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Monday 9th October 2006


LOTUS EUROPA S

Andy Enright tries a Lotus that's playing to a tough crowd.

Lotus Europa S
Lotus Europa S

You probably know quite a bit about this car already. You might well have read the long lead road tests that proclaim it to be the worst car Lotus has built in the last decade, others dubbing it a borderline clunker.

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But maybe I can change your mind. To fully appreciate this car, you've got to expect to hate it. When Lotus announced the details of the Europa launch, it almost seemed a case of book early to ensure disappointment.

Thing is, it didn't quite work out like that.

Perspective helps. Look at the cars Lotus has launched in the last ten years and even, if the Europa is indeed its weakest effort, it could still be electrifyingly impressive.

But the portents, it has to be said, weren't good. Although Lotus strenuously denies it, this is the Proton sports car that the Malaysians got cold feet about: there's a lot more VX220 in the genes than the Norfolk company cares to admit, and from some angles the styling does look a little fussy and dated. The red-headed stepchild of the Lotus family it may be but there's genuine talent beneath the Europa's plastics.

High-speed cruiser

First and foremost, it steers like a Lotus. There's that same beautifully judged hand wheel angle as you'd expect from an Elise or an Exige albeit with a small degree of delay on centre for more relaxed high-speed cruising. It's properly quick too, although you need a resolutely Cro-Magnon approach to the throttle pedal to get anywhere near the published 0-60 figure of 5.59 seconds or the 0-100 of 13.6 seconds.

Drive the Europa a little more lazily and you can just noodle along on an undemanding swell of torque, meaningful shove arriving from as little as 2,000rpm. Resist the urge to short shift and the Europa's turbo makes all sorts of kitchen appliance noises at lower revs, the whistling later giving away to a rather charmless blare at higher engine speeds that keeps delivering right up to around 6,500rpm. The 197bhp peak power arrives at a point around 5,400rpm with the 200lb-ft torque peak chiming in a mere 400rpm lower. Keeping this car on the boil when smashing through the gears isn't a particularly arduous task although consistency of boost at speed isn't metronomically accurate.

The chief impediment is a throttle response most generously described as variable and you'll need to put some miles on the clock before you get heel and toe downchanges perfectly timed to flare into the next swell of torque. The gearshift lacks the delightful wristiness of the Elise and Exige, the longer throw of the six-speed M32 box nevertheless feeling positive and accurate. There's an ergonomic issue with the long lever when engaging fifth and sixth gears where the stick will often rest against the legs of taller drivers.

Spittle-flecked aggression

Again, it pays not to expect the Europa S to be an Exige with more headroom and boot space. Drive it like an Exige, attacking tight radii with spittle-flecked aggression, and you'll feel benign understeer arrive surprisingly early from the modest 175/55 R17 front Potenzas. With 2.8 turns lock to lock the steering is a little less incisive than on other Lotus products but it's rich in detailed feedback when committed to a corner. Despite Lotus insiders professing that the brakes have exactly half the fade resistance as the stoppers on an Elise, they're up to the task of fast road work. However, as Lotus freely admits, this is not a track car although an uprated braking option is said to be in the pipeline.

Stop, reboot and drive in a smoother, more sympathetic manner and you'll still get a lot from the car. On give and take B-roads I'd bet it would have the measure of an Audi TT 3.2 quattro, a Nissan 350Z or a BMW Z4 3.0 Coupe.

The ride is tightly controlled, road humps sending the back end skipping at even modest speeds. Only at higher speeds on broken surfaces does an element of flotation come into the equation, the 1.33kg of downforce at the rear at 100mph seeming rather perfunctory. With the roof used as a structural component for the first time in a contemporary Lotus product, the Europa features impressive torsional rigidity and this has allowed the chassis engineers a little more freedom with primary ride tuning, with a reduced damping level at low velocities.

There's also a good deal more soundproofing. The engine characteristics give the Europa S better long distance credentials than the Exige or Elise although it's still a little too focused to excel as an everyday commuter. If you're anything over six foot, you'll be slumping to the extent that you won't get the support afforded by the otherwise excellent leather-trimmed ProBax seats. The fact that I slotted my seat belt tongue into the passenger seat's buckle more than once should tell you that two big blokes in a Europa S will resemble a pair of inanely grinning Siamese twins.

Look and feel

The switchgear is immediately recognisable as Lotus albeit with a little more carpet, an effective but infuriatingly fiddly Blaupunkt satellite navigation system and electric windows with respective switches sited on either side of the cabin. Visibility is good for a mid-engined sports coupe with only rear three-quarter views proving tricky. The rear screen mists and demists with astonishing and seemingly arbitrary frequency while the hump in the door sill makes entry and exit still rather undignified. 154 litres of fresh air in the boot is accessed exclusively with the ignition key -- although given Lotus' reputation for boot release mechanisms this is perhaps no bad thing. Apparently Thatcham required it for a tick in a security box. The boot is decently shaped and, refreshingly, won't take a golf bag.

The Europa is also astonishingly colour sensitive.  Canyon Red and Polar Blue work well. Aspen White and Graphite Grey don't.

Joyous

A mere 500 Europas per year will roll from Hethel's gates and Lotus shouldn't have any problem shifting stock, even at a £32,995 asking price that looks four or five grand optimistic. It will sell to those who secretly hanker after an Exige but who will freely concede that the more focused car's impracticality would drive them berserk.

In truth, the Europa S doesn't offer everyday practicality an order of magnitude removed from the Exige but most customers will be happy to believe it does. This gentle self-delusion will put them into a car that's fast, composed and which looks better the longer you spend with it.

I was expecting a lash-up but emerged with a grudging admiration. The worst Lotus in the last decade is still something rather joyous.