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Lotus Esprit At 40
The final curtain call for the legendary Lotus Esprit

by James Allen

It's amazing the Lotus Esprit lasted as long as it did. Granted, the car did change dramatically over the years. What began as a nimble sports car with 160 hp had morphed into, at its peak, a 300-hp motorsports-inspired monster with several revisions made in the process. But the same basic chassis layout and engine architecture had somehow been retained over the car's 17-year lifespan by the time 1993 rolled around. It's testament, then, to just how solid a platform the original car was and the perfect base to fashion the greatest ever Esprits from.

Yet again, another raft of cosmetic upgrades were draped over the Esprit. The interior was given a thorough makeover, new five-spoke wheels were added and a raft of sculpted body panels and tweaked rear spoilers by Julian Thompson (who'd later on be credited with the Lotus Elise, Jaguar C-X75 and Land Rover Range Rover Evoque) wrapped up the Esprit's transformation into a Series 4. And, yet again, the engines would be carried over virtually intact. In 1993 the only available choice was the five-speed manual and 264-hp turbocharged engine from the Series 3 Esprit SE. It's here, though, where Lotus' usual form with upgrade uptake changes, as the new Esprit edition onslaught would begin in earnest a year later.

It all kicked off with the replacement of the standard car with the "S4s," which ditched the standard engine in favor of a 300-hp unit not too dissimilar to the X180R's (which would be made available in Europe as well, in Sport 300 guise). A couple of years later Lotus would again go back to celebrating its exploits on the track with the GT3. It was a 240-hp car that, despite the hardcore connotations of that motorsports-inspired model name, was actually positioned as a more user-friendly alternative to the brawnier S4s and Sport 300, as was the decision to install power steering on all of the Series 4 models. In fact, the Esprit GT3 went down a treat with the press, and even current road testers will cite the car as one of the best ever Esprit models.

Once 1999 had passed, though, a major moment had occurred in the Lotus Esprit's life. For the first time since the model was introduced 23 years earlier, the Esprit was no longer available with a four-cylinder engine. As a result, for the last five years of the Esprit's life the only engine option would be a 3.5-liter turbocharged V8 that had been introduced in 1996. Being so radically different in capacity and configuration, it's unsurprising that the extra 50 hp this V8 generated over the Sport 300's four-cylinder transformed the Esprit into a 175 mph+ car that could genuinely keep pace with a Ferrari 355 when combined with the extra weight and wider tires. But this sacrificed the purity and delicacy that had defined the Lotus Esprit's dynamics for such a long time.

Still, that purity penalty was offset by the relative value for money the Esprit offered. Yes, $78,000 in 1996 money is a lot for a car that was even derided for its build quality back then, but it's worth pointing out that a 355 would have set you back nearly double that at the time. And, if you really wanted to spend more money on a Lotus Esprit, you could always invest in the Sport 350 mode. As the name suggests, it's an Esprit V8 given the Sport 300 treatment, so high-performance brakes, a weight reduction of 200 lbs to 2,866 lbs and lots of carbon fiber were in the cards (though, weirdly, no limited slip diff). It did get a bit of shtick at the time for being one of the trickiest Esprit's to get to grips with, but the Sport 350 was certainly as exciting as factory-spec Esprits got.

And that, sadly, would be where the major footnotes in the Series 4 saga end. Once the Sport 350 was launched Lotus would only go on to tinker with bits and pieces here and there until, after 10,675 units and a production run of 27 years and eight months, the Esprit was officially discontinued in February 2004. Given the state Lotus is currently in, we doubt a new Esprit will be released anytime soon. It'll certainly look nothing like the 2010 Esprit concept car, but that's kind of a good thing. With the benefit of hindsight and reflection, we can look back on the timeline of the Lotus Esprit and appreciate the history behind the little mid-engined sports car from Hethel that held its own against the biggest names in the business.



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