Lotus Esprit S4s
AutoCar April 1993
It cant be easy at Lotus right now. Tossed like a hot potato from independence to General Motors to Bugatti and now to another Italian concern called 21 Invest fronted by the Benetton family, the good people of Hethel must be yearning for a period of stability. A period when budgets are confirmed and projects approved, executed, signed off and put into production.
What projects they are! Youll know about the new Seven, the car aimed at taking the company back to its roots, so that once again it is building the kind of car that gave the marque its name in the first place, recreating itself in its original image. Its an exciting proposition, for sure, but one that should be awaited no more anxiously than the new two-plus-two coupe, the new flagship supercar or even the soon-to-be-announced V8 engined Esprit.
The Espnt is soon to receive the engine its chassis and pedigree have always deserved
Oh yes. As readers of last weeks issue will know, the Esprit is soon to receive the engine a 350bhp, 40-valve four-litre V8 that its chassis, shape and pedigree have always deserved. It is but one year away, God and 21 Invest willing.
Until then, Lotus, and its Esprit, will continue the only way it knows how: employing smart engineering in place of unavailable development millions to create a fine product. And no better example of this ethos exists than this latest Esprit, the S4S, developed at a cost of just £250,000. It is an entirely pragmatic car, born from Lotus customers telling the company that they want their Esprit to be as fast as the ultra-quick and raw Sport 300 but with the comfort of the stock S4. Simple, say I: drop a Sport 300 engine into an S4 and away you go. Not so fast, says Lotus, thats not the way we do things round here.
So, despite the mere addition of one letter to the S4s name, the S4S is a new Esprit in its own right with its own engine and chassis specification. It costs £53,995, some seven grand more than an S4 but fully £11,000 less than the lightweight Sport 300. It will also, says Lotus, outsell both its brothers combined sales, accounting for up to 60 per cent of all Lotuses sold from now on.
The starting point for the S4S is a stock S4 frame, modified to accept the chassis brace from the Sport 300 which runs around the engine and rear of the car, increasing rigidity by a third. Spring settings are 10 per cent stiffer at the front and 15 per cent behind, although the dampers are actually slightly softer. Tyre sizes increase to exploit these changes, with 235/40 ZR17 Michelin Pilot SX MXX3 tyres up front and 285/35 ZR18s behind the biggest, if not quite the fattest ever to adorn an Esprit (the S300 has 315/35 ZR17s at the back). Small wheel arch extensions are added at the back to accommodate the extra tyre width, while the rear wing is taken straight from the Sport 300. Roger Becker, director of vehicle engineering at Lotus and the man who developed the S4S, describes the chassis as being about three-quarters of the way to a Sport 300.
The engine is considerably closer than that. Though rated at a nominal 285bhp at 6400rpm, compared with the S300s 302bhp, the S4S will actually peak at a transient 300bhp for short periods under full acceleration in cool weather. Significantly, its torque output actually trumps the S300s, with 290lb ft at 4100rpm compared with 287lb ft at 4400rpm. The reason for this is that the engine is actually developed from the S300; same head, same camshafts. The only differences are a smaller, purpose-built garrett turbocharger, designated T3/60, as well as reprogrammed engine management charged with providing extra throttle response and less lag at low revs. The promise of such a package is clear to see.
But before you can put it to the test, the S4S, like the 17 other Esprit variants I can think of in its 20-year history, does its best to poison your opinion of the car. Simply clambering aboard can be both difficult and painful. The doors dont open nearly wide enough, while the scooped out racing seat seems a fearsome drop away. Without anywhere to gain a good hand hold and lower yourself gently into the cabin, you have little choice but to aim yourself in the general direction of the seat and let go. With your backside in a 1g freefall, glancing off the sharp edges of the seat is a painful and often infuriating experience. Worse, once installed, the obscured view of the new but scarcely improved instruments and the proximity of pate to sunroof if youre tall do little to help convert you to the Esprits cause.
Turning on the engine and moving off fails to improve the situation. The old aluminium four-cylinder engine was never exactly sonorous and it seems that the more power it is asked to produce, the more vociferously it complains. When it can, the old Renault gearbox joins in too, graunching into reverse and shifting slowly through its five wide ratios. Thoughts start drifting over to the Porsche 911 Carrera. Just £2500 more buys you one of the most charismatic engines in the world, perhaps the best gearchange (with six gears), easy access to the cabin, comfortable seating and first-class visibility to boot.
But the Porsche is not as quick. Whereas a Sport 300 engine is fast asleep up to 3000rpm and still a little bleary-eyed until 3500rpm, the S4S is downstairs, reporting for duty at 2500rpm sharp. That gives you close to 5000rpm of pure, animal acceleration, a kind thats genuinely rare even in such fast car days as these. The figures Lotuss, not ours, regrettably point to a 0-60mph time of 4.6sec and 0-100mph in 11.4sec, which, if they can be proven, will put S4S performance broadly on a par with that other two-seat sportscar, the eight-litre V10 Chrysler Viper. Not bad from 2.2 litres and just four cylinders...
