1. home
  2. news
  3. The Lotus Esprit: History, Generations, Specifications

The Lotus Esprit: History, Generations, Specifications

All things Lotus Esprit on Automobile.

Rory JurneckaWriterRM Sotheby'sPhotographer

Lotus Esprit Essential History

The Lotus Esprit is a fiberglass-bodied, mid-engine, two-seat premium sports car that lasted in the market for 28 years and four distinct generations. In the early 1970s, Lotus founder Colin Chapman had decided that building niche, stripped-down sports cars wasn't the most profitable way forward and decided to replace the aesthetically challenged and aging Lotus Europa with a thoroughly modern sports car with exotic looks. Giorgetto Giugiaro's Italdesign was chosen to style a new car on a modified Europa chassis and in 1972, the Lotus M70 concept debuted alongside Italdesign's wild Boomerang concept.

Lotus Esprit S1

While the M70 looked much like the production Esprit, it would take until late 1974 before a drivable prototype was assembled and the finalized Series 1 Esprit went on sale to the public in 1975 for the 1976 model year. Sleek and exotic-looking with its wedge-shaped profile, Lotus finally had a car that appeared as if it could take on luxury marques like Porsche and Ferrari. The first Esprit kept the steel backbone chassis design that had been in use since the Elan for virtue of its lightness. With A-arm suspension up front and trailing arms behind, the car's handling was, in true Lotus fashion, superb. The only thing keeping the first Esprit back was a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 140 horsepower in U.S. spec (160 horsepower in Euro trim). Though the Esprit only weighed 2,200 pounds, its acceleration was no match for the six- and eight-cylinder cars coming from other exotic makes.

Lotus Esprit S2

A facelifted Lotus Esprit arrived for 1978, the car that would come to be known as the Series 2 Esprit. The updates consisted of light cosmetic changes, such as replacing the previous Fiat X1/9 taillights with Rover units and the Wolfrace wheels with Speedline alloys, and concessions to comfort with a slight interior redesign. In 1980, a torquier 2.2-liter engine replaced the original 2.0-liter four and the chassis was galvanized for the first time, for rust prevention. Also in 1980, Lotus began experimenting with turbocharging the Esprit with a limited-production Essex Turbo Esprit model, reflecting the sponsorship of its Formula 1 team. With dry-sump oiling, a revised chassis and suspension and a new exterior aero package, among other changes, the Essex Turbo Esprit and its 210-horsepower output was a sign of things to come.

Lotus Esprit S3

The first standard production Lotus Turbo Esprit arrived in 1981 with the same chassis and 2.2-liter turbocharged inline-four engine as the Essex special edition car, but with wet-sump lubrication. The Turbo Esprit also continued with the external add-ons from the previous Essex edition, keeping it apace with the various ducts, scoops, and various ground effects that its competitors were rushing to add to their cars. Bumpers were enlarged to meet new safety regulations, while the interior became roomier again with another subtle redesign and a slightly enlarged body shell. In 1985, another minor refresh was made, and new high-compression (HC) models were introduced with more power for 1986. U.S.-market Turbo Esprits were the first to receive fuel injection to meet more restrictive emissions measures.

Lotus Esprit X180

This series of Lotus Esprit brought the model's most extensive exterior revision yet, handled by Peter Stevens. With more rounded surfaces, better-integrated bumpers, and a more luxurious interior, the Esprit had been brought kicking and screaming into a new era. The chassis remained much the same as the Series 3, and perhaps because of this, the 1988 model year Esprit wasn't given a new series, but rather tends to be referred to by its model code, X180. Also, the Turbo Esprit was now called the Esprit Turbo. In 1989, engine modifications including a new intercooler arrangement and fuel injection system bumped power to 264 horsepower and cut 0-to-60-mph acceleration times to (then-) world-class levels at under five seconds. An SE model added a rear wing, side skirts, and various air scoops and ducts, which proved especially popular in America. This was also the first new Esprit designed under GM ownership, which resulted in U.S.-market cars being fitted with Pontiac airbag-type steering wheels, among other details.

Lotus Esprit S4

For the 1993 model year, Lotus had designer Julian Thomson take another crack at keeping the Esprit relevant. The biggest changes were to the bumpers and the aero package, with a restyled rear spoiler. Engine output remained the same as the previous SE model at 264 horsepower. In 1994, the Esprit S4 Sport arrived with a larger wing and more engine modifications for an upgrade to 301 horsepower from the 2.2-liter turbo-four.

The introduction of a V-8 powered Esprit in 1996 was the biggest news for the car in some time. The flat-plane-crank-style engine was of Lotus design, displacing 3.5 liters, with twin Garrett turbochargers. Changes were needed to the aging Renault five-speed transaxle to maintain reliability with the twin-turbo V-8's 350-horsepower output. The 0-to-60-mph sprint dropped once again, this time to the low-four-second range. A Sport 350 variant included bigger brakes, bigger aero bits, and stiffer suspension. A final facelift in 2002 by Russell Carr was the last major change for the Lotus Esprit, which ended production in 2004.

A new Lotus sports car called Esprit was planned for 2008, but was canceled after Lotus' finances declined and the company was sold to Chinese company Geely.

Lotus Esprit Highlights

When the Lotus Esprit was launched in the mid-1970s, Lotus, like Ferrari, had a primary interest in motorsport. Road cars were mainly sold to fund the racing operations, though that would change as the Esprit continued through the decades. While Esprits didn't feature heavily in racing, there were a few cars built for the task. The X180R was a race version of the 1990 Esprit that started life as an SE trim car with the interior mostly stripped out, racing safety gear added (including a full roll cage) and a revised 2.2-liter turbocharged engine producing nearly 290 horsepower. The cars were run to good success in the 1990 SCCA Escort World Challenge race series in the U.S., and then in the IMSA Bridgestone Supercar Championship in 1991 and '92. A special-edition roadgoing Esprit X180R was produced towards the end of 1990 to homologate special motorsports parts for the final two race seasons, of which just 20 examples were built.

The Lotus Esprit also featured heavily in pop culture early in its life with an appearance in the 007 film, The Spy Who Loved Me. In this 1977 installment of the James Bond franchise, the Esprit transforms from a wheeled road machine to a finned submarine. That car sold at RM Sotheby's auction in 2013 for nearly $1,000,000.

Lotus Esprit Buying Tips

Although the earliest Lotus Esprits are finally starting to gain attention, the general rule is that the newer the Esprit, the bigger the price tag. Esprits were very much improved in terms of comfort, reliability, and performance through the years and comparing a 1976 Esprit S1 to a 2004 Esprit S4 V8 today, the two cars are incredibly different in both capability and curb appeal. While the earlier cars are more indicative of the traditional Colin Chapman vision with their elegant simplicity, the later cars, with their scoops and wings, make more power and more of a visual statement at the betrayal of lightweight design and purity. While Esprit fiberglass bodies don't rust, the steel frames do, and the interiors in nearly all Esprits tend to look more tatty and tired than mileage would suggest. You'll also want to be sure a Lotus specialist mechanic is somewhat local to you before you take the plunge, just because most Esprits have small four-cylinder engines doesn't mean that they're all that easy or inexpensive to service properly.

Lotus Esprit Articles on Automobile

It may not be the Evija, but it's certainly cool.

The betting man's supercar.

Engine news about the Esprit that never was.

Lotus' sweet spot.

Jamie Kitman reflects on driving a Lotus Esprit cross-country.

A 1995 Lotus Esprit S4 crosses the auction block

How does a 1988 Lotus Esprit Turbo sound for under $20,000?

Lotus Esprit Recent Auctions

Lotus Esprit Quick Facts

  • First year of production: 1976
  • Last year of production:2004
  • Total sold: 10,675
  • Original price (base): $15,990
  • Characteristic feature: The Lotus Esprit is England's answer to the mid-engine exotic car, with wedge-like styling by Giugiaro and a luxurious interior that absolutely feels special and unique.

Lotus Esprit FAQ

Is the Lotus Esprit a supercar?

While the Lotus Esprit began life as an exotically styled sports car with a somewhat underpowered four-cylinder engine, with the help of turbochargers and, ultimately, a Lotus-designed V-8 engine, the Esprit Turbo and Esprit V8 became very quick cars that could rival the contemporary naturally-aspirated Porsche 911, V-8-powered Ferraris, the Acura NSX and others. It falls just short of supercar status, however, never really boasting price, performance, or pedigree to compete with icons like the Ferrari Testarossa, Lamborghini Countach, or Porsche 911 Turbo.

Is the Lotus Esprit reliable?

While any classic exotic performance car will generally be less reliable than average, the Lotus Esprit is probably not a car that you'd want to use as a daily driver today. It's not just a matter of things going wrong, in some cases it's also a matter of parts and service availability that could see a broken Esprit down for not just days, but weeks or months. That said, a properly maintained Esprit should be able to be driven regularly and spend more time on the road than in a service bay.

What engine is in a Lotus Esprit?

The Lotus Esprit started out with a Lotus/Ford 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine making 140 horsepower in U.S.-market cars. Gradually, displacement was increased to 2.2 liters, a turbocharger was added, before finally a 350-horsepower, twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-8 engine was added to the last Esprits.

Who makes the Lotus Esprit?

That's easy, Lotus Cars! In 1986, General Motors bought Lotus Cars and kept it for a time, continuing development of Lotus models while also using Lotus engineering resources on its own Isuzu projects and the C4 series Chevrolet Corvette ZR1's DOHC V-8 engine.

1997 Lotus Esprit V8 (S4) Specifications
PRICE $78,950
ENGINE 3.5L DOHC twin-turbo V-8/350 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 4,250 rpm
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 14/21 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 173.8 x 74.1 x 45.3 in
WHEELBASE 95.3 in
WEIGHT 2,900 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 4.4 sec
TOP SPEED 175 mph