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How the other half drives!

by James Foxall
10th September 2005

Key moment: Kevin Hughes (left) with his VW polo and Alan Tong with his Lotus Esprit

Seeing smoke pouring from the back of the bright yellow Lotus Esprit he was driving was a real sweaty-palm moment for Kevin Hughes. It wasn't because he was on a motorway bridge traversing a river and he doesn't like heights. And it wasn't because it ruined what was supposed to be an entertaining Sunday drive. It was because the car he was driving belonged to someone else. And Kevin wasn't sure how the owner would react to news that he had broken a treasured possession.

Kevin was taking part in an experiment that saw him swap his everyday transport, a one-litre Volkswagen Polo, for something a little less practical but a whole lot pokier. The flip side meant Esprit owner Alan Tong was consigned to Kevin's Polo.

The experiment would last for seven days and both drivers were to record their experiences of life with a car diametrically opposed to the vehicle for which they had shelled out hard-earned cash. Fortunately, the smoke Kevin could see trailing ominously in the rear view mirror was actually steam.

But erupting engines aside, before we find out how they got on, here are some details to deliberate over. The Esprit S4s has 300bhp, or six times the power of the Polo. It is capable of nearly twice the speed of the VW, can accelerate from rest to 60mph in 4.6 seconds, 13.8 seconds fewer, and is in insurance group 20, as opposed to three.

You might think that Esprit owner Alan would be a trifle aggrieved at drawing what on paper is the very short end of a very high-performance straw. Not at all. The director of Cambridge-based electronics company Pico Technology found the VW strangely liberating.

The 34-year-old explains: "The cabin is very light and airy compared with the Lotus and I started using the rear-view mirror again; in the Esprit that's pointless because the rear wing is in the way. I also found the Polo so easy to drive that my 30-mile commute along country roads was spent thinking about the day ahead, listening to the radio and relaxing. In the Lotus you find yourself concentrating much more on your driving."

Meanwhile, Polo owner Kevin, 39, does a daily 50-mile round commute from rural Hertfordshire into north London, where he manages a mobile phone shop. By his own admission it can be a torturous trek, so how did the Lotus cope? "It wasn't ideal," he says.
" Probably the worst bit was when I was stuck on the M25. The clutch is very heavy and it was a bit of a nightmare. In the Volkswagen you can just creep along in the traffic, but with the Lotus I had to leave a big gap to the car in front. It became rather tiring."
For both men, the experience of actually driving the other's car was entirely new. Alan admits: "Initially I found myself going strangely slowly. Then I realized I was only pressing my foot halfway down, like in the Lotus. As well as that, at 60mph or 70mph the Polo feels more like you're doing 100."

Alan also had to cope with his nerves. Like an expectant father he confesses to being more nervous about Kevin driving his Esprit than Kevin was. The Lotus owner laughs: "'Why did I agree to this?' was the thought going through my head as I handed over the keys. When Kevin first drove the Esprit, he struggled to find the right gear. But everyone has this problem. The clutch is a racing type and very heavy, and the gearbox takes a bit of getting used to. Then after a little while he made the acquaintance of the turbo, which kicks in at about 3,000rpm. Two expressions seemed to be fighting for control of his face. In the end the big grin won over the abject terror."

Kevin adds: "Initially I was sitting like a granny, hunched over the wheel in order to reach the pedals, which are very small and quite offset. Then I relaxed and as soon as you start to explore the handling you find out what an incredible car it is. But I feel like I found only a fraction of its performance because I didn't want to crash or lose my licence."

Thankfully he did neither although at one point, as we've seen, he was concerned he had blown it up. "It was just a hose to the water pump that had split and an AA man heroically managed to mend it. It took three hours and severely curtailed my day but we got going again," Kevin says. But turbo lag and AA men aside, what was it like living with a supercar?

" Picking my 12-year-old up from school was interesting. I had to drive round the block twice in case any of her friends hadn't seen her," he says. "But the novelty wore off as soon as we'd been to the supermarket and the fourth bag of shopping had to go on her knee. The boot is tiny and right behind the engine, so it gets really hot. I thought the fish I'd bought for supper would be cooked by the time we got home. I also do a lot of miles and if I owned the Esprit it would bankrupt me. I filled it up four times during the week."

Alan agrees: "For the kind of miles Kevin does, the Polo is perfect. But on my commute, which is largely country roads, it wasn't much fun. The Esprit has four-pot racing brakes and they're awesome; the Polo has drums on the back and its tyres are about half the width of the Lotus's so there's not much possibility for fun. I suppose it is difficult to make a financial argument for an Esprit, but you can buy a decent one for the same money as a BMW 318i and I know which I'd rather have."

So does Kevin, even if that "smoke" will haunt him for the rest of his days.

Tech spec
VW Polo 1.0L
Four seats
front-wheel drive
front-mounted 999cc naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine giving 50bhp,
top speed 94mph
0-60mph in 18.4sec
48.7mpg Combined.
Price when new: £7,870.

Lotus Esprit S4s
Two seats
rear-wheel drive
mid-mounted 2,200cc turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine giving 300bhp
top speed 170mph
0-60mph in 4.6sec
25mpg Combined.
Price when new: £53,000.

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