Why Lotus’s plans are a supercar or two too far

Published: 19 October 2010

In ‘The Mouse That Roared’, Leonard Wibberley’s book turned into a film starring Peter Sellers, the tiny European Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the United States.

A similar mismatch, you might think, has just been perpetrated by little Lotus. What chance has a tiny car company in Norfolk, famed for its inexpensive go-kart like sportsters, got in a fight against Volkswagen-backed Porsche or Fiat-backed Ferrari, in the stratospherically high-brow £100,000-plus sports car class?

Five new sports cars – but is there a market?

Lotus, you may recall, is promising to launch five new sports cars over the next five years, in what amounts to the most ambitious British auto plan since Jaguar took on BMW by doubling its production. Oh those halcyon early Ford days! (A plan that, incidentally, flopped.)

At motor shows, Lotus usually habits a small corner stand, rarely featuring anything newsworthy. On press days, the PR man probably finds it a good opportunity to catch up on his emails. Not at the recent Paris show! Lotus had the biggest stand, the most new cars (never mind that they were all concepts), the longest press conference and the highest number of celebrities (although Naomi Campbell and Brian May were hardly likely to get Auto Motor Und Sport’s Canons clicking). They even had a preposterously posh Lotus magazine to hand out, which weighed more than an Elise (the ‘old’ Elise, that is, not the posh new XL one on show).

The cars looked good, and most were well finished (rather better than any old-style Esprit I have driven). Money is apparently gushing in from Malaysia (but why?). New (ex-Ferrari) CEO Dany Bahar has credibility and, judging from the cast of engineers and advisers he is gathering, good taste and a big budget.

Playing the nostalgia card

It was easy to get swept along in the excitement, not least when you see those old black and white reels of Colin Chapman, Jim Clark and old pencil-slim spindly-tyre F1 cars winning races. As a kid, Lotus was my favourite GP team. I want to believe.

But so many questions! What is the sense of launching three new sports cars costing over £100,000 when you currently have none? (And the sub-£100K cars, the Elise and the Elan, also represent big moves upmarket.) Who will buy them? Why will Lotus succeed with so many new models when Aston Martin, which has a much stronger global brand, struggles to sell fewer model lines? Aren’t those glory years just a little too long ago? (Don’t forget the current newborn Lotus GP team, which is confusedly no relation of Mr Bahar’s company, is one of the back-running strugglers.) Is the brand strong enough, especially outside the UK? (Lotus blossom may be well known in China. Lotus cars are not.)

New Elise grows up – unfortunately

Questions, questions… My first observation, when I saw the new Elise, is that it’s too big. I love the current Elise, probably the world’s best handling sports car. And that’s because it is minimalist, light and pure, in contrast to all those vast meaty motor supercars that strut the street largely without purpose or poise. (The same market, alas, in which the Esprit, Elite and Eterne wish to compete.) An increase in weight of more than 25 percent, for the new Elise, is simply too much.

Second thought: don’t give me 5.0 V8s (Esprit, Eterne, Elite), big heavy engines that will ruin the lissom qualities we expect from a Lotus. Big engines mean big heavy cars (the Eterne will be 1850kg). Give me light engines, powering light cars – but with the quality and luxury that wealthy buyers expect. Lotus has been a financial basket case for 15 years, so something needs to change, and a move into higher price and more profitable markets makes sense. But many sports car makers are now beginning hesitantly to move to lightness and agility, Lotus’s trademarks. (Not least, Lamborghini – check out its new carbonfibre Sesto Elemento concept). Let Lotus lead the way! 

Third thought: why show us five new sports cars? I’d be delighted, come 2015, if there are two new world-beating posh Lotuses on sale. Five is stretching belief.

Mind you, you can’t condemn Mr Bahar for his ambition. Every car enthusiast should wish him well.

And don’t forget, in ‘The Mouse That Roared’, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick beat the USA.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience