When Jean-Marc Gales became boss of the serially troubled British sports-carmaker Lotus in May 2014, he imposed a near-total news blackout. It was pretty much the opposite of the strategy employed by his predecessor Dany Bahar, who famously revealed six prototypes in one go at the 2010 Paris auto show, promised grand expansion plans to come, and harnessed an unlikely array of celebrities to promote this tiny company like never before.
The Bahar era is history, so are all the prototypes. And for a while it seemed like a Lotus presence in the U.S. might go that way too. But for Gales that was never the plan, the new CEO gradually revealing his ambitions for the company as his rescue plan has begun to take effect. Besides attempting to make Lotus profitable — a mission that has eluded almost all his predecessors — Gales has unveiled the heavily revised Evora 400, revealed that Lotus has every intention of staying in the U.S. and, most dramatically of all, announced plans for a joint venture that will see a Lotus SUV produced in China. And there’s more besides, from a Luxembourg man who counts several Lotus brochures among his childhood treasures and has previously worked for PSA Peugeot Citroen, Mercedes, and Volkswagen.
Automobile: What’s next for Lotus in the U.S.?
Jean-Marc Gales: At the moment we are selling the Evora, but from January 2016 onwards we will be selling the 2017 model year Evora 400. Just this morning we did a photograph of the first four Evoras coming off the production line. They go first to the U.K. dealers, then to Europe and the U.S. in January. The U.S. version needs specific finalization. It requires smart airbags, and it requires side airbags, which are mounted in the seat. We are using external help to finalize the car; a very big German manufacturer is helping us there.
RB: And with that new model, is there going to be a new push in the U.S. for Lotus?
Jean-Marc Gales: Yes, we have been waiting for this launch for years. We had the Evora S, which had a loyal following in the U.S. The U.S. dealers are crazy about the new car. I have been in Detroit, and I have rarely seen such enthusiasm for a new car. So for the Evora 400 we want to sell, for the next calendar year, getting towards 400 cars again, which would make the U.S. our biggest market again. With the Roadster as well, we are targeting something like 700 cars for the full year of 2017.
The biggest market right now is Japan, with 360 cars per year. In the U.S. we did 260. So Japan was number one, but the U.S. will become number one again. We have sold 20,000 cars in the U.S. out of the 100,000 Lotus has built in since Colin Chapman founded the company (in 1952). It’s had a very loyal following, so I am very excited about the 400 and the Roadster and what this means for the U.S.
I had the U.S. in mind when I came [to Lotus]; that was one of my first projects. The Roadster is first. It’s going to appear in summer 2016. The Roadster is easily done because we have a tough chassis and a composite body, and we already have the rollover bar incorporated, so taking the roof off is relatively easy. We can do it for a small amount of money. The A-pillar is reinforced. What we have in mind is two carbon-fiber roofs below 7 pounds each, which you can easily take off and store behind the rear seats. It’s basically a targa. We call it a Roadster. I drove a prototype last month, and it’s amazing. You can hear the engine note much more strongly than on the Evora 400. That will give us the second big boost after the 400.
Automobile: How is the Lotus dealer network developing in the U.S.?
Jean-Marc Gales: We were at 138 in May last year, and we are now at 193. We are really moving ahead, and the dealers are getting very confident. Coming to the U.S. specifically, we started with 47 dealers and we are going to move to 52 at the end of the financial year. Last year we added three new dealers in the U.S.: In California we added West Covina, in Arizona we added Scottsdale, and we added Thermal as well, which is on a racetrack.
Automobile: In a broad sense, you can see why Lotus might want to sell an SUV in China. It’s the world’s biggest car market, and SUVs are hot. But how can an SUV be a Lotus?
