Outspanding! Lotus Esprit GT3 driven (CAR+ archive, 1997) | CAR Magazine

Outspanding! Lotus Esprit GT3 driven (CAR+ archive, 1997)

Published: 30 June 2016

► Was the turbocharged GT3 the best Lotus Esprit ever?
► ‘Gathers momentum like a brick dropped off a cliff’
► An archive drive from CAR magazine, 1997

Beneath this tasty orange paintjob is the best Esprit ever. It’s the low-weight, high-excitement GT3 and, says Richard Bremner, it’s the supercar bargain of the year. 

Orange, isn’t it? How very trendy, modern and hip. But don’t be deceived – as I’m sure you’re not – for the Lotus Esprit is old enough to have been around last time orange was a fashionable hue, in the mid-70’s (I remember painting my bedroom a similar shade when Marc Bolan and T Rex were regularly conquering the charts). Now more than 20 years old, the Esprit should by rights have become a subject for our friends at Classic Cars. Yet in fact, it has evolved in a major way this year, first with the V8, and now with the GT3. 

The GT3 is yet another variation on the charge-cooled four-cylinder theme, which has been an Esprit powerpack since 1989. Nothing special here, you’ll be thinking, but don’t yawn before we tell you the price. It’s £39,450. All right, a lot of money in absolute terms, but not for a mid-engined supercar that can breach 60mph in around five seconds and top 160mph. Not only does the GT3 cost significantly less than similarly dramatic rivals (the cheapest of which, the 911 Carrera, will set you back (£61,250) but it also costs less than the original charge-cooled Esprit Turbo SE in 1989, when Lotus asked £42,500.

Admittedly, there are some modest differences, the most significant being that the GT3’s engine is a 2.0-litre rather than a 2.2. That means you get 240bhp rather than 264bhp, and 60mph in 5.1sec rather than 4.7sec, but that’s not a great sacrifice — either way, this car is damn quick. 

So potentially, the GT3 is a terrific bar-gain. I say potentially because it rather de-pends on how the thing goes, of course. But the answer will come quickly, because a swift trip to Norfolk is in order, and that will throw a huge variety of roads at the GT3’s Goodyear Eagles. 

Starting with the snarled streets of London town. An Esprit is not your ideal transport for such roads, but it could be worse. Though you’re sitting low, visibility out front and, more importantly, to the sides, is not too bad. The steering is assisted, and blessed with a surprisingly tight lock, which makes NCP manoeuvres less of an exasperation, even if the thing regularly wipes its nose on up-ramps. Getting gears is easy, too, the shift on this car al-most velveteen, if not as flick-switch quick as an MGF’s. So that only leaves you with the minor problem of getting moving. 

What? Yes, it’s true. There may be 240 horses, but they are remarkably reluctant to leave their pen when you’re starting from zero — the engine just doesn’t want to pull. You need a big head of revs to get going, which is just the thing to goad traffic-light grand prix artists, and never mind that the engine sounds like a Foden’s. 

Once it is moving you soon discover that the Esprit must be kept one gear lower than usual if you’re to make any headway in the nip and tuck of town traffic. Otherwise, you’ll be thwarted by off-boost indolence. Get it onto a stretch of open road — to wit, the North Circular — and you dis-cover that it can bring new scope to the phrase ‘merging with traffic’ by mashing its nose into the tail end of whatever it was you were hoping to trail. Once the blower’s boosting, the GT3 gathers momentum like a brick dropped off a cliff. So just watch it. That’s one surprise. Another, and it’s more subtle, is the GT3’s civility: it rides so well. It’s not 406-smooth, but it isn’t far off, especially over the small bumps that can be so jolting in some sporty cars. The Lexus GS300 Sport is less soothing, for instance. And the GT3’s driveability isn’t bad once you’re moving either — the infuriating driveline jerks that regularly sent seismic shocks through the S4’s structure are largely gone. If the effect is slightly spoiled by an over-heavy clutch and the wearying whine of the engine’s drivebelts, you nevertheless reckon that the car is just about livable-with daily. 

