Sneak Preview: Lotus

Paris 2010. The aficionados of the car world zoomed in on the Lotus stand, eyes wide with incredulity and excitement. There were proposals for five brand-new models plus a low-emissions city hopper, all paid for with a $1.1 billion check from Malaysian parent company Proton. Skeptics said it was a pipe dream, but flamboyant CEO Dany Bahar kept insisting that the future product portfolio on display — an intriguing mix of front- and mid-engine sports cars designed by Donato Coco (who, like Bahar, had defected from Ferrari) — and the required U.K.-based infrastructure updates were fully funded. Six months later, however, facts had caught up with fiction. It was clear by then that the implementation of the proposed lineup would take much more time. Lotus would have to turn the Elise and the Evora (which originally were unloved by the new management) into vastly improved lifesavers, and the available funds would at best cover only one new product, namely the Esprit that’s due to be unveiled at the 2013 Geneva show.

“The idea is still to offer five different models,” states Bahar, “but the release dates have been spread out and pushed back to 2015, 2016, and 2017. At the moment, we are totally focused on the new mid-engine Esprit: we plan to build an Esprit coupe, roadster, high-performance R version, lightweight SL model, and GT racer.”

Code-named Fuji, this is a brand-new sports car with a brand-new engine and a brand-new transmission. Whereas the normally aspirated 4.8-liter V-8 is being developed with a renowned German powertrain specialist, Xtrac is the partner behind the high-efficiency gearbox. In a second step, the 600-plus-hp V-8 may be split in half to create a compact four-cylinder unit for the Elise replacement. Made of aluminum by LLS (Lotus Lightweight Structures), the new Esprit is projected to cost up to $50,000 less than its rivals.

To reduce expense and complexity, all models share a similar aluminum spaceframe, the same cabin and cockpit layout, a standardized driveline configuration, and a closely related control-arm suspension. R&D chief Wolf Zimmermann expects the parts commonality to be in the area of 50 percent across the range. “We are going with a choice of steel or carbon-ceramic brakes by Mov’it, a push-button parking brake by Continental, electronics by Bosch, lithium-ion batteries by A123, a multifunction steering wheel by Sparco — the list is long. Together with these suppliers, we are working hard to keep the weight down and to improve overall efficiency. Are we getting there? I think so.” The base Esprit should consume no more fuel than its chief competitors, is said to achieve about 24 mpg as a hybrid, and should be good for a planet-saving
48 mpg in plug-in-hybrid form. As befits a proper sports car, battery power not only turns the new Lotus into a part-time full-electric model, its instant torque provides a strong acceleration boost.

While the Elan and the urban runabout have been put on ice, the four-door Eterne, the next-generation Elise, and the top-of-the-line Elite are still part of the plan. All models will eventually be available as hybrids, starting with the Esprit in 2014.

Dany Bahar, 40

Personality: Young, good-looking, and supremely cocky, Bahar carries himself with the air of a man who has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Major career moves: Climbed from nowhere to the number-two spot at Red Bull. Repeated a similar precipitous rise at Ferrari, but in half the time. Joined Lotus at the top as CEO in September 2009.

Biggest achievement: Convinced Proton to shell out enough money to kick off a brand-new five-car model range that existed only on paper.

Claim to fame: Bahar is a marketing-driven, brand-focused wunderkind whose next step may be to found his own company.