Road & Track 1977
Chapman the alchemist turns a show car into a reality
Colin Chapman's mid-engine Esprit seems long past due, most likely because it would appear to be the natural cornerstone of the Lotus line, especially in the wake of Mario Andretti's win at the Long Beach Grand Prix. Yet the Esprit is the last of the revamped Lotus line to reach production, the new front-engine Elite introduced here in 1975, followed by the Sprint about a year ago.
Continuing readers should be familiar with the Esprit's gestation, starting as a Giugiaro design project for the Turin Show in 1972 and being introduced as a production car at the Paris Show in 1975. Little of the car's basic styling has changed since the first show car, which is a credit to Giugiaro, Chapman The Chairman and his right-hand man, Mike Kimberly, who saw the project through to production. Where other show cars remain an unattainable figment of our automotive dreams, cars like the Lotus Esprit become examples of what happens when the dreams are founded on real-world specifications. Lotus-watchers will tell you the production Esprit was a logical assumption when they first saw the show car, as The Chairman is not about to waste his money on mere figments of anyone's imagination . . . even his own. Which is fine with us, as what's important here is that the Esprit is a real automobile, not just fibreglass and aspirations.
And that fibreglass is quite good, the body on our yellow test car being smooth and well finished. This is done in the rather exclusive Lotus process in which the body paint is sprayed into the moulds before the glass in introduced. The advantage is not only a rich colour, but also repair of minor dings with a fine sandpaper and rubbing compounds. The disadvantage is having to paint whole sections after repair rather than being able to spot paint. The body is composed of upper and lower sections joined at the rub strip that runs the length of the body. The only apparent external difference between European and American models is the larger front bumper, which makes up most of the 2.7inch difference in length between the two Esprit versions. The inapparent difference is the extra 300 odd lb the U.S. versions add over the others, that being taken up in the bumper systems, extra body structure built in front and rear and other "fedieralizing" necessities such as emissions equipment.
You can imagine the attention the Esprit's shape draws and we can suggest it to any young bachelor (the suggestion based solely on observations, not experience, mind you), especially in red or yellow. There are designers, General Motors; Bill Mitchell and Porsche's Tony Lapin in particular, who feel the wedge shape is a fad at best and a dead issue at worst. The car they usually cite as evidence is the poor-selling Ferrari Dino 308GT4, but the Lotus has a much lighter look than the Dino. We wonder if the wedge shape, instead of being a passing item, isn't a modern classic in its own right.
The Esprit's interior has the same sort of visual appeal as the exterior. While the car can be had with its insides done up in beige with a contrasting dark brown, our test car had the green and orange Scotch plaid Esprit decor. Completely done in cloth, the interior is a striking setup with individual cockpits for driver and passenger and a dashboard that slopes forward enough towards the passenger to give a passive restraint safety-car feeling.
There's a wraparound instrument panel with easy-to-read gauges mounted in the center, using white numbers and pointers on a medium green background and thankfully not done in one of the English national typefaces. All lighting control switches are on the left of the panel, with the light control stalk on that side of the steering column. "Environmental controls" such as the fan and ventilation levers are on the right side, along with the stalk for the windshield wipers and washers. One staffer thought of the setup as an interesting, different design, while another considered it gimmicky, though perhaps the main thing is that all the instruments are easy to read and the switches available without having to take your hands far from the steering wheel.
The only controls you'll have to reach for are the choke and electric window switches, mounted on the center console just aft of the shift lever. Lotus has done a very nice job with the shift linkage, especially when you consider the distance back to the Citroën (ex-SM) 5-speed gearbox. Fore-aft movement of the lever are rod actuated and crisp, but most drivers occasionally had trouble with reverse, getting hung up in the cable-operated left-right movement.
As you can probably tell from the photos, the seats are not the type one settles into deeply, though they hold you firmly enough for all purposes. While no one had trouble getting comfortable in the car, a few missed some sort of tilt adjustment to go with the seat's forward-backward movement. Also, the head restraints are a bit too vertical, forcing the driver's head right up next to them. All drivers had problems with getting their feet tangled in the closely-spaced pedals, the problem aggravated by a ledge to the left of the clutch that catches that foot on its way down making it difficult to fully depress the clutch. Worse yet, a too-high throttle made heel and toeing a guess at times. Perhaps Lotus should throw in a certificate for a pair of pointy Italian shoes.
Joining these are a few other problems, such as an awkwardly positioned handbrake (front of the left door sill), but generally they are things that can be adapted to the are fairly obvious when taking a test drive. There is another problem we see no easy solution to: interior heat. First, there is virtually no ventilation. One vent is on the wraparound instrument panel, another far forward of the passenger and nether pumps enough air, even with the fan on its high setting, to be of much help. Then there's the problem of cockpit heat, coming from the front radiator and the tunnel-mounted coolant pipes. The problem would be lessened if the car was equipped with the optional air conditioning, but it better be very good model as it has to cope with summer temperatures, both in the cockpit and the radiator.
Once past that problem, the Esprit's driving environment is an enjoyable one. The sounds from the engine compartment are fairly well shielded by the car's plywood bulkhead, the only annoyance not being total noise, but certain resonances that come through in certain rpm ranges. For instance, at 30mph the car is quieter in 4th gear than in 5th. Still, it isn't the sort of car one has to shout in to be heard and the sounds are generally of the busy-engine sort the driver would like to hear.