As A406 turns to M11, the cruising speed rises, and with it the engine’s eagerness. Frequent glancing at the speedo is essential if you’re to avoid flagrant speed-limit transgressions — at these revs, the blower is on the brink of spinning hard. On the concrete that makes up much of the M11, you have an-other gauge, too, and that’s road noise, which puts up a fair fight with the stereo.

Ambling along motorways gives you plenty of time to take in a car’s cabin and in-deed, it’s impossible to miss the splash of orange that is the GT3’s centre console. Picking up the theme begun by Fiat with the Coupe and Barchetta, designer Julian Thomson has emboldened the cabin with a body-colour moulding around the gearlever (itself of turned aluminium) and the shells of the seats, which are one-piece lightweight glassfibre shells faced with just enough padding for occupants to dodge discomfort, despite the fact that they don’t recline. There’s no walnut trim — it has been re-placed by a more appropriate, textured, matt-black material — nor a stay for the glovebox lid which, as a result, flops shut every time you flip its catch. Infuriating. 

There’s been no skimping with the steering wheel, however, a sculpted and leathered Momo that’s a tactile treat. And it’s connected to some of the most sensitive steering gear you’ll find in any car at any price. This is apparent even on the M11, for the Esprit needs to be guided sensitively if it isn’t to wander drunkenly between lanes. It’s not that it lacks stability — just that most cars don’t enjoy the same sensitivity to input. 

Off the M11, the roads get narrower and the bends turn tighter. As long as you’re in the right gear, you can sear through corners with eye-widening pace. Subtle wheel-swivellings are all that’s required, and they have to be accurate because the car slices into corners as keenly as a Sabatier blade. Indeed, it is a fine demonstrator of the `goes-where-you-point-it’ cliché. 

Surprisingly, the GT3 rolls a bit when you load it with g-forces, but this is a useful measure of foolhardiness. Substitute foolhardiness for stupidity, and you’ll hear it spinning its inside rear wheel before the surfeit of power brings on a tail-wag — and even then it’s quite possible to heave it back into line. It communicates well and it’s manageable — essential qualities in sports cars that invite you to explore their limits. 

The Lotus might be on the wide side, and not endowed with the most potent-feeling brake pedal, but it’s dead easy to maintain an entertainingly brisk pace. Particularly satisfying are its agility and consistency of response. And, of course, the fact that it’s so damn rapid. 

As I sweep the long, gentle curve that bounds RAF Lakenheath, my breath is taken away. A large American jet roars in to land. But it doesn’t. Instead, its wheels hang tantalisingly close to the tarmac be-fore the pilot levels his plane, whacks open the throttle and sweeps upwards in a long, curving arc. It looks hugely entertaining. 

But then, this Lotus is hugely entertaining, too, and at its new, low price, makes a certain amount of sense. I could never have considered spending £50,000 on a plastic car fabricated in some Norfolk sheds, no matter how outstandingly engineered, but at under £40,000 it’s easier to make a case for the Esprit. It offers more drama than any other car at the price, and is the most effective and pleasing Esprit to date. So, suddenly, Lotus has another winner on its hands, to join the brilliant little Elise. And never mind that the Esprit comes of age next year.

The specs

Price: £39,450
Engine: 1937cc 16v dohc turbo four, longitudinal, mid-mounted
Bore/stroke, mm: 95.3/69.2
Compression ratio: 8.0 to one
Power: 240bhp @ 6250rpm
Torque: 216lb ft @ 3750rpm
Power-to-weight ratio: 195bhp per tonne
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rwd
Front suspension: Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: Double transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes front/rear: Ventilated discs, ABS
Tyres: 215/40 ZR17 front and 245/45 ZR17 rear
Length/width/wheelbase: 470/1865/2420mm
Weight: 1229kg
0-60mph, sec: 5.1
Top speed, mph: 164mph
Urban, mpg: 14.9
Extra-urban, mpg: 32.8
Combined, mpg: 22.6

By Richard Bremner

Anorak, CAR feature writer, columnist - and briefly editor