2 for the price of 1
What a choice! A storming Esprit GT3 or the combined
talents of the big fun Elise
and solid Subaru Impreza for similar money. Which would you go for . . . ?
Auto Express, February 1997\
by James Mills
We all like to think we know a bargain when we see one. Whether it's 50 per cent off in an 'all must go' sale or hunting among the hustle and bustle of an antiques market, there's a bit of Del Boy in us all.
Sadly, like Only Fools and Horses TV character, most of us are wrong about these 'bargains'. At the end of the day, high street stores and market traders know exactly what they're up to we're the muggins being taken for a ride, believing something is worth far more than we've been asked to pay for it.
Car makers are much the same. So when Lotus launched the Esprit GT3 amid publicity hype of it being the 'best-value Esprit for years', we weren't about to sit back and take their word for it. Because £40,060, after all, is a seriously big stash of cash especially for a stripped-out, no frills machine.
On the other hand, this maximum thrills sports car is highly in keeping with current trends. It's a lightweight, minimalist driver's car with a storming top speed of 164mph.
But does that make it twice as good as its younger wonder-brother, the £20,560 Elise? And what if we told you that, along with the Elise, you could throw in another of our favourites, Subaru's Impreza Turbo, for virtually the same money as one Esprit? With this pair, you'd be guaranteed similar thrills, plus all the practicality you'd ever need.
So beyond face value, what does the cut-price GT3 offer that makes it twice as special? Is it all image, or is the car really twice as nice? Let's find out...
A crowd of fascinated onlookers was soon attracted to our GT3. The straight-edged, aggressive lines have aged pretty well since they were first penned, and combined with lairy 'you've been Tangoed' paint, they never fail to get people staring. Unlike some sports cars, though, the GT3 seems to earn appreciative nods for its audacity.
Living life to its limits is what the latest Lotus is about. Much like Porsche's discontinued 968 Club Sport, the GT3 is devoid of fancy frills. It's pared down to the bone, hence the 'cut price', with as little performance as possible compromised for practicality.
The first time you climb into the driver's seat it dawns on you just how focused the GT3 is on performance. Stretching over the wide sill is difficult enough, but trying to lift your butt over the seat's raised side while keeping your knees below the steering wheel is a task you'll not want to repeat in a hurry. Once hunched in place in the cockpit, a few futile minutes are spent searching for adjustment of the seat back and steering wheel. But there's none: the seats are Racecar items, while the date interior design means the wheel stays fixed.
Still, you can get comfortable despite the pedals being so close together, the Momo sports wheel brushing your knees and the gearbox tunnel propping up your arm. And there's a definite sense of occasion. Neither the Elise nor Impreza has such a 'special' feel, although for some the GT3's cabin may be too claustrophobic.
The interior may be stripped out, but it looks all the better for it. Orange casing runs around the stubby aluminium gearlever and works wonders for livening up the gloomy grey leather trim.
It's hard to see out, especially over your shoulder to reverse, but when you get it right the narrow rear window gives a clear view of the road and the engine cover. And it's behind your back that the GT3's 2.0-litre, 16-valve, turbocharged, charge-cooled motor rests.
It doesn't rest easy for long, though. Turn the key and it leaps into life, idling quite high until it warms. It sounds lumpy and far from smooth, as if warning you of its serious intentions. With figures like 240bhp at 6250rpm and 294Nm at 3750rpm in your head, it's not as if you need reminding...
This is a brutal car, capable of scorching past 60mph in five seconds and topping 160mph. But the moment you go to storm away it's more likely to stall than shift. The hefty clutch saps all the revs in first gear, causing the Esprit to bog down. Try again and you'll find around 3,000rpm works wonders, pulling away smoothly and, dare we say, rather quickly.
Bury the throttle and the huge rear tyres fight for traction, spinning wildly until you slam the gearlever back into second and ease off the gas a little. Take a quick breather, floor the throttle again the you'll be thankful for the bucket seats bracing your G-force-battered body. As you hit that 3000rpm mark, the engine jumps to life, slingshots you down the road and leaves the Elise and Impreza in its wake.
Below 3000rpm, the engine feels lethargic as the turbo is caught off boost. So there's much stirring of the gears to be done to exploit that explosive top-end power. But scream the four-cylinder motor to its 7000rpm red line and the engine betrays its relatively uncouth manners with a rough snarl.
