Slicing through a tricky sequence of bends it suddenly dawns on me that driving Lotus's new Europa SE briskly needn't be hard work. There is oodles of grip, the car has think-steer and there is an abundance of easy power.
True, I had been concentrating, gauging entry speeds into the curves and blending out of the brakes and on to the power, but I hadn't needed to change down. Yes, a lower gear and more revs would have been even faster but if you didn't want to drive around with your trousers on fire you could ride a wave of turbocharged torque.
BMW and Audi have made fortunes selling cars that are sporty, fun to drive and easy to live with on a day-to-day basis; but driving a Lotus? Well, that requires commitment. Two years ago with the Europa S, Lotus attempted a car with wider appeal than the Elise/Exige by including softer suspension, more sound deadening, electric windows, air conditioning and a near 50% larger boot.
But now the manufacturer has had a rethink and created a new top of the range version, the £32,995 SE, which depending on your point of view is a step back or a real Lotus. It's still a high speed tourer but with near instant acceleration like a proper sports car and sharper handling. It's not cheap though, costing £5,045 more than the now good value entry level Europa model, the S having been dropped.
But with upgraded ‘sports’ suspension, more power and torque and a more fashionable interior Lotus believes the SE will appeal to those who want the go to match the show. PH trekked to Lotus country – Norfolk – to see how the new model stacked up. In a pearlescent white the car looked futuristic and is definitely not a car for those who want to make a low key entrance.
The horizontal exhausts and rounded flanks have a hint of ‘06 Lamborghini Murcielago and with all the dramatic air vents several passers-by said they were disappointed the doors didn't open upwards. Like the S, the new SE is based on the VX220 Turbo which Lotus built for Vauxhall. A bigger turbocharger on the 2-litre engine takes power to 223bhp (225ps) and 221 lbs ft (300Nm) of torque, up from 197bhp (200ps) and 200 lbs ft (272Nm).
Acceleration from rest to 60mph drops by nearly a second from 5.8 seconds to just 4.9 seconds. Lotus cars have always been giant killers aided by their low weight and keen aerodynamics and with 0-100mph in about 13 seconds the SE will comfortably lose a base Cayman, and is not far off an S.
Lotus boffins reckon you could get nearly 29mpg out of the SE in mixed motoring, but the question is whether you could find the self-control? Carbon dioxide emission is up to 229g/km from 220g/km. Despite its grand touring grand ideas, you put the Europa on like a close fitting suit and have to eke out your luggage allocation as carefully as a mountaineer.
The small Momo steering wheel wouldn't look too out of place in a Formula Ford single-seater and despite the leather trim – the only bare aluminium now is the parcel shelf and the steering wheel spokes – there's still track car feel to the cabin. The SE has gained some small strapped compartments on the chassis tub and enough space to keep a couple of parking tickets in a roof pocket, but there are no door pockets.
It's wise to have your road senses on alert, even if the car is brightly coloured, because today's oblivious drivers often don't see anything so small and low. Approaching roundabouts I was slowing sooner than the car's dynamics required to allow for the drivers behind who didn't realise I couldn't see over the Armco if the roundabout was clear. Compared to the Vauxhall VX220, you can drive the Europa more neatly, while the VX is a lairier hooligan machine.
Considering the engine is ‘blown’, Lotus has managed to make it more responsive to the accelerator so you can adjust your cornering line more precisely. Exhaust powered turbos tend to destroy the exhaust note and that's true of the Europa with the added frustration that you can hear more of the not too exotic engine.
When you are really nailing it you don't have time to look at the rev counter so the change up warning light is useful but it needs to be bigger. Wind and road noise means the Europa isn't as quiet or sophisticated as cars like the Porsche Cayman S, Audi TT, BMW M Coupe or even the soon to be replaced Nissan 350Z. But if you venture on to a track those cars won't see where you went.
It's uncanny though how well the Europa copes with bad roads. You start to wince approaching a surface change and then find you barely felt the impact. But it's still more comfortable to drive round potholes and drain covers, just like in the original Europa in the early seventies.
If you're not used to driving a car without power steering you'll find the steering is the Europa fairly heavy at parking speeds but it lightens up considerably once the car is on the move. A sensation-robbing powered system it definitely doesn't need - you turn x degrees, the car turns x degrees with no slack.
You know exactly how much grip is left in the front tyres you instinctively know how much power to squeeze in as you unwind the steering lock. Even at what seems like silly speeds the Europa will now turn into corners without fear of the front end washing wide. If you are coming from something comparatively lardy you may even find the Europa almost too darty but you soon get used to it. The steering wheel rim feels a little skinny – it's a question of what you're used to I suppose.
The Europa feels as if it pivots around a point slightly lower and to the left of your left hip-bone and with so much of your body, from bottom to shoulders ideally supported by the well-shaped seat, you can really sense the varying degrees of grip and force working beneath you.
It could do with more padding on the side of the gear lever console because of how hard the side of my left knee pressed against it when cornering hard. Heel and toeing down the six-speed manual gearbox makes you feel like a hero, before paddle changes took over and it became a war of engineering and software rather than driver dexterity. The short throw clutch is nicely weighted and didn't get too heavy in traffic
The Lotus's steering wheel wriggles in your hands and though you learn to give it some freedom there are times when you need a firm grip to keep things on course. In the dry you can brake very hard without the anti-lock cutting in; and feel via the new four-pot AP Racing callipers gripping the bigger discs is excellent.
Bridgestone rather than Yokohama tyres were chosen for the Europa S to help deliver a smoother ride, but for the SE the company has switched to Goodyear Eagles. Lotus testers have been particularly impressed with the wet grip, but bizarrely for Britain during the test it stayed bone dry.
The car now runs 17” diameter wheels up front and 18” at the back and they fill the wheelarches nicely. Considering how skinny the seats are they are remarkably comfortable and supportive, but the steering column doesn't adjust and I had to scrunch down or the top of the steering wheel obstructed the more interesting parts of the rev counter.