RE: Why Lotus won't be building an SUV - yet

RE: Why Lotus won't be building an SUV - yet

Sunday 17th March

Why Lotus won't be building an SUV - yet

Hethel's new boss gives PH the lowdown on Geely, 'Project Omega' and Volvo's parts bin...



Lotus has tended to replace its CEOs with considerably more frequency than it repaints the factory at Hethel, something borne out by the increasingly faded hue of the mustard yellow colour scheme. The company has never been short on plans - boss-before-last Dany Bahar stood next to concepts promising no fewer than six new models at the 2010 Paris Motor Show - but it has always struggled to find the resource necessary to realise them. Despite numerous slightly-better iterations the most recently introduced core model in the line up remains the Evora, which first appeared in 2010.

But now there's a new owner - Chinese giant Geely - a new boss in former JLR executive Phil Popham and, yes, some ambitious plans, although this time backed with what we're promised will be a very significant investment. Work on tidying up the factory, building a new visitor's centre and restoring Colin Chapman's office has already begun, and it was in evidence when I went to visit Popham earlier this week.

Although happy to talk about the future, he is also determined not to make the mistake of most of his predecessors by leaving hostages to fortune.


"What you'll never get out of me is a sales forecast, because the best you can ever be is correct," Popham says, "we have got ambitious to grow and we will have record years, my ambition is that we will take Lotus volume beyond the previous peaks, but we'll do it in stages."

Popham admits that he took some convincing - and several trips to meet Geely's big bosses - to accept the job. He left JLR four years ago, having latterly worked as Global Operations Director, and more recently has been with luxury boat builder Sunseeker. "The brand had huge appeal and a positive legacy, even if the last few years have been fallow in many respects. But I did a lot of due diligence," he says, "I kept asking myself "will this brand work?"

Lotus's position had stabilised under the leadership of last boss Jean-Marc Gales, and the company was even working on plans to build an SUV in conjunction with owner Proton and Chinese outfit Goldstar Heavy Industrial. But day-to-day development spending was tiny. Geely's takeover has reset everything, and Popham says that - in development terms - he has effectively joined a start-up.


Company insiders have told us that we'll see an attention-grabbing new model later this year - one being developed under the name Project Omega - and which Popham said he couldn't talk about yet. But beyond that the good news is an absolute commitment that sportscars will remain at the heart of the brand.

In the short-term that means some more cars spun from the existing architecture. But Popham confirms there will be entirely fresh models beyond these: "We are investing in an all-new platform for sportscars, that's what we will have to do for the future. Obviously that takes time, we have been in the industry long enough to know that doesn't happen overnight. But we're starting now, in the last few months since Geely took over."

Everything will be led from Hethel. Popham says that Lotus will be able to call on resource from elsewhere in the Geely Group - the new design and engineering centre near Coventry will be doing extensive work for the brand. "But the management of any engineering programme, wherever it takes place, is focussed here." Lotus had just 150 engineering staff at the Geely takeover. That's already up to 250, and is on course to reach nearly 500 by the end of the year.


Before the new architecture we're likely to see a switch from Toyota to Volvo-sourced powerplants - the brand's three-cylinder 1.5-litre engine could be a particularly happy fit with a lightweight Lotus - beyond that, electrification will play an increasing role, something the group resources make far easier. But Popham also confirmed that at least some of the next-generation cars will remain conventionally powered; lightweight remains the most important of the brand's core values. "Electrification is on the agenda," he says, "but it's not going to be the only powertrain for us."

What about SUVs? Immediately after the Geely takeover journos were told to expect a Lotus crossover to be rushed to market and sat on an existing Volvo architecture, most likely that of the XC40. Popham confirms that definitely won't be happening. "We've got to make sure that whatever platform we use can deliver the DNA of Lotus - the performance, the dynamics and the light weight," he says, "that means that if we were developing another group platform we would make sure at the planning stage that the requirements of a Lotus product on that architecture are met. What we won't do is take an existing platform and just try to make a Lotus out of it."

Which sounds pretty categorical; don't expect a Lotus SUV any time soon. What we can expect to see is cars that are more practical and everyday viable, with Popham admitting he wants to expand Lotus's appeal beyond its current fanbase.


"I want to make cars that people can have fun with, but which they can live with on a day-to-day basis," he says, "that means the ergonomics, the practicality, the ingress and egress - all the things that make a car easier to live with."

At this point I admit that I drove to Hethel in a Porsche Cayman, one I bought after also considering an Lotus Evora but deciding it wasn't quite everyday enough for me

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Popham says, "I want to get the people who drive a Lotus and a Porsche and say the Lotus is a better experience but the Porsche is the safe choice... the appeal is there but there's a hesitation about the compromises that could come with ownership. I think we've got a huge opportunity very quickly to take those perceived compromises away."