Jean-Marc Gales: There is no lightweight SUV on the market. They are big and derived from sedans. They are normally never below 4,000 pounds, even if they are based on a car in the BMW 3 Series/ Mercedes C-Class segment, because you take a sedan and add front- or rear-wheel drive, add huge wheels and body panels and you are at 4,000 pounds. But if you design it from scratch and consider every single part. … I could use Evora seats, for example, and immediately save 44 pounds per seat, because the current seats in an SUV are horribly heavy. When we take it to the market in 2020 we will use the help of our Chinese partner to do a joint venture.
Automobile: Will Goldstar Industrial, your Chinese joint-venture partner, make an own-brand version of this car?
Jean-Marc Gales: It will be a Lotus. It’s going to be a Lotus built according to Lotus standards.
Automobile: Will you export the SUV? You’ve previously said it was only for China, but a lightweight, dynamic SUV sounds like it would appeal in the U.S.
Jean-Marc Gales: That’s it! We will export it, but first it will be for China. It’s going to be the best it can be — a Lotus SUV, a car that doesn’t currently exist.
Automobile: Will this sports SUV be a three-door or a five-door?
Jean-Marc Gales: It will be a five-door, yes. We are currently working on some designs, but that’s it on (questions about) the SUV! It’s still a long time down the road.
Automobile: Can American buyers expect more than just a choice of two versions of the Evora in the future?
Jean-Marc Gales: We are working on the new Elise for 2020. It will go to the U.S., and we are currently working on pulling that date forward. I can’t tell you by how much, but I want to be going into 2020, in the U.S., with an Elise-type car. I really believe we need not just one car in the line-up, even if there is going to be an Evora coupe and a roadster. It would be ideal if we had a car below that.
Automobile: What sort of car will the new Elise be?
Jean-Marc Gales: We haven’t defined exactly what it should look like and what the specifications are, but expect Elise-type performance. But I would love to stick to what we are good at, and that is an aluminum extruded, bonded chassis and composite/carbon bodies.
Automobile: Will your product range change much apart from the Elise and the SUV?
Jean-Marc Gales: The Exige is the closest to a track car, and the Evora is an all-round supercar. We wouldn’t want to change too much on that side of things because it has proved to be successful. And I think we stick with what we have as far as we foresee, with the exception of the SUV, we stick with extruded, bonded aluminium chassis, which is state of the art. You mentioned the Alfa [Romeo] 4C. The 4C’s carbon-fiber tub is four times as expensive and weighs 143 pounds. Our chassis weighs 150 pounds. All that extra effort for 7 pounds!
Automobile: How is Lotus performing as a company?
Jean-Marc Gales: We are doing much better than we have ever done because, consistently in the last 60 years, Lotus has never made money on the car side. We made money on the engineering side, but on the car side, we basically never did. For the first time last year, we hit our sales target. We are on schedule, and we said we would do much more than last year, so we are targeting between 2,800 and 3,000 cars. The business turnaround is moving as planned, with increasing revenue, a reduction in costs and a continuous increase in quality.
This year Lotus is going to make more turnover than it did last year — but focusing on fewer customers, with fewer people, and just knowing what your strengths are. If you do the things you are good at, then you find yourself in a much better position.
Automobile: Is there any engineering work shared between you and Toyota, or is it purely you buying components from them?
Jean-Marc Gales: We buy the engine block from them. We also buy the gearbox, but fit our ratios. We also fit a supercharger and a different exhaust. Anything concerning the intake and exhaust is done by us. So you could basically claim it’s a Toyota block, but it’s been revised by Lotus. Like Colin Chapman did with the Ford-based Lotus Twin Cam. It has allowed Lotus to get 400 bhp out of the 3.5-liter engine.
RB: There’s no collaboration beyond that?
Jean-Marc Gales: No, but it’s a very good and respectful relationship, and one which we want to continue.
Automobile: One of your long-running challenges is that you rival Porsche, which has massive resource advantages. How do you compete?