There's no doubt about it: flat out, the GT3 is by far the quickest car here. But on paper, performance figures don't tell the full story. As Lotus is at pains to point out, it's the driver who is challenged, not the car. That certainly proved to be the case on the test track.
Total commitment is required to get the best from the Esprit. Forward thinking and smooth inputs are rewarded with an amazingly involving drive. The chassis is beautifully balanced, but with all the power going to the rear tyres it would be daft to expect it to be fool proof, especially in the wet.
Fortunately, superb power-assisted steering and a general seat-of-the-pants feel let you sort any slides out almost before they've started started. Even so, it's wise to exercise caution with your right foot.
It's good to see the brakes are backed up by an anti-lock system and in all conditions, the ventilated discs haul speed down in a flash.
Body control across the moorland roads is exemplary, and through bends the suspension soaks up bumps and ruts without fuss. Even motorway journeys aren't the hardship you'd expect.
A good driver will get the best out of the GT3. It's a sports car in the traditional sense, with masses of power and though-provoking handling. But a careless pilot may well end up in more trouble than he's bargained for. And, for all its charm, the Esprit is showing its age remember, this was the car which drove out of the sea in the Spy Who Loved Me in 1977.
Of all the sports cars out there, though, few are as alert and sensitive as this. If you get your kicks from driving, you'll love the GT3.
We've raved about the Elise in the past and we'll rave about it again. The flyweight funster takes Lotus back to its roots, back to what it does best: producing lightweight roadburners for affordable money. Compared to the GT3, the Elise may seem weedy on paper or look far from macho in the flesh, but don't be deceived. The Lotus can deliver a knockout punch to bigger, powerful rivals.
Where the Esprit gets with wearing the dazzling Orange paint, the petite Elise looks decidedly uncomfortable in it. This is not a pretentious car and can do without such attention grabbing tactics. But where some customers will buy the Esprit primarily as a car to be seen in, the Elise buyer has heard how good the new baby is and all they want to do is drive it.
And why not? The feather-light 690kg machine is bound to make the most of its 118bhp, supplied courtesy of Rover's four-cylinder, 1.8-litre K-series engine. Indeed, it'll charge past 60mph in six seconds not far off the GT3 and could see you on to 126mph.
Climb inside and you'll see exactly how Lotus has kept it so light; there's nothing there! All you need is all you get: a pair of seats, some lightweight Stack racing dials and a heater. There's no carpet, no electric's, no glove-box, no airbag... You literally sit on top of the bare chassis. There's no useful stowage space, either, but then you'd have the Impreza for luggage-laden journeys.
But for all its dieting, the Elise fits like a glove. Where the GT3's driving position is compromised by upright seats and the Impreza's feels like any run-of-the-mill saloon, the Elise feels just like a sports car should: snug, comfortable and intimate. Everything's at fingertip distance, the seats offer spot-on support and the pedals and steering wheel are perfectly placed.
Set off and you're immediately aware of how different this is to the others. The Impreza pampers and cossets, the Esprit initially intimidates, but this baby of the trio makes you feel right at home.
Sure, the engine makes a huge racket behind your head and you have to adapt to millimetre-precise controls, but the more time you spend behind the wheel of the Elise, the more you'll want to keep driving it. It is quick, but on fast A-roads the Impreza and Esprit could both show it a clean pair of heels.
Rest assured, though, drivers of the other cars won't have as much fun, as when twisty low-gear B-roads loom, the Elise's incredibly agile and forgiving chassis works its magic.
The Elise is remarkable for its perfectly neutral handling balance. With only 118bhp there is no tail-sliding, but it's a lot more adjustable and fluid when pressing on the the responses from the steering, brakes and throttle are unbeatable.
Above all, though, the Elise flatters every driver skilled or not. As the pace picks up, the car takes on a natural rhythm, inspiring confidence. You needn't try impersonating Damon Hill to get the most out of it, whereas the others demand you put a lot more into them to get a taste of their capabilities. It's big-time fun.
As far as practicality goes, though, the Elise is a non-starter. The hood is best left off, and when it starts to rain the time-consuming task of putting it back on is a true test of patience.
