The news last month of a new Lotus Elite has turned out merely to be the beginning of an extraordinary Lotus product explosion that will, company bosses say, put five brand-new Lotus models into the market by 2016, establish a new design style for all future models and bring an end to the company's 15 years of accumulated losses.
At the Paris Motor Show, Lotus unveiled four more full-sized models that, if successful, will move the company's image and prices into Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche territory. “Our plan is to change Lotus from its present position as a niche sports car company to a builder of a range of premium sports cars,” says CEO Dany Bahar, architect of Lotus's new five-year plan. All five Lotus concepts were on display in Paris, and a couple are intended for production even sooner than the front-engined V8 Elite hybrid revealed the week before and proposed for 2014.
The launch of the new cars is being accompanied by developments to Lotus' factories, design facilities, test track and motorsport activities. There is also to be a new museum and heritage center. The work, which has already started, will involve “fully funded” expenditure running to $1.2 billion over the next decade.
The whole project is being underwritten by Malaysian-based Proton, Lotus' parent, which decided 18 months after a radical change of management (and management policy) that it had only two stark options with Lotus' future: Hold an immediate fire sale or develop the company to the extent of its potential. That was when the new Proton team began talking to Bahar, then a sales and marketing chief at Ferrari in Maranello, and the plan took “maybe three months” to devise.
The development plan is the brainchild of Bahar, Lotus CEO for the past 12 months. Apart from building improvements, lots of architectural planning and the purchase of some extra land at the company's Hethel, UK headquarters, the most obvious sign of progress so far has been the hiring of more than a dozen experts from blue-chip companies like Porsche, AMG and Ferrari in fields like production, manufacturing quality, marketing and design. One of the highest profile hires is ex-Ferrari design chief Donato Coco, who has expanded Lotus' crew of five full-time designers to around 15 and supported them with a department of about 40 people. They have worked around the clock to design the five cars – three mid-engined sports cars and two front-engined – which employ versions of a new corporate front-end design stronger than the traditional Lotus air intake.
“Even today's economy cars have stronger frontal designs than the traditional Lotus mouth,” says Coco. “It was time to find something better suited to the modern era. We found a stronger, more dynamic look on the early Lotus Seven and the Lotus 18 single-seater, and we have converted that into a look we think works better, even on models as dynamic as the next-generation Esprit supercar.”
The new Lotus models, which Bahar insists will employ the purist engineering principles of lightness and simplicity pioneered on the earliest Lotuses by the company's founder, Colin Chapman, will take the company from annual production of around 2,700 sub-$65,000 cars to between 6,000 and 7,000 cars costing between $125,000 and $190,000. Even the Elise replacement, by the time it reaches production in 2015, will have an entry price approaching $64,000.
The first new model will be the $175,000 Esprit supercar for 2013, chosen as the leader of the new wave for its familiar name and format, and because it will explain the company's new intentions better than others. Powered by a Lotus-supercharged 5.0-liter Lexus V8 (revving to 8,000rpm and producing 550hp, or 620hp in the R version) it will have a 7-speed paddle-shift gearbox, a KERS system, a 0-62mph time of between 3.2sec and 3.5sec and a CO2 output of just 250g/km – very low for the class and consistent with Lotus' intention of offering the most efficient cars in their classes. The car's curb weight of 3,295lbs doesn't make it quite the featherweight of past Lotuses, but engineers insist it's lighter than other class contenders.
Next off the stocks is the 2,800lb, mid-engined Elan for 2013, a $120,000 two-seater (optional two-plus-two) powered by a 4.0-liter version of the Evora's transverse V6. Insiders call this “the heart of the range.” Expect it to fight the Porsche 911 and Audi R8 and allude to shapes in the rear section (LEFT) that evokes, says the company, “one of the most iconic grand prix cars ever designed, the Lotus 79.” Power will be between 400hp and 470hp, and 0-62mph will take 3.5sec to 3.9sec depending on whether you're at the wheel of an R model or not.
The Elite is the only Lotus launch planned for 2014, but it's arguably one of the most important of the whole new genre seeing as it will be the first Lotus with a front-mounted engine since the previous Elite/Eclat/Excel line that began in the mid-1970s. Lotus plans both a retractable hardtop version and an R variant for this $180,000 model. Power will be 550hp or 620hp, like the Esprit, but this one will be a full hybrid, using the Lexus epicyclic transmission and twin electric drive motors. Lotus insists its 3,700lb curb weight is light for the class, and it will still achieve 3.5sec to 3.7sec for the 0-62 mph sprint.