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What It's Like To Own
The British wedge is an odd duck but one of the all-time greats


It's long been the dream. The Lotus Esprit S4 is the one car I've dreamt of owning my entire life. Since it doesn't have the name recognition of a Porsche, the engine magic of a Ferrari, or the shocking looks of a Lamborghini, it's not the car that kids typically look at and think "that's what I have to get when I'm old enough."

The Esprit is tiny, the roof hitting at my hip with a length about the same as a Porsche Boxster. It's unique, a four-cylinder turbo engine behind the driver for much of the nearly 30 year production run. Bond drove Esprits twice, one of those times was in one of the greatest car chases of all time. It's finicky mechanically, with a reputation for not working much of the time. Of all the supercars of the 70s/80s/90s/00s, it was the longest lasting, quirkiest one.

This summer, I was offered a deal on one and pulled the trigger. The red car I bought has nearly 73,000 miles, but the previous owner took care of the mechanical side. Cosmetically, though, it had some issues.

First, the paint isn't great. The car came from Texas, and years in the sun have taken their toll. The clear coat is peeling in spots and the red is faded. There was an attempt to correct it by the driver side door at one point, but the red that was sprayed is slightly darker than stock. Not ideal. But you don't drive paint. And a bonus, it makes parking it less of a worry since it's already imperfect.

Everything was also filthy from sitting in a dusty garage. The sills were full of dust and dirt, the engine compartment was dirty, and the car itself needed a good wash. I hosed it down, gave the engine a clean, and went through every crevice to get dirt out. Or so I thought.

After the wash, I discovered a lake under the passenger side pop-up headlight. The drain was full of muck. Being a Lotus, this wasn't that easy to fix. An annoying small nut that held the headlight in place needed to be disconnected and popped up by hand, then a pipette had to go down under the light to discover a small hole that was intended to handle all the drainage. Cleaning all of that out left a puddle on the driveway.

The good thing is that the sun didn't take a toll on the interior, a dark tint on the windows protecting the leather. I had the interior detailed and the tints removed to return it to stock, and the only issues are wear on the driver-side bolster–a common issue–and some leather shrinkage on the dash. It also has a fantastic Momo steering wheel. The stock unit for US-market Esprits was the same as the Pontiac Firebird's wheel, with this Momo a European option. Score.

For whatever reason, a previous owner had a 17-inch set of HRE 541s made for it and got rid of the original OZ Racing five-spoke wheels. Those HREs are great, but the original wheel is iconic, one of the all-time greats. Replacing them felt like a sin against Colin Chapman. 

I sourced a set of used stock wheels off eBay. Like the paint, they aren't perfect. I figure I'll have them restored when I decide to get the paint fixed down the line. It was also the perfect time to change tires since they were mismatched front to rear and 18 years old. The sizing on these cars is weird. While the rear 245/45/17 is common, the stock front is a 215/40/17, something that basically nobody makes. A call to a local Esprit expert said that a 215/45 would fit just fine, so then I called Tire Rack for some recommendations.

They offered up the Bridgestone Potenza S007A, a tire they described as a civilized summer tire that'd offer a good mix of aggression without overpowering road noise. I went for it and then immediately regretted it. The ride was suddenly overly stiff and noisy, so I decided to check tire pressures before complaining.

Turns out that the shop that did the work set them nearly 10 psi too high and overtorqued the wheels. I reset the torque to spec, then bled the tires down to under 30 psi. It worked wonders. The Esprit became comfortable for long distance drives, as it's not aggressively stiff and is set up to be light on its feet. The new tires are also great, quiet with a wonderfully progressive character. Also they aren't dryrotted and old enough to go to war.

And while the car was taken care of mechanically, there was something nagging at me. It had this insane whine while it was running, like a demon screaming. I had read that the timing belt, particularly the heavier duty Gates blue belt, could whine, but this seemed ridiculous. This was also new, replaced in the last two years, well within the six year service interval. I had it checked and it was just way too tight. Resetting that made a world of difference. Now it just quietly purrs. Wonderful.

As you'd expect, it's not great ergonomically. I'm nearly 6'1", which makes seeing the instruments difficult. Rear visibility is a joke, even with the raised wing that was intended to let you see out the back. You reverse by braille. The gearbox is also a weak point, the Renault transaxle has vague shift action and there are tales of them exploding if you're too aggressive or put it through a hard launch. I've been gentle with it so far, though, and there hasn't been an issue.

That's combined with an interior that's actually shockingly nice? I was surprised too. The seats are comfortable and there's plenty of room for someone tall. There isn't a dead pedal, which I thought would be an issue, but on longer trips my leg just slots behind the clutch. The AC works perfectly, and there are no drive modes or anything to worry about. An interior devoid of buttons because they just aren't needed. A refreshingly simple place to be.

The engine is the 2.2 liter Lotus 910, a turbo four cylinder. It has no power below 3300 rpm. I mean none. In gear acceleration on the highway or up a hill is non-existent. This is unlike nearly all new cars, even tiny displacement ones with minuscule turbos, that seemingly have flat torque curves. So you shift more to keep it on boost. And it's magic when it's on boost.

That turbo whoosh is addictive, the brief lag up to 3300 rewarded with rampant acceleration to 7000 rpm, the Esprit seemingly realizing that it forgot to give you power down low and that it has to make up for lost revs. It's wonderful. And keeping it on song on a back road results in no lag, just be a gear lower than you think you need to be.

Lotus only started putting power steering in the Esprit with the S4, but this isn't an overboosted electric rack like you're used to today. It's more gentle assistance to make sure you can turn the wheel. The steering is so well judged, not overly heavy or light, just natural. The pavement comes through the wheel, nothing is muted or ignored.

The suspension and chassis aren't overly stiff like so many modern cars, instead favoring a softer, communicative setup. It doesn't feel aggressive or back breaking, which is fantastic. The limits are communicated politely, and the car always nudges you to go quicker. It's just wonderful.

I love this thing. Granted, I haven't experienced a major issue or failure yet, but it lives up to every dream I had for it. Hopefully it'll continue to be a relatively trouble-free experience for years to come.

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