Nevertheless, if youre going to fall in love with this Esprit it wont be for its straight-line performance. For all its speed, the engine noise and thankless gearchange quality steal much of the fun the acceleration would otherwise bring. If the affair is to start, it will begin with the corners.
It takes more sense than money to fine-tune a chassis. Look at how many tiny manufacturers produce cars with wonderful dynamics and how many multi-billion-dollar conglomerates make a complete dogs breakfast of theirs. And of them all, Lotus stands proud, in my book at least, as the best of the lot. Looking back over the dozen or so Lotuses I have been lucky enough to drive in the last decade, I can think of just one whose handling failed to do the job assigned to it. The rest have all been marvels. But this S4S, without doubt, is the best of all.
If youre going to fall in love with this Esprit, it wont be for its straight-line performance
I have never known another mid-engined supercar that is so friendly on the limit. Even the Sport 300, lighter and a shade more agile though it undoubtedly is, is trickier if for no other reason than that the peaky nature of its engine makes it more difficult to apply the power evenly from the exit of a corner. With more torque spread over a wider area and better throttle response, the S4S presents no such problems. It offers instead the finest power steering in the world (now that the Porsche 968 Club Sport is dead there can be no further argument) and a chassis balance tipped in favour of the mildest understeer, easing gently, naturally and faithfully into neutrality once turned in and settled into the corner.
Given that old-fashioned tail-out motoring does not come naturally to the S4S, it treats its imposition with remarkable equanimity, shuffling its hips indulgently sideways in the face of a bootful of throttle in a second gear corner, allowing you to detail that extraordinary steering to first holding and then reining in the back of the car once more.
The result is an overall level of adhesion with a lead on the common sports car pack as large as the Esprit has enjoyed for two decades. Coupled with such innate, unquestioning friendliness and its clear to see that what we are looking at here is the finest handling sports car less than a quarter of a million pounds will buy. As I see it, only the Ferrari F355 stands comparison and while the Italian is unquestionably better damped and braked and has a hugely better ride, its steering is not close to the Esprits and nor is it ultimately quite as balanced and benign.
The S4S is likely to be the last Esprit before the major revisions needed to accommodate the V8 engine are made. And, as parting shots go, its a broadly impressive one. There was nothing Lotus could do about the driving position, gravelly engine or grotty gearchange, and anyone approaching the S4S with such high hopes is bound to leave disappointed.
For now, Lotus hopes the Esprits aged but still beautiful shape, its pulverising thrust and peerless handling will persuade its customers to overlook its shortcomings as they always have. And if you measure a supercar s merit by its looks, performance and handling, theres no question the Esprit provides more of each for the money than any other.
For myself, I would conclude that such handling is fair exchange for the gearbox and engine limitations and further consider that the S4S is not only the best Esprit yet but also the best built, even if it remains far from Porsche standards. In fact, had I the money and the inclination, only the driving environment would deter me. But deter me it would. The driving position, poor ventilation and concealed dials annoyed me enough in the 36 hours we had the Esprit to let me know, unequivocally, that even if I were a rich man, I could not own one.
Yet those shorter and thinner than me, which is most of you, need not be so concerned. Britain only builds one mid-engined two-seat supercar and youre looking at it. Its not as polished as many Euro rivals but they, in turn, are rarely as inspired. As a device to see Lotus through these troubled times to the sunlit uplands it hopes lie ahead, it deserves your respect. And, for those of you with £54,000 pointing in the direction of a supercar, your attention too.
Top speed: 160mph
MPG: urban: 18.8
All manufacturers claimed figures
£53,985 (inc 2-year warranty and tree servicing)
On sale in UK now
Length: 4414mm (173.5in)
Width: 1883mm (74.1 in)
Height: 1150mm (45.3in)
Wheelbase: 2420mm (95.3in)
Track (front and rear): 1520mm (59.8in)
Weight (claimed): 1347kg (2966lb)
Fuel Tank: 73 litres (16 gall)
Max power 285bhp at 6400rpm
Max torque 290lb ft at 4100rpm
Specific output 130bhp per litre
Power to weight 212bhp per tonne
Installation longitudinal, mid, rear-wheel drive
Capacity 2174cc, 4 cylinders in line
Made of aluminium alley head and block
Compression ratio 8.0:1
Valves 4 per cylinder, dvhc, Ignition and fuel electronic ignition, sequential fuel injection,
Garrett 13/60 turbocharger
Type 5-speed manual
Ratios 1mph per 1000rpm
1st 3.36 /5.5, 2nd 2.05/9.0, 3rd 1.38/13.4
4th 1.03/17.9, 5th 0.82/22.6, Final drive 3.89
Front double wishbones, cells, anti-roll bar
Rear upper and lower links, culls, anti-roll bar
Type rack and pinion, power assisted
Lock to lock 3.1 turns
Front 286mm ventilated discs
Rear 300mm ventilated discs
WHEELS AND TYRES
Size 8.5xl7in (f), l0x18in (r) Made at cast alley
Tyres 235/40 Z817 (f), 285/35 ZR18 (r)
Lotus Cars Ltd. Hethel, Norfolk NR14 8E/. Tel: 01953 608000