2002 Esprit Tested
Friday 8th March 2002
Colin Goodwin has driven every single model of Esprit. Time to sample Esprit 2002.
It doesn't have to be Italy's Futa Pass, France's Route Napoleon, California's Pacific Coastal Highway or any other of the world's great driving roads. Sometimes the great driving memories are born on less exotic strips of Tarmac. Such as the A285 between Petworth in Sussex and Chichester!
I know this road intimately. I know where it is safe to overtake; where crossing cattle might have turned the surface into an organic skid pan and where there are hidden turnings and other hazards. And the finest moment on the A285? Easy. September 1993, the car a bright yellow Lotus Esprit Sport 300. Back then I was 'the lad' at Car Magazine, the junior road tester who was given the menial tasks on the magazine. Menial tasks like delivering a brand-new Sport 300 to freelance journalist Roger Bell, who lives in Selsey on the south coast.
Sure, I'd have to come back to London on British Rail's rattler from Chichester, but hey, a small price to pay. Esprit nuts get a little emotional at the mention of the Sport 300, those lucky enough to have driven one, of course. Among those fans you can include Lotus's own chassis engineers and a large section of the motoring press. It was something special that car.
There's a fan in Switzerland who has two of them, a spare just in case something happened to one of them. How wise. Fast forward nine years and we're on the A285 in a Lotus Esprit. A very different Esprit to the one I was driving back in 1993. This silver machine is a 2002 model-year car fresh out of the factory. A car built as a celebration of the 30 years between the Esprit's unveiling at the Turin motor show as a concept and the modern day Esprit.
You'll easily spot the difference between this car and last year's. Most obvious are the two pairs of circular rear lights that sit in a redesigned rear panel and the lip spoiler that was previously used on the Esprit Sport 350. They work well, these changes. Best of all, though, are the huge OZ wheels painted in what Lotus calls "Crystal Titanium". It still looks fabulous this car. Still stirs the emotions.
The car arrived at my place in a covered transporter sent down from the Lotus factory. I've driven probably 20 different Esprits in the last ten years yet still my pulse quickened as the lorry's tailgate lowered and I saw that familiar yet subtly different shape. There's a world of difference between the Sport 300 and this car.
First off, the 300 was fitted with a 300bhp version (hence the name) of Lotus's giant killing turbocharged four, whereas this car is fitted with Lotus' own twin-turbo 3.5-litre V8. We're talking 260 kW(350bhp) at 6500rpm and 400 Nm (295lb ft) of torque at 4250rpm.
No other sports car feels like the Esprit. In many you feel higher up, even in a mid-engined Ferrari the feel is quite different. The Esprit's cabin is more intimate and close. Quite a bit of redesigning has gone into the latest model's cabin. The overall theme is aluminium and simplicity. Much better than the carpet and wood trim of earlier Esprits. To me it was a mistake to overdo the cabin; to try and make such a purposeful sports car feel like a luxury saloon when it was palpably no such thing.
A slow potter through Petworth and out the other side, with the South Downs ahead of us. Esprit and I overtake a couple of cars that are making heavy going of a steep winding hill. I'd forgotten just how hard these V8 Esprits go. There's a short delay as the two turbines spin up and then a huge bolt of torque that has you grabbing higher gears in quick succession. This accessible power takes so much of the risk out of overtaking on roads like these. Fast it may be, but raw grunt is not what the Lotus Esprit is all about.
Several other cars are this fast, but few steer and handle the way this car does. The Sport 300 had the best power steering of any car I have ever driven. Note the present tense here. Still I have not found a system to beat it and still I use it as the benchmark each time I drive a new sports car. The new Esprit's steering comes the closest to matching the perfectly weighted and accurate steering of the Sport 300. And remember the Sport 300 was a racecar that was just road legal!
Esprit is King
It is on these quick, sweeping roads that the Esprit is king. Previous Esprits suffered from too much understeer, but this one has just the right amount. The car corners very flat, riding the bumps in a way that is almost a Lotus trademark. Enter into a corner slightly too hard and you can feel instantly, through the steering wheel, that the front end is starting to "push", then all you need to do is feather the throttle and the front end grips again. It's how a powerful mid-engined sports car should behave when its driver has pushed it just past the limit of grip. Behind those gorgeous OZ wheels sit some very serious brakes. If there was one area in which you could seriously criticise the Esprit in the past it was in braking performance. Not now. The two-piece 320mm discs are gripped by four pot calipers at the front and two potters at the rear, all backed up by ABS. Now you can be confident that your Esprit will shed its speed as impressively as it gained it. Even at track days.
Roger Bell is still in the seafront home in Selsey. His dog has obviously aged but he hasn't appeared to. Bell and I swap Esprit anecdotes, of which we have many, talk Formula One and drink coffee. This time, however, the train doesn't take the strain. I get to do the A285 in reverse and Roger Bell is the one left without the fast car.
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