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Friday
Jul082011

Chapter 1: The New Lotus

By Christopher A. Sawyer

The New Elan

The following article first appeared on the web site Cars In Context. All subsequent chapters in the Lotus saga appeared on Austin Rover Online. I thank Keith Adams and Clive Goldthorp of AROnline for the chance to share my knowledge on the subject, as well as for the opportunity to reprint the articles here.

The new Lotus has broken cover. Not surprisingly, much of the automotive media is moist over the lineup: a front-engined GT with folding hardtop, a premium mid-engined 2+2 car that resurrects the Elan name, a four-door sedan, a replacement for the long-dead Esprit, and a stylish Elise concept. This follows a pair of announcements earlier in the week.

First, Lotus is back in racing with a vengeance. Its motorsport plans include:

  • A return to Le Mans with an LMP2 prototype designed by the man who gave Peugeot its diesel-powered Le Mans winner.
  • An increased commitment with KV Racing in the IRL.
  • Technical support for ART Grand Prix in GP2 and GP3.
  • Acceleration of plans to race the Evora in GT4.
  • Racing one of the concepts shown at Paris in GT2.
  • Replacing the current Lotus test track in Hethel with a FIA-spec. race/test facility featuring 12 garages room for 24 race cars.
  • Expanding the Lotus Driving Academy globally, beginning with the United Arab Emirates.

Unfortunately, only the return to Le Mans, the GT2 and GT4 programs will have any direct connection with the company’s products. The IRL foray places Lotus in the position of designing bodywork for Dallara-designed and built cars in a damaged series. Supporting ART Grand Prix is of no importance, unless the recent fight with the independently held Lotus Racing F1 team is a prelude to moving ART Grand Prix into Formula One under the disputed Team Lotus banner. Updating the Lotus test track might be tough to get past the local planning commission, especially if the company plans to test its race cars there. Finally, the expanded Lotus Driving Academy is an affordable alternative to the wildly over-the-top Exos Experience announced with the launch of the Type 125 earlier this year.

If this wasn’t enough, the company also announced the creation of the Lotus Advisory Council (LAC). LAC members include Dr. Burkhard Göschel, Bob Lutz, Tom Purves, and Frank Tuch. Göschel was on the management board of BMW before becoming Chief Technical Officer of supplier Magna International. Lutz, most recently GM’s vice chairman, is best known for his bombast, and has been around since the Jurassic period. Former Rolls Royce CEO Tom Purves (who at least owned a Lotus Elan in his youth) oversaw BMW North America in its heyday. Frank Tuch was Chief Quality Officer at Lotus for less than a month earlier this year before being recalled by VW to be its CQO. To be blunt, Tuch is the one Lotus needs the most, but it’s unclear why VW would agree to this appointment when the “new” Lotus is about to take on VW’s Porsche division.

And that is the goal of the new Lotus management, to go head-to-head with Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. That is a massive step up for a company that has yet to build production cars at volume with the technology, quality or appointments of its better-funded (and mainline OEM-supported) competition. Doing these things one at a time would be difficult enough. Tackling them simultaneously is a recipe for disaster.

Lotus CEO Dany Bahar claims Lotus will get an infusion of $1.21 billion over the next 10 years to fund these ambitious programs. Where is this money coming from? Malaysian automaker Proton has kept Lotus on a short financial leash since founding CEO Yahaya Ahmad died in a helicopter crash after buying the beleaguered British sports car maker from Romano Artioli in 1997. His plans to make Lotus the engineering arm of the Malaysian car maker effectively died with him, as did plans to revamp the company’s lineup. Hiring multiple incompetent, ineffectual and arrogant CEOs did nothing to help the situation. Neither did putting the fate of the company in the hands of a claque of clueless Malaysian stewards. Since Proton is a fourth-tier automaker always on the edge of irrelevance if not insolvency, and the UAE is a major focus of the resurrection efforts of both Lotus and Proton, perhaps a group of wealthy Arabs is underwriting the program. Alternatively, some analysts have suggested this whole effort could be a ruse to make Lotus more attractive to potential buyers before it’s put up for sale. Which is the case currently is unclear.

Regardless, the company laid out an ambitious new product program at Paris, based on the Variable Vehicle Architecture first seen on the Lotus Evora. Unspoken was the fact that the only new cars in this lineup were the front-engined Elite 2+2 and Eterne sedan. Both the Elise and Esprit concepts were begun under former CEO Mike Kimberley’s regime, and the Elan is a restyled Evora. So what’s really new here?

What is new is the design language. Gone are the soft curves and the iconic Lotus “mouth” air intake that date back to the 1957 Lotus Elite. In their place new design chief Donato Coco, formerly of Ferrari, has substituted sharp lines and a pulled-back beak that could have come from any post-Audi Lamborghini. It follows the current craze of supercar front fascias that mimic Formula 1 nose structures. Interestingly, Coco claims the design is an amalgam of the grille opening/headlight layout of the Lotus Seven and Lotus 18 racer. So, in essence, he did look to a Formula 1 car for inspiration—one that’s 50 years old.

Bahar's jewel, the new Elite.

Where the new Lotus concepts run off the track is under the skin. All are slated for a Formula 1-style Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) to boost efficiency and performance. Depending on the vehicle, it is mated to either a 5.0-liter V8, or a supercharged 4.0-liter V6. Only the Elise and its 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four will skip the KERS treatment. Continuing current Lotus practice, all of the powertrains are sourced from Toyota, but they will be carrying around cars that are one thing Lotus vehicles never were before—heavy. Lotus claims the Elite will tip the scales at 3,600 lb., and boast carbon fiber/aluminum composite bodywork. These materials, and the lack of a rear seat, help the Elan tip the scales at 2,849 lb., just shy of the 2,976 lb. of the slightly larger Evora it replaces. The Elise rises from its current featherweight 1,950 lb. to 2,409 lb. No weight was given for either the Eterne sedan or Esprit concept.

The new Elise is larger, more stylish, and much heavier and more expensive.This weight increase is diametrically opposed to Lotus historic norms and what will be needed to meet coming global CO2 legislation. Automakers everywhere are looking at ways to both lower weight and improve performance with less power and fewer cylinders. The new Lotus is headed in the opposite direction. It justifies this move by saying its cars will be best in class in terms of weight and CO2 performance. Perhaps the new CEO should have looked across the Pairs show’s floor to the Lamborghini stand where the Gallardo-size Sesto Elemento concept used carbon composites to keep the V10-powered supercar’s curb weight to a light 2,200 lb. And designer Coco could have wandered over to the Jaguar stand where the C-X75 concept retained recognizable Jaguar heritage cues, rounded forms, and packaged them in a shape that is bang up-to-date. Mix in the Jag’s twin compact gas turbines powering wheel-mounted motors, and you have a thoroughly modern concept that would be worthy of a company like Lotus that sells its engineering prowess to other automakers.

Eterne sedan is part Aston Martin Rapide, part Lamborghini, very little Lotus.

A ton of money is about to be dumped into Lotus to produce the speculative lineup on display in Paris, and set the brand on a road to relevance and solvency. This builds upon plans set in motion by the previous management team to take Lotus upmarket into Ferrari and Porsche territory, but at breakneck speed. Though I can understand Proton’s frustration—13 years of ownership and little to show for the effort—these moves are excruciatingly literal and do nothing to set Lotus apart from its larger, and better funded, competition. Will it succeed? That depends on a number of factors, from the health of the global economy to the depth of the benefactor’s pockets, but it’s hard to see how Lotus can beat the competition at their own game. Especially when cars of this nature are sitting unsold at dealers or on loading docks.

Will Lotus survive? Not if this plan rolls forward. Though the company needed a more evocative design language, much higher quality and a broader lineup, these cars serve notice that the things that made Lotus unique are dead. And no amount of money, celebrities (Naomi Campbell was just one of the glitterati removing covers from the Lotus concepts) or counsel from hoary automotive “experts” (reportedly Bob Lutz was on the Lotus stand wearing a Hummer t-shirt) can change that.