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.In 2015, the Elise is replaced. It's much like the car we know, with an extruded aluminum bonded chassis, albeit a little longer and with better access. It will be available as a coupe, roadster and R model. Power will be via a supercharged 2.0-liter Toyota four, good for 300hp to 350hp, depending on spec. It'll have a robotized manual gearbox (a twin-clutch unit is deemed too heavy for a 2,400-lb car) plus stop-start, but no KERS.
The crowning glory will be a four-door called Eterne, also for 2015. It's a $190k-plus sedan designed to rival the Aston Martin Rapide using mechanicals identical to those of the Elite (5.0-liter supercharged V8 with 550hp or 620hp and a hybrid transmission) on a lengthened version of the same chassis.
Bahar admits that giving away so much detail about future plans puts Lotus under considerable pressure. He agrees changes are likely: the market will be the true decider of how quickly new Lotus models appear. But Bahar insists the reveal-all strategy is the right way forward. “You can't compare our situation with others who are more established in the premium market and can reveal their plans slowly,” he says. “Our aim is to show that the whole brand is going in a new direction now. Sure, there's a risk. But we have plans and a brand we believe in, and we are only interested in success.”
DANY BEHAR: HOW WE'RE GOING TO DO IT
“I always had a weakness for this brand,” says Lotus' rule-changing CEO of the past 12 months, Dany Bahar. “Even while I was working at Ferrari, I knew Lotus was special. But to me, the products weren't doing justice to the great name and heritage.”
Bahar, who sounds like a soft-voiced Michael Schumacher when he speaks, comes across as a far more emollient character than the person portrayed on the rumor mill for the 12 months he has so far spent in the main man's seat at Lotus, avoiding interviews while he put his radical changes into action. He settles comfortably in an armchair as we talk, resting one leg on the other and displaying the sharpest trouser creases I've ever seen.
“We want our new cars to be as big as the brand itself,” he explains. “The previous management tried hard to do that with the Evora, but they had to leave everything else the same. Our new plan means we have the opportunity to change everything – to do things from a better position – and that's what we're going to do.”
Bahar readily acknowledges outsiders' worries about his plan – raising the investment, finding the buyers, delivering the quality – and deals calmly with them, one by one.
“Our investment is confirmed,” he insists. “Our shareholders have lost a lot of money at Lotus over the past 14 years, and they wanted to stop that. There were two options: sell the company or run it to its potential. They made the second choice.”
But just how dependable is the solvency of Lotus owner Proton, given its well-known past losses and market difficulties? Bahar points to its strong links with the Petronas oil company and with the Malaysian government.
“They're strong,” he says. “They have their own aggressive plan to lift production to a million cars over the next five to seven years, from around 350,000. Besides that, they're fun to work with. They have 1,000 engineers of their own, and Lotus is already making use of those as capacity allows to work on third-party engineering projects. It's a great partnership.”
Bahar insists that although his name is on the recovery plan, it wasn't simply something he dreamed up.
“I asked people,” he says. “I'm not a car guy. We did lots of research and I consulted people I trust, some of whom liked the idea so much they now work in the business. That part feels good; knowing there are people who believe we can do this thing just as passionately as I do.”
Downsides? Bahar is disappointed by the reaction of the UK's coalition government to Lotus' requests for loans to finance its plant development. “We were asking for loans,” he says, “not grants. We could have 1,200 new manufacturing jobs here under the new plans. They complimented us on our presentation, and the whole thing looked a no-brainer. But we learned it wasn't a no-brainer…”
Now, Bahar says, they'll make more use of outside suppliers. “We'll do what we have to do here, but we'll outsource things that aren't our specialty – just like every other modern manufacturer does. That, and clever design, will help a lot with the quality thing. We won't try to be experts at leather work. We'll find people who can deliver it.
Bahar, a study in coolness, becomes almost excited when the talk turns to motorsport. “Lotus' DNA is based on racing,” he says. “No other company has ever had such a wide spread of success: F1, other open-wheelers, Le Mans, sports cars, GTs. Why would we discard such treasure, when it's where the brand's authenticity comes from?
“Besides,” says Bahar, “racing has a big impact on the road cars. After they have been tested by the best drivers, you feel safe to take them to the maximum.”