Last week we reported Lotus’s new commercial boss’ predictions that the brand will be selling 150,000 EVs a year globally in just five years’ time. Now we’ve driven the first of these, in prototype form, with a trip to the spiffy new Eletre factory in Wuhan giving the chance to experience what could be fairly described as the most atypical Lotus to this point.
Anybody looking at the Eletre and asking what Colin Chapman would have thought of the idea of a 2.4-tonne Chinese-built electric SUV wearing Lotus badges is likely to have already pre-formed their answer - probably one involving whirring noises emanating from a mausoleum. So let’s start with a radical hypothesis: maybe Chapman would be delighted to know that the brand he nurtured and loved, and which encountered plenty of existential crises while he was still alive, looks set to secure its long-term future for the first time in its history.
Don’t worry, I’m not intending to carry this devil’s advocacy the whole way – and certainly not to try and argue that the Eletre is a modern take on either simplicity or lightness. But regardless of the warmth of your feelings either for or against it, the new car is unarguably packed with innovation. Lotus has beaten some much bigger rivals in getting its first EV to market, one with power and performance figures set to make it the quickest electric SUV in the world, for now at least. But it’s not just the fastest and most expensive car in the Geely Group portfolio – Lotus Evija excepted – the Eletre is also going to lead the way technically, with a LIDAR-enabled piloted driving system that will ultimately enable it to drive itself most of the time.
This definitely isn’t any attempt at a definitive verdict. Lotus’s Wuhan factory has a 3km test track, featuring a kilometre-long straight and then a series of corners, mostly very tight. Although one way, it is too narrow to be considered anything close to being a real race track. I got to drive late pre-production versions of both the Eletre S and Eletre R there – and although these lacked any disguise wrap, I can confirm that they carried warning stickers inside indicating they were prototypes rather than true production cars. I was also told that European chassis settings haven’t been finalised yet, so the cars in China weren’t yet fully representative of the ones we’ll get here.
Most of the experience is obviously substantially different from that of any previous Lotus road car, that being true in both good and bad ways. Regardless of your thoughts on the Eletre’s design, it’s a struggle to nominate anything, other than its badges, with obvious links to any of its predecessors. Yet it’s certainly got presence, and not just because of a 5.1-metre overall length; in the metal, there is something definitely Lamborghini Urus-ish about it. To no surprise, the Eletre is heavier than the Lambo, despite the extensive use of aluminium in its construction. We will have to wait until it reaches Europe for a homologated figure, but we’re told to expect this to be around 2,400kg.
Yet it is probably the Eletre’s interior that feels least like any previous Lotus, being bigger – clearly – but also packed with technology and snazzy trim. Three digital displays are laid pretty much side-by-side across the whole dashboard. A letterbox above the steering wheel relays driving information, this abutting a huge 15.1-inch OLED central display and then another narrower screen to share data with the passenger. It’s a similar idea to the one used in recent Ferraris and also the new Lamborghini Revuelto.
While Lotus sports cars have often had to make a virtue out of the sparseness of their interiors, the Eletre is plush, flamboyant and packed with kit. This surely has to be the first Lotus with a massage function, or actively cooled seats. Oh, and tweakable LED mood lighting. The steering wheel has been squared off top and bottom for no obvious reason; it’s not like anyone is going to struggle to fit beneath it, which doesn’t feel very ‘For The Drivers’. The cabin colours of the cars in Wuhan were pretty vibrant, too – green hide with bronze metalwork, anyone? – but obviously buyers will be able to select more sombre hues if they want them. I can say that the standard of fit and finish in all the cars I saw in Wuhan seemed impressively high in terms of trim, paintwork and panel gaps. The Eletre’s cabin is genuinely spacious front and rear, with room for either four or five depending on the choice between individual back seats or a bench.
For fuller tech details head back to Matt’s earlier story, but this is a brief summary. The £89,500 standard Eletre and the £104,500 Eletre S both use the same twin-motor powertrain, with 301hp units powering each axle for a peak 602hp. The range-topping Eletre R swaps the rear motor for a much punchier 603hp unit, upping the total system output to a huge 905hp. Both cars share the same 112kWh battery pack, with Lotus targeting a WLTP range of 373 miles in the lower-powered versions and 304 miles in the Eletre R.
None will be slow. Lotus says the basic version can blast from 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds while the Eletre R can manage in 2.9 seconds. DC fast charging at rates of up to 420kW is supported. Meaning, in the unlikely event of finding such a potent e-nozzle any time soon, it will be possible to add up to 248 miles of range in just 20 minutes.
I start out in the Eletre S. The seating position is high, and not just for the obvious reason of the car’s size – even in its lowest position it feels a bit far from the floor. Getting started is easy – the lack of any form of ignition key or on-off switch is another of the Eletre’s firsts – when a keycard is detected and then Drive or Reverse can be selected. Throttle response is good, instant and proportional, and the long straight has soon confirmed that even in