There are two other compartments in the car, of course, the one up front for the spare tire (front size) and the pieces necessary to change it, the master cylinder for the brakes and so little luggage space you'd have trouble stowing much more than your pointy Italian shoes there. In the back compartment, this one under an ill-fitting hatchback with no lifting handle. Here there's a little more luggage space around the engine cover, covered by a tonneau that snaps into place. We suggest potential buyers start looking for soft luggage that can be fitted in the around things. The engine cover is held in place by four elastic straps and is fairly easy to remove which is good since Lotus expects you to remove it to check oil. Happily, the American Lotus distributors are adding a little hinged hatch cover for 'access to the coolent header tank and dipstick'.
The Esprit engine is, of course, the same one installed in both other Lotus models, the Elite and Sprint nee Éclat. At that, it is a four cylinder trying to play in the leagues with V8s and V12s and basically it does so very nicely. With 1973cc, twin camshafts and four valves per cylinder, it manages 140bhp to 6500rpm and 130lb ft of torque at 5,000rpm. That horsepower figure is down from the European version's 160, but then so is the compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 8.4:1 and, more importantly, the timing. The result is an engine that will get the Esprit to 60 in 9.2 sec (equivalent to the last Maserati Merak we tested), but which is obviously emissions stifled and hates to idle. From cold the engine starts easily with just a bit of choke, but when hot it requires some grinding and stumbles when lit. There isn't much power going up to 3000rpm, but then the engine takes off it's almost like turbo lag and the care once again becomes a delight, the engine willing to rev despite air injection and a catalytic converter. Then again, if you're driving the Esprit in the manner it likes, you won't be spending much time below 3000rpm, And while hot starting is a problem, this isn't the sort of car that delivery men will be buying. Incidentally, Lotus specifies Mobil 1 synthetic oil for the Esprit.
With its 2350 lb curb weight and 5-speed gearbox, the Esprit was able to eek out 27.5 mpg on the mileage course we ran in the Lime Rock area. Allowing for the differences between the route and the one we use in southern California, that number is probably 3-4mpg higher than we would have gotten here, but even that lower figure is quite good for a performance car, regardless of where it was run.
While such items as straightline performance and fuel economy are important in the total Lotus equation, the prime ingredient is handling. This is the reason Lotus owners are willing to live with such things as a lopy idle, little luggage space and poor ventilation. Hung on both ends of the Esprit's boxed backbone frame is what has to be about the best suspension combination on the road today. In front you'll find Opel Ascona upper A-arms in combination with transverse lower links, their fore-aft location secured by the anti-roll bar. The rear suspension is homegrown, with fixed-length half shafts as upper arms, lower links and semi-trailing arms. Tires are an interesting mix, 205/60VR-14s in front and 205/70VR-14s in back, their respective pressures being 18 and 27 psi.
When you first drive the Esprit, the front end feels light, so light you're sure the car will understeer. Yet drive it into a corner, flick the wheel and the car responds quickly. The Esprit isn't neutral, but starts with mild understeer, moves gently to neutral and then just as gently to oversteer if you want it to. The car is very forgiving and reacts quickly to any steering input, but never snaps back with too quick a reaction. And it does this not only on smooth surfaces, but over bumps as well. Because it has relatively soft springs, you don't have to take our your dentures as the ride will not jar your teeth loose, even on railroad crossings, because the Esprit is one of the best riding mid-engined exotic's sold.
Brakes are a critical part of any such car and the Lotus 4 wheel-disc system almost matches the handling of the car. Why almost? Because while the Lotus handling is superb, the brakes fall a bit short of that mark. They do get very high points for control under heavy braking and we experienced no fade during our tests, yet the distances were a bit too long, even for bumpy Lime Rock, where we expect longer stops because of the track surface. To put the brake question in perspective, though, for the average driver enjoying himself on a winding road we'd be more concerned with brake pedal placement than the car's overall braking ability.
One encouraging note is that while our test Esprit did suffer from a few quality control problems, they certainly weren't in the epidemic proportions of some past Lotus's. This time it was more the bother of things out of adjustment such as pop-up headlights that jitter nervously or not quite fitting, rather than the major disasters suffered in previous Lotus test cars.
It is always necessary when finishing a road test to take a step back from the test car and try to put it into perspective. That is difficult with cars such as the Esprit, because when held up against most of the plainer cars we test, the exotics lose points in areas such as sound isolation, luggage space, entry and exit and the like. Looked at through that filter, the Esprit appears difficult to live with and that hardly allows for it not having the minimal level of ventilation we expect from every car we test.
But at this point the importance of the square-cut criterion dims, because, Lord, is the Esprit fun. When the most functional, reasonable cars begin to fade from your memory, you can still easily picture the view over the Esprit instrument panel of turn one looming on the right as braking-point numbers flash by on the left. You retain thoughts before cutting back along the road that runs with the river. You remember the people who stopped to look and the mere average sports cars that tried to keep up with you through the curves. We'll be the first to admit that taken in total there are many cars on the road that are more practical than the Esprit, but there are few that are as much fun.