance systems ahead of the Emira’s official launch.
The supercharged V-6 engine, familiar from the Evora, produces 400 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque (the Emiras are equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission that is considered 317 pound-feet); Our car has a standard six-speed manual gearbox and a mechanical slip limit differential. It also uses softer Tour suspension and Goodyear Eagle F1 tires rather than the racetrack-oriented Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 type that will be offered as an option.
The Emira looks great in the flesh, sleek and the sizable air intakes behind the door make it look more like a junior supercar than a sports car. Apart from the stickers announcing this as a prototype, there are few clues that the car we drive lacks production parameters. Some plastics inside don’t have a floating finish, there are a few well-hidden emergency off buttons, and track dynamic mode doesn’t work.
But the sense of quality is still impressive, especially compared to evora’s rudimentary finished cabin. Emira is constructed of an aluminum structure linked by adhesives — the same technique Lotus has used since Elise’s time — but the entrance and exit have been greatly improved thanks to narrower sills and deeper apertures.
Although made of plastic in advance, Emira’s interior is also impressive, with soft lines on the doors and dashboards and a good ergonomic system. Many of the parts come from elsewhere in the group – the turn signals and wipers are apparently supplied by Volvo – but the digital panel and central touchscreen are displayed sharply with custom-made graphics. Good driving position, with rich tuning ability and decent overhead space, and looking outward through the windshield, it is possible to see the top of the fenders that help locate the car.
While the Evora is designed to be 2+2, the Emira is purely a two-seater, although there is still room to squeeze soft luggage between the back of the seat and the rear firewall.
Our drive at Hethel took place in an English environment suitable for wind gusts and rain, but Emira was happy to show off her talents on the wet surface of the 2.2-mile test track. The V-6 turbocharged engine is quieter at lower revs than the Evora, as the convertible exhaust valve keeps it muted in the default Tour driving mode, but choosing Sport mode or letting the engine pass 4000 rpm will switch to a bigger setting and help the car find its voice. As before, the V-6 is not a car with a special high rev with a red line set at a speed of only 6800 rpm, but it gives a muscular feel throughout the range and delivers a no-lag response.
We live in a crazy world where a combination of 400 horsepower and a 3152-pound curb weight has been announced that produces a low power-to-weight ratio compared to the most muscular supercars (the new Ferrari 296GTB has almost twice the power). But the greasy circuit quickly proves the Emira has enough power to create an engaging driving experience, especially when the car is almost completely lacking in adaptive or operational systems.
Lotus’s commitment to dynamic purity has it using hydraulic steering systems for Emira. The V-6 uses an engine steering power pump, but the AMG engine’s inability to adapt to such obsolescence means it will use hydraulic power assistance with an electric pump. It only takes a few corners to justify Lotus’s decision to stick with analog technology. The Emira’s steering system has the same combination of precision and feedback that we remember as one of the Evora’s highlights, with a slower-than-usual eccentric response in this generally darty segment but seemingly perfectly proportionate behind it. Lotus’ fully passive suspension is similarly gentle, with the ability to roll clearly under the cornering load harder but good damping compliance with the restraint of the Hethel track and through positive directional changes. The grip level is also impressive — the prototype’s dashboard display reports the highest lateral acceleration figures above 1.0 g in wet conditions.
Despite the lack of operating systems, dynamic mode has significantly changed the characteristics of the car. In Tour mode, the reaction of the throttle is lighter and the prototype’s stability control system can be felt to be working to quell both the underdog and the passerby. Sport is more free, allowing a modest dose of the rear to slide under strength. However, in the absence of a non-functional Track mode, the complete shutdown of esc has brought the revelation that the Emira feels much friendlier when it comes to going beyond its natural limits than many performance cars behind a series of driver-pleasing modes of action. It has also been shown to be able to easily drift in wet conditions.
But you don’t have to dress naked to make the Emira feel special. Getting used to it for the first time, it has all the advantages of the mid-engine layout but there doesn’t seem to be anything bad. It is keen to change direction, and with the volume of the V-6 delivering impressive throttle adjustment capabilities, it does so without any discomfort when the throttle increases suddenly and is highly resilient for the combined brake and turn inputs.
Don’t worry, it’s not perfect. The Emira’s gear shift lever has a better weight and feel than the Evora’s loose gear lever, but the bond seems to often occur with changes on the plane of the box, especially when switching from second to third. It also doesn’t have any kind of automatic rotation joint in any of its modes, a shortcoming that shows how seriously Lotus wants the owner to take the job of controlling it seriously. That, or choose the automatic version.
Emira is very similar to the lotus flower, but it is a different species. The driving experience remains exemplary, a common one for most previous versions. But it also seems set to offer usability that the company’s previous cars rarely cared much about. Given that Lotus is hoping to build up to 4500 a year – more than twice the combined annual totals of Evora, Exige and Elise over the past decade – a broader appeal is necessary and understandable. We need to wait and see how Emira deals with the real world, but our first impression is incredibly positive.
Lotus has confirmed the price for the first fully loaded emira V-6: $96,100, with deliveries in the United States starting later this year. It also said the amg-powered base car will be on the market in 2023 with a starting price of $77,100.