And as we've pointed out, there's barely enough room for a weekend's worth of luggage, and you'll soon go deaf if you drive the Elise any reasonable distance on the motorway. But there's always the Impreza for that...
When you can't use the Elise because the shopping needs doing or you're planning on covering a fairly long distance, for example there's a very appealing solution: Subaru's Impreza Turbo five-door. As down-to-earth as it looks, the Impreza Turbo has to be one of the best performance bargains around today. Now Lancia's Delta Integrale is dead the Ford has killed off its Escort Cosworth, the Impreza is the only road-going rally machine on sale in Britain, and it's yours for a 'mere' £19,610. Not bad for a car that gets the seal of approval from ex-rally world champ Colin McRae.
This vehicle may not scream sports car, but further investigation provides some clues as to its intentions. The gaping air scoops on the bonnet and whopping front spotlamps, for example, remind you of its rally-inspired heritage.
If you chose to spend your £40k on this and the Elise rather than the single Esprit, the Impreza would inevitably be the everyday runaround. That's no reason to be despondent though, for the Impreza hides more than the odd ace up its sleeve.
Take its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, for example. With the help of an intercooled turbocharger, the 'humble' estate boasts a massive 208bhp and 290Nm of sports car-worrying performance. Then there's the four-wheel drive, ensuring all the grunt is transformed into grip rather than wasted on wheelspin.
Behind the wheel, the Impreza does little to get you excited. It's as bland as a minicab, but a least you're never left fumbling for switches or straining to see dials.
The 1997 model gets decent sports seats, but there's little else to mark it out as special. Of course, that wolf in sheep's clothing element will appeal to many, and means the rest of the family can sit in comparative luxury.
There's space across the back seat for three adults, and lifting the tailgate reveals a decent boot which will happily swallow a holiday's worth of luggage.
If the Subaru is to prove its worth as a fun family car, though, it needs to be pointed down an empty B-road. The Impreza was built to win rallies and this is where it shows. The destinctive-sounding engine lumbers into life gradually, but at 3500rpm all hell breaks loose as the turbo jumps to life and the Subaru is literally catapulted forwards.
Without even a hint of squeal from the tyres, you're slammed back in the seat as 60mph passes by in six seconds and the acceleration keeps coming back think and fast. On the test track, the Impreza is still charging hard as it climbs to its 141mph top speed.
Unlike the other two, this supposedly sensible load-lugger storms out of tight bends with no fuss whatsoever. It doesn't spin its wheels or slide its tail, it just grips and goes. Over unfamiliar roads you can't ask for a more reassuring companion.
And when the heavens open, the Subaru's sure-footed nature means the Elise and Esprit haven't a hope of keeping up across country. The four-wheel drive also makes it very stable under braking, and an ideal car for towing.
Of the three, the Impreza is the easiest to drive quickly. For starters the driving position is set high, giving good all-round vision, while the steering, brakes, gearchange and clutch are light. The downside is it's nowhere near as involving as the other two. But then, neither of them will carry the family plus kitchen sink from A to B.
The Subaru may roll a lot more than the others and feel comparatively bulky and slow in its responses, but compare like with like you won't find another practical family car that devours terrain with such aplomb.
And, of course, if you really want to get away from it all, there will still be the Elise waiting for you in the garage...
Auto Express's Verdict
It's an agonisingly difficult decision to make, but if any of us had roughly £40,000 to play with, we'd take the Elise and Impreza and bid a fond farewell to the Esprit GT3.
But don't for one minute think, we're putting the GT3 down. This is the best Esprit money can buy today, and one of the greatest we've ever driven. Its handling is rewarding, inspiring and, most of all, fun. Combine that with the breathtaking performance of the 'old' 2.0-litre engine and you've got one of the most fantastic driver's cars on sale today.
But, as always, there's a catch. The GT3 may be stripped out and revitalised, but Lotus can't do much about the essentially dated design until an all-new model arrives.
Which leaves the other two. As a pair, they complement one another perfectly. The Elise is the ideal weekend getaway car, offering instant relief from all your worries and moment you floor the throttle. But it's no more than a loveable toy with severely limited everyday appeal.
That's where its partner comes in. Fully laden or just with you at the wheel, the Impreza's broad range of qualities is astounding. And all for under £20,000.
Sadly for the Esprit its age is showing, and although the new GT3 may be a hoot, it just can't hide the years.