Jean-Marc Gales: They sell 50,000 sports cars a year, and we want to sell between 3,000 and 5,000, which is less than 10 percent of what Porsche does. Most people tell us that the driving experience of a Lotus is different, whereas in other cars it has become digitized, much more remote, and all programmed. Nothing beats a really well set-up car, with one setting. For instance, we’ve tried different damper settings, but this is the best one we can make for you. Its driving behaviour is as we believe it should be. We want that pure driving experience. One set-up should beat anything else on the road.
Of course there’s an extra race set-up, but that’s for use on the track to allow some drift angles. And in the race mode, the ESP intervenes for very dangerous situations for safety. Then, of course, you can switch it on or off, and then you have a pure driving experience. No other car has it.
I don’t like to think we should become the English Porsche. There is no such thing as the English Porsche. There is Lotus. We have a pedigree based on simplified lightness and horsepower. Building a car with more horsepower makes it go faster on the straight; less weight makes it faster everywhere. We want to get back to our roots, designing cars to make them beautiful and inspiring the driver with that instinct and handling balance that no other car has. That’s what people tell me if you compare a Lotus to a Porsche.
There are some areas where we don’t or can’t compete with Porsche but other areas, like the precision of the drive, the handling balance, the turn in, the steering and the whole setup where we want to be better than Porsche. And that gives us legitimacy.
There’s also something that we don’t talk about a lot. There are not a lot of cars except Lotus’s where you drive to the track, win the race, and drive back again with the same set of brakes and pads. In a Lotus you can do it, because our cars are set up for that.
Automobile: Lotus’s potential has always been inhibited by the perception of troubled quality, and probably the reality as well.
Jean-Marc Gales: The reality is now massively different. There was an Evora S that we delivered to a dealer in London, and he opened the door and said, “That is like a German car,” which was a nice compliment. If you look at our cars against other small manufacturers, they are really good.
‘We have less than 10 open complaints on our cars. If it is a problem that the dealer cannot deal with, it is escalated to us. Open customer complaints are the benchmark here, and warranty costs have been massively reduced. I am looking after that. I take cars off the line, or a dealer car, and drive it. We have a weekly quality meeting where we look into each detail from engineering, from production. … It’s all taken very seriously.
Automobile: Are there developments planned for the current Elise and Exige?
Jean-Marc Gales: We listen a lot to our customers, who say “we love the cars, but with the Exige and Elise can you make them a bit easier to live with?” We are working on making ingress and egress easier, and we are going to launch a noise-reduction pack. The thing that we haven’t yet decided on is steering assistance at low speed, especially on the Exige, but always without compromising on the handling.
On the Elise it’s a bit less of an issue because it’s got 175 [section-width] tires. But on the Exige it’s 205 and maybe even more in the future, so we need to have some sort of a system that doesn’t corrupt the feel, and I want that to be mandatory. And, of course, we’re putting into the Exige the much lighter-to-shift gearbox (from the Evora 400), which comes as a package with the V-6. The Evora now has a much more precise linkage than before.
A big criticism was always the lighting, which we are working on, on real state-of-the-art lighting and probably making the instruments a bit easier to read.
Automobile: Are you reducing weight? The Elise has gotten quite a bit heavier over the years.
Jean-Marc Gales: It has, yes, but we are working on it, like taking the sun visors out and putting carbon seats into it. Making them lighter is always the thing.
Automobile: Lotus has previously shown hybrid concept cars. Will you build a hybrid production car?
Jean-Marc Gales: Most hybrids I have driven were comparable in terms of fuel consumption to the car without an electric engine. But, if you really want to do a car that is low on CO2, then do it from scratch — a bit like Tesla, which is probably a better example here. But as soon as you start converting petrol cars into something else, then long-term I don’t think that will be successful. But there might be some 1 million-pound cars like the Porsche 918 Spyder, which are so intelligently arranged that they are very fast on a track. The Porsche 918 on the Nurburgring does something like 6.57 minutes, while our 311 is calculated at 7.06 minutes with no electronic help. So you can get a stable result, but probably pure electric drive for me is the future. Batteries you can get at much lower cost and with greater efficiency, but hybrid is a temporary thing.