The Emira’s status as the last Lotus with a combustion engine makes all of them special. Should Hethel embark on a flurry of limited editions as it did before, there’d be cause to drive every single one - because they sure as heck ain’t coming back. But this 2.0-litre would be momentous even if we weren’t at the end of times. It’s the most powerful four-cylinder Lotus in history (which is significant given all those old Esprits), it’s the first Lotus with a dual-clutch, and it’s the engine that Emira will surely bow out with - the V6 is not long for this world. A pretty big deal, then.
It feels appropriate, moreover, that the final ICE sports car from such a storied firm will have a motor of such calibre. The V6 has put in an admirable shift, but it’ll never be a thoroughbred. The AMG M139, on the other hand, gets a twin-scroll turbo, 200bar direct and port injection, an electronically controlled wastegate, a chill-cast, closed deck block, forged pistons, forged crank and - even in a lower state of tune - more than 180hp per litre. This is not just another 2.0-litre four-pot turbo.
It certainly could be, however, because it’s just as docile and easygoing as might be expected when starting off. It’s an entirely new Lotus experience, primarily because of a contemporary automatic gearbox alongside that isn’t sapping power and slurring shifts. The 2.0-litre feel bright and alert and fresh, willing from not many revs and paired to a smart dual-clutch. You only need look at how many PDK Caymans are seen in city centres to know how important an easygoing yet obliging auto powertrain is. The Emira makes a good first impression.
Truth be told, however, this could be a V12 manual Emira and it wouldn’t distract from the ride. Ideally we’d have driven a Tour-spec car, as that was the setup that impressed with the V6, but the four-cylinder car available was with the Sports chassis, complete with a track focus, stiffer springs and dampers plus increased camber and toe angles. At low speed it’s tough and it’s busy, make no mistake, fidgeting and almost writhing down a road in what doesn’t feel like very Lotus fashion. There’s always a price to pay for passive suspension in fast cars, because one setup must suit crawling through traffic to flat out, but this really is very tautly tied down. And seriously fidgety.
Handily, there’s some good news from the engine, because it offers identical - if not improved - performance from the V6. There’s loads of torque from not many revs at all, decent throttle response and tightly stacked ratios in the eight-speed gearbox (it’s impossible to exceed 75mph in third). While the V6 does that large capacity swell of performance nicely, it probably doesn’t zap down a road like this, especially with the DCT swapping cogs so much faster than the manual.
There are some interesting sounds, too, various wheezes, whooshes and gasps from over your shoulder as mid-mounted turbo sucks and expels air. There’s some less endearing turbo whistle, and the jury remains out on the exhaust blare, but it’s certainly not a plain soundtrack. There’s something to be said for wearing its forced induction colours so proudly. Especially when this’ll be the last Lotus with any engine noise at all, lest it be forgotten.
What a shame, then, that some of the engine’s rabid character has been lost in the transition from hot hatch to sports car. Once past 2,500rpm or so, this turbo engine is romping along willingly, but that final flourish that marks out this engine is now absent, instead a linear shove sustaining to 7,200rpm. An A45 basically demands you wring out every single gear, because the last 1,500rpm are so wildly exciting - that doesn’t happen here. Which is disappointing, because that was a large part of why the AMG announcement was so well received. Perhaps expectations were unfairly heightened when presented with a Lotus sports car using the M139 engine rather than an A-Class hot hatch. And perhaps it will loosen up with miles. But from this experience it’s lost more than just 60hp or so against the installation we’re familiar with. Notably no AMG product gets this tune of the engine.
Similarly, the gearbox just isn’t quite as good as recent memory of the AMG suggests it should be. By Lotus standards the dual-clutch is a fabulous auto. But never do shifts flash through in that whip-crack DCT fashion, even using the paddles and in Track mode. They’re fast, just not that fast, even when accounting for a small delay from the paddle. This gearbox doesn’t like multiple downshifts, either, the gear you’re after arriving later than it should. Nothing about the transmission’s behaviour is egregiously bad, though neither does it linger fondly in the memory either. This is probably a superior powertrain to the Alpine A110’s, albeit not by the margin expected given its provenance. The Porsche 2.5 may not raise the hairs on the back of the neck, but paired with the comparable PDK it’s probably the keener, more energetic engine and gearbox combination. To be continued, no doubt.
Back when we drove the V6 prototype last year, a road and track drive suggested that the standard Tour suspension would be the ideal compromise for most use cases: tidy enough on circuit, supple enough away from it. This experience of the Sports set up has only strengthened that impression; unless you’re planning on several track days a year in a turbocharged Emira, it’s simply too much for everyday use.
The car is damped very cleverly, retaining absolute control and never flummoxed by the bigger bumps, but something about the tuning has left it permanently agitated on any road. It wavers in truck grooves on the motorway, sniffs out every camber on minor roads, pitter-patters along at town speed and just never, ever settles. Our test car was sufficiently stiff that the dashboard was creaking over bumpy roads. Steering that’s occasionally glorious for its weight, response and feel suffers from some kickback, too.
When the roads are a bit smoother, the Emira is shown off to its sensational best, driving like the shrunken supercar it resembles with wonderful turn in, composure and balance. The brakes are pretty superb, too, but you end up frustrated because the gearbox won’t deliver downshifts in time. And it feels more prone to be deflected when stopping hard.
Nudged up to and ever so slightly beyond its limit the Emira demonstrates that beautifully benign feeling from the V6; with 295-section Cup 2s on a car with 317lb ft, however, those sensations are fleeting to say the least. On the road, with those tyres, it seems unlikely you’ll miss the V6’s LSD. Even allowing for this as the more focused set up, it’s too aggressive. An Alpine A110 R or Porsche Cayman GT4 rides with significantly more manners than this Lotus. There are elements of brilliant sports car in the Emira, undermined by others.
Granted, left-hand drive probably played a part, because it exposes the driver to the most battered side of the road. And certainly it wouldn’t be fair to offer up a definitive verdict without trying the Tour suspension; it clearly makes a big difference. It could also be that we’ve short-changed it - let’s see what everyone else makes of the 2.0-litre. But for a car that promised so much, it’s hard not to leave the four-cylinder a tad underwhelmed.
What remains inescapable regardless of spec, however, is the price. Just two years ago this was going to be the £60,000 Emira; it launched last month as the £81,495 First Edition, an incredible increase in such a short space of time. A PDK Porsche 718 Cayman S starts at £63,999; a GTS 4.0 with the automatic comes in at comfortably under £80,000, though will require an options spend to nearer £90k to bring it up to spec parity with a fully loaded FE. An Alpine A110 S is almost £20,000 less before any extras. Even allowing for the good looks, smart interior and a more affordable entry point in time, the Emira currently carries an unenviable premium. Should the Lotus eventually prove itself to be a better driver’s car than either of its main four-cylinder rivals, £20,000 remains a lot. (For reference, the V6 now carries a £4,500 premium over the 2.0, at £85,995.)
Even if you’re willing to disregard cost or the positioning of rivals, the reality is that marriage of Emira and a Mercedes’ engine hasn’t quite gelled - or certainly not with the Sports chassis. Overlooking the restlessness, there isn’t the urgency in the engine and gearbox to make the most of what’s great when you get chance to experience it. From this drive, those craving an Emira are still better served by the V6, even if it might be slower on the road - and certainly with the Tour chassis. Even then, with so much of the competition available for less, Lotus has given its buyers one fewer reason to choose the Emira.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 LOTUS EMIRA i4 FIRST EDITION
Engine: 1,991cc, four-cyl turbo (3,456cc V6, supercharged)
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive (6-speed manual)
Power (hp): 365@6,600rpm (400@6,800rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 317@3,000-5,500rpm (309@3,500rpm)
0-60mph: 4.4sec (4.1sec)
Top speed: 171mph (186mph)
Weight: 1,446kg (1,458kg)
CO2: 208g/km (subject to homologation)
Price: £81,495 (£85,995)
(Spec in brackets for V6)
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