Things seem to be going well enough for me to drop the B-bomb, and ask a question that references Dany Bahar's time at the head of the brand. While Popham's predecessor got huge flack for the hubris of standing next to what was meant to be a whole family of future models, wasn't the fundamental analysis behind it - that Lotus had to go into more profitable areas to survive - correct?

"We have to engineer the right platforms to create cars with substance," Popham says, carefully, "we'll talk about that as we do it rather than making promises for the future without the engineering intent behind it. But personally, I think the brand has huge potential, I wouldn't define what a ceiling is. We will look at segments based on profitability - if we have to put our prices up to make money then that means we're doing something wrong."

But what about the other side of Bahar's analysis: that Lotus had to stop producing its cheapest models? On this, Popham is adamant that affordability is critical, especially as sales start to expand: "we need to appeal to a greater number of people, both in terms of what the products offer but also the price points. Some of our cars, like-for-like, could well be cheaper, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to take the entry point of the range down."


One final topic before time is out - motorsport. Lotus was born from racing but has been out of the top flight competition for some time. Is there enough in the kitty to return? "We have to be in motorsport, because it's part of the DNA," Popham says cautiously, "there are a whole host of ways - single race series, GT4 and GT3. At the moment our commitment is no more than that we go back in a responsible way producing products that customers want to see and want to drive."

"I don't see us going back into Formula 1 any time soon, if at all," he adds, wryly.

While journalists love writing about exciting new projects and daring new directions, there's something reassuring about Popham's clearly prudent approach to his new job. Lotus has had plenty of bosses who were good at sketching out grandiose schemes. Now it has one who seemingly determined to deliver on the basics and actually turn the brand around.

Author
Discussion

Nerdherder

Original Poster:

608 posts

38 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
I would love to work for this man.

lotuslover69

94 posts

84 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Mostly good news, was fairly obvious geely would want to step away from toyota powerplants and look elsewhere. Not sure about the range of engines available at geely though. Most people were hopeful of lotus going for a v8 rather than back to 4 cylinder power. If they can keep the price low and competitive though then that might prove to be the best thing. Also with a bit of turbo or sc power the 0-60 time could be competitive.

Vee12V

782 posts

101 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Positive sounds. Seems like the right man for the job.

Mac Sinclair

36 posts

32 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
I can confirm that Lotus is a better experience, and while Porsche is a safe choice, my Evora is so much fun and is so well received on the road.

I hope that they keep the cars “friendly”, the compact size a joy of the Evora is actually very relevant and leaves the door open to B road fun at legal speeds.

As for anyone thinking of taking the plunge, get down to Lotus Silverstone, great people and my wife commented... “what a great experience”, so they’ve got a lot right already.

Jellinek

204 posts

216 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Really encouraged by the approach being advocated at the company in this article, but time will tell if delivery meets expectations, history is not kind to Lotus in this regard.
But fixing the existing range, face-lifting the Evora (properly), improving the ownership experience, replacing Toyota pwertrains, ditching the SUV for now (insufficient resource and lack of a credible platform), limiting or reversing ridiculous recent price increases and exploring mild hybrids make sound financial and strategic sense to me.
However, outsourcing EV halo to Williams (if true, presumably using their off-the-shelf skateboard), seems at odds with some comments made here and has questionable development benefit to those sat at desks in Hethel. It will no doubt use a huge chunk of cash too. Indeed, spending on buildings, renovations, new sites and third parties does little to put new rubber on the road. One hopes there is sufficient funds underwritten to get across the line.
Also niggling me is the fact that new recruits will outnumber the old guard by more than 2:1 by the end of the year, so one would hope there is a strong on-boarding program to imbue newbies with the CABC philosophies, most importantly the designers. Otherwise you simply end up with a Lotus badged JLR or LEVC engineered vehicle.
For Chapman, lightweight was a function of his innovative approach, not just a design goal in itself. I would use ‘efficiency’ to more accurately describe Lotus design philosophy.
Overall though, as I said I think this is very positive news and I will have fingers and everything else crossed, for the future. Good luck Lotus!
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st4

1,359 posts

74 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Seems a shame to lose the Toyota engines. They helped removed the marques reputiation for unreliability. I wish them well, I'd personal, funds allowing, would love a second car and an Evora would be amazing.

lotuslover69

94 posts

84 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
st4 said:
Seems a shame to lose the Toyota engines. They helped removed the marques reputiation for unreliability. I wish them well, I'd personal, funds allowing, would love a second car and an Evora would be amazing.
Well the current range of engines geely has at its disposal are

3 cylinder and 4 cylinder engines currently fitted in volvos. Not an unreliable engine but certainly not an exciting one neither.

st4

1,359 posts

74 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
lotuslover69 said:
Well the current range of engines geely has at its disposal are

3 cylinder and 4 cylinder engines currently fitted in volvos. Not an unreliable engine but certainly not an exciting one neither.
They'll make them exciting and with lotus handling there is a lot to like here, bar the lack of the six clyinders as the Volvo range hasn't got them.

lotuslover69

94 posts

84 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
st4 said:
They'll make them exciting and with lotus handling there is a lot to like here, bar the lack of the six clyinders as the Volvo range hasn't got them.
I really like the sound of my 6 cylinder lotus though. Going back to a 4 albiet with turbo or sc power is a little depressing.

If lotus can make the numbers work, something around 220bhp turbo or sc 4 with less than 1000kg weight should do it. Just so long as it is priced accordingly and not over 50k.

I expect lotus to stick with bonded aluminium tubs as opposed to carbonfibre, possibly with more carbo bits on the high specc versions.

Toyota being japanese and geely being chinese no real surprise this union would end quickly.



Maldini35

2,004 posts

129 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
lotuslover69 said:
st4 said:
They'll make them exciting and with lotus handling there is a lot to like here, bar the lack of the six clyinders as the Volvo range hasn't got them.
I really like the sound of my 6 cylinder lotus though. Going back to a 4 albiet with turbo or sc power is a little depressing.

If lotus can make the numbers work, something around 220bhp turbo or sc 4 with less than 1000kg weight should do it. Just so long as it is priced accordingly and not over 50k.

I expect lotus to stick with bonded aluminium tubs as opposed to carbonfibre, possibly with more carbo bits on the high specc versions.

Toyota being japanese and geely being chinese no real surprise this union would end quickly.
Chapman used 4 cylinders in his landmark cars whilst going against 6 & 8 cylinder competitors.
A lightweight 3 cyclinder could be the modern equivalent.

So excited to hear Lotus in such safe hands.

simonbamg

244 posts

64 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
SUV, SUV, SUV !

yonex

14,003 posts

109 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Does this mean they can concentrate on more SE Elise’s? biggrin

Always fancied an Evora, but the niggling doubts remain I guess? It’s good news, for me, that they’re looking at the 3 cylinder Volvo lump. I always felt the Toyota engine wasn’t the greatest fit, not exactly engaging after a fettled VHPD?

I really hope it works out for them. Far too many false dawns and it’s obvious that they are still a benchmark regarding dynamics.


rockin

6,449 posts

186 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Yet another change of direction for Lotus sounds like the death knell to me. There have been too many high hopes followed by a complete lack of delivery. There's been no successful new product for 20 years.

st4

1,359 posts

74 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
rockin said:
Yet another change of direction for Lotus sounds like the death knell to me. There have been too many high hopes followed by a complete lack of delivery. There's been no successful new product for 20 years.
The Evora? Cracking car and IMHO the best car in the segment. So much more interesting than a derivative whites goods PCP porsche.

I rather liked Bahars vision for Lotus. It was based around access to Toyota V6s and V8s plus their revvy 4 pots.

The new vision, given the constraints of the Volvo engines, will also work.

rockin

6,449 posts

186 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
st4 said:
The Evora? Cracking car and IMHO the best car in the segment. So much more interesting than a derivative whites goods PCP porsche.
Have you bought one? If not, why not?

lotuslover69

94 posts

84 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Maldini35 said:
Chapman used 4 cylinders in his landmark cars whilst going against 6 & 8 cylinder competitors.
A lightweight 3 cyclinder could be the modern equivalent.

So excited to hear Lotus in such safe hands.
Sort of yea, although lotus had a huge advantage over competitors when it came to chassis design, lightweight principles and suspension setup. In an age where everyone understands thos principles and even hatchbacks are attempting to shed weight for their sporty versions. At some point you need to focus on engine capacity. Take the recent 911 offerings, without traction control they handle horribly and are difficult to control but with technology even a a whale of a car can be made to handle rather well.

lotuslover69

94 posts

84 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
rockin said:
Have you bought one? If not, why not?
I have an evora and did own a cayman s.


Both cars are brilliant and have advantages and disadvantages over each other.

I think the Evora is better in the areas that count for a sports car however.

st4

1,359 posts

74 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
rockin said:
Have you bought one? If not, why not?
Cannot afford one. I need a 4dr as my main car. The Evora would have to be a second car.

hyphen

9,161 posts

31 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
Rumours are that Evora production willl stop soon.


Lotus- please keep practical 2+2's in your lineup!! Not enough choice of sports cars for parents out there.

hufggfg

551 posts

134 months

Saturday 16th March
quotequote all
This mostly sounds absolutely great for lotus (assuming they actually do keep the Lotus DNA, rather than just give it lip service).

Though I have to say I’m a little concerned on the engine front. Not really bothered about the number of cylinders, or the swept capacity, but turbos with broad flat torque curves designed for SUVs just couldn’t be further from what I want in a Lotus.