Friday, October 03, 2008

Lotus Esprit: 4's Company, 8's a Crowd

To me, the Lotus philosophy has always been about two things: incredible handling and light weight. For most of the Esprit's life, this has meant compact four cylinder engines, normally aspirated and otherwise.

Growing up in the 80s, that was my fascination with the Wedge. How could a British mid-engined sports car perform just as well, if not better, than its 6 and 8 cylinder competitors in Zuffenhausen and Maranello?

Take, for example, the 1989-91 Lotus Esprit SE. It reached 60 in 4.7 seconds and had a top speed of 165 miles per hour. A Ferrari 348 of the same vintage, powered by a V8, took more than 5 seconds to reach 60 and had a top speed of around 170. A 911 (964) Turbo took 5 seconds to reach 60 and topped out at 169 mph.

1991 Lotus Esprit SE, ready for take off

The secret to the Esprit's performance was its lightweight-- at 2,871 pounds-- and its diminutive 2.2 (!) liter turbocharged four with a chargecooler (water/air intercooler). The little powerplant was capable of producing 264 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque. These are incredible numbers in the era of Arsenio Hall, mullets, and Sinead O'Connor.

Imagine my shock when I read in Car & Driver magazine (when it was still funny AND informative) about the 1996 Esprit with the twin turbo 3.5 liter V8, which was almost 200 pounds heavier than the SE. It was sacrilige. It went against everything Lotus stood for. Though power took a leap up to 355 hp and 295 pound feet of torque, it was slower to 60 and was just a few miles per hour faster at the limit. Why did Lotus do it?

The V8 is same on the outside, different on the inside.

The only legitimate reason I can think of is the broader torque curve that comes with an engine with a larger displacement. But I believe Lotus's reason was all about marketing and image. In the foreign markets, and especially in the U.S., exotic car buyers wanted thundering V8s under their hoods, not ultra-efficient four bangers. No one would shell out $100,000 for a four cylinder car, no matter how fast and competent it was.

Coulda had a V8? No thanks.

Don't get me wrong. I love the Lotus Esprit, in every one of its iterations. The twin turbo V8 is marvelous and I would give anything just to sit in the passenger seat for a ride around town. But for the few purists out there, the V8 will never have the same cachet as its four cylinder brethren.


1 comment:

Blogger said...

Spot on!! ;-D
Nice one!!