Lotus was born out of innovation but has spent most of its recent history in stagnation. Founder Colin Chapman transformed Formula 1 and other top-level motorsport series and sold smart, lightweight road cars. With the launch of the Esprit in 1976, the second most famous automotive corner after the Lamborghini Countach, the British company also became one of the first pioneers of the mid-engined sports car.
But after Chapman’s death in 1982, Lotus’ fortunes declined. The company passed between often cash-strapped owners, development funds were scarce, and its history over the last quarter century can be summed up in a few sentences. The new bonded aluminum frame Elise was launched in 1996, the larger and supposedly more practical Evora was released in 2010, and grandiose plans to subsequently launch five new models fell apart with the acrimonious departure of CEO Dany Bahar in 2012, leaving the existing Soldier model range out. The Evora continued to sell in ever smaller numbers until its retirement last year.
Now there’s an all-new Lotus sports car, the last model the company will launch before switching to all-electric powertrains. The Emira was developed with a major cash injection from Chinese automaker Geely, which took control of Lotus in 2017. It will go on sale later this year and buyers will be able to choose between a supercharged V6 3, 5 liters from Toyota and – shortly afterwards – a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four from AMG. Before that, we had the chance to drive a V-6-powered prototype on the track at Lotus’ Hethel factory in Norfolk, England.
Although the car we were driving looked a lot neater than the kind of scruffy, disguised test mules used in early development, it was still within pre-production spec. According to Gavan Kershaw, Lotus attributes director, it was a VP2-level prototype that had been borrowed from the pool of cars used to test driver assistance systems before the Emira’s official launch. The supercharged V-6 familiar from the Evora produces 400 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque (Emiras equipped with the six-speed automatic are treated to 317 pound-feet); our car had the standard six-speed manual gearbox and mechanical limited-slip differential. It was also running on what will be the softer Tour suspension and Goodyear Eagle F1 tires rather than the track-oriented Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s that will be offered as an option.
The Emira looks great in the flesh, its sleek styling and the large air intake vents behind its doors make it look more like a junior supercar than a sports car. Beyond the stickers proclaiming it to be a prototype, there were few clues that the car we were driving fell short of production spec. Some of the interior plastics lacked a raised finish, there were a few well-hidden emergency stop buttons, and the Track Dynamic mode did not work. But the sense of quality was still impressive, especially compared to the Evora’s crudely finished cabin. The Emira is built using a bonded aluminum structure – the same technique Lotus has used since the Elise – but entry and exit have been greatly improved with narrower sills and door openings deeper.
Despite its pre-built plastics, the Emira’s interior also impressed, with soft coverings on the doors and dashboard and good ergonomics. Many parts are sourced from elsewhere in the group – the turn signal and wiper stalks are obviously Volvo-sourced – but the digital instrument panel and central touchscreen are perfectly rendered with bespoke graphics. The driving position is good, with plenty of adjustment and decent headroom, and when looking through the windscreen the top of the fenders are visible to help position the car. While the Evora was designed to be a 2+2, the Emira is strictly a two-seater, although there is room to squeeze soft luggage between the seat backs and the rear firewall.
Our ride to Hethel was in the proper English environment of high winds and driving rain, but the Emira was happy to show off its skills on the wet surface of the 2.2-mile test track. The supercharged V6 is quieter at low revs than it was in the Evora, as a switchable exhaust valve keeps it quiet in the default Tour driving mode, but either selecting Sport mode, or by revving the engine above 4000 rpm, the setting is stronger and helps the car find its voice. As before, the V-6 isn’t particularly high-revving with its redline set at just 6800 rpm, but it feels muscular throughout the range and delivers lag-free responses.
We live in a crazy world where the combination of 400 horsepower and a claimed curb weight of 3152 pounds results in a power-to-weight ratio far below the most muscular supercars (the new Ferrari 296GTB has one almost twice as powerful) . But the fat circuit quickly proves that the Emira has more than enough power to deliver a compelling driving experience, especially given the car’s near-total absence of adaptive or active systems.
Lotus’ commitment to dynamic purity led it to use hydraulic power steering for the Emira. The V-6 uses an engine-driven power steering pump, but the AMG engine’s inability to accommodate such an anachronism means it will use electro-hydraulic assistance with an electric pump. It only takes a few turns to justify Lotus’ decision to stick with analogue technology. The Emira’s steering features the same combination of precision and feedback that we remember to be one of the Evora’s strong suits, with slower-than-normal off-center responses in this usually dardy segment but with seemingly proportionality. perfect behind. The Lotus’ fully passive suspension is equally soft, with noticeable body roll under harder cornering loads, but well-damped compliance on Hethel track curves and through aggressive directional changes. Grip levels are also impressive – the prototype’s dashboard display shows peak lateral acceleration figures of over 1.0g in wet conditions.
Despite the absence of active systems, the Dynamic mode noticeably changed the character of the car. In Tour mode, throttle response is smoother and the prototype’s stability control system could be felt to be working to stifle both understeer and oversteer. The Sport is more liberal, allowing for a modest dose of rearward slip under power. But, in the absence of the non-functional Track mode, disabling the ESC completely revealed that the Emira feels much friendlier when pushed beyond its natural limits than many performance cars behind a array of driver-flattering active modes. It has also proven to be easily driftable in wet conditions.
But you don’t have to be on the ragged edge for the Emira to feel special. On the face of it, it has all the virtues of a mid-engine setup but apparently none of the vices. It’s eager to change direction, and with the V-6’s mass offering impressive throttle adjustability, it does so without any sense of snap on sudden throttle lift and with high forgiveness. for combined braking and cornering inputs.
Don’t worry, it wasn’t perfect. The Emira’s shifter had better weight and feel than the Evora’s slack shifter, but the linkage often seemed to snag on changes in the planes of the box, especially the shift from second at the third. It also doesn’t have any sort of automated rev-matching in any of its modes, an omission that speaks to how seriously Lotus wants owners to take driving. That, or go for the automatic version.
The Emira is a Lotus, but different. The driving experience remains exemplary, something common to almost all of its predecessors. But it also looks set to deliver the user-friendliness that the company’s early cars rarely cared about. Given that Lotus hopes to build up to 4,500 a year, more than double the combined annual totals of Evora, Exige and Elise over the past decade, wider appeal is both needed. and understandable. We have to wait to see how the Emira copes in the real world, but our first impression is overwhelmingly positive.
Lotus has confirmed pricing for the fully loaded Emira V-6 First Edition: $96,100, with US deliveries beginning later this year. He also said the base AMG-powered car will be available in 2023 with a starting price of $77,100.
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