We’ve always been big fans of the sports cars from Lotus, especially the Esprit. And despite the company’s front office upheavals in recent years, Lotus engineers never lost their focus, giving the Esprit continual updates to keep it on par with its newer competitors. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to try out this new Esprit V-8. But you can imagine our surprise when we also were handed a set of keys to this car: the Elise Roadster. Now it’s sold out in Europe, and not even available here in the U.S., but for us, this double test was more than double the fun.
The Esprit name has carried many suffixes over the years… S2, SE, and S4S, to name a few, and all signified a step forward in style or performance. But for 1997 Lotus has added the most important suffix yet… V-8.
That one symbol marks the pinnacle of the Esprit’s evolutionary journey, finally mating a worthy engine to its already remarkable chassis. The all-new 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-8 spins out 350 horsepower, 23 percent more than before, and 295 pound-feet of torque. Yet the V-8 takes up little more space than last year’s turbo-4, and weighs just 485 pounds, fully dressed.
By now, the shape of the Esprit is familiar to any enthusiast. The original flying wedge styling has been softened over its 22-year life span, but remains one of the most elegantly aggressive designs on the road today.
Unfortunately, the inside has not aged as gracefully. No amount of leather and wood can disguise the ‘70s-vintage modular design and compromised ergonomics.
But the V-8 Esprit is not all that’s new at Lotus. And after our first look at this Elise roadster, we understand why Lotus has had their priorities split. This little buggy is perhaps the only notable result of Lotus’ ownership by Romano Artioli and Bugatti, as it was he who set the criteria from the start; to create a new Lotus which reflected the genius of Colin Chapman, and to make it light, efficient and fast. And whatever his failings as a businessman, the mad Italian certainly got that right. The Elise is as simple as a wind-up toy, and as remarkable a display of technology as we’ve seen.
The extruded aluminum spaceframe is bonded together with epoxy for an extremely strong structure that weighs a mere 143 pounds. The complete car weighs in at a skimpy 1,488 pounds. Which is hardly taxing for the Elise’s 1.8-liter Rover 4-cylinder. Power output is 118, with good bottom end punch and a willingness to rev to the heavens. Covering it all is a lightweight composite clam shell body. The styling harkens back to early British sports cars, but is thoroughly modern, too.
Inside you will find the definition of minimalism. Sliding through the half-door and down into the seat is an exercise in agility, since you sit literally on the floor. The tiny gauge cluster is a nice mix of analog and digital, while the other controls have been limited to just the basics. Its appeal is hard to describe, except to say this is what the Mazda Miata dreams it could be.
What we dreamt about, though, is hot laps on a race track. In this case, the asphalt roller coaster known as Road Atlanta.
Adding a V-8 to the Esprit allows the chassis to work up to its potential. The extra torque of four more cylinders helps in exiting corners, but the throttle must be modulated to avoid the rush of turbo boost that can upset the car’s balance.
The Esprit has never been a car to drive gently. Like a true thoroughbred, it expects a firm hand on the reins to coax the best out of it. And thanks to the V-8, there’s more to give. 0 to 60 sprints have dropped to 4.5 seconds, while top speed has risen to 175.
Shifting action is improved thanks to a revised transaxle and new Valeo twin-disc clutch. While the ABS system has undergone a complete overhaul. Pricing was overhauled by about $5,000, up to $81,620.
At the other end of the fun spectrum lies the tiny Elise. Demanding nothing of the driver but eyesight and a strong right foot, there is no mid-engined car that is easier to drive fast.
Remember your first motorcycle ride? Your first bungee jump? Or maybe your first ride in a power boat? That same feeling of freedom is what you get behind the wheel of the Elise. Turn-in is go-kart quick, with a neutral balance, and a surprisingly supple suspension. The high power-to-weight ratio makes this car an ideal race track performer.
Lotus would like to sell the car in the U.S., but is not sure they can pass the bumper and emissions roadblocks. For now, we’ll continue our love affair with the Esprit V-8, and enjoy the memory of our flirtation with Elise.
Engine: Slp-modified Lt-1 V-8
0-60 MPH: 5.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.6 Seconds @ 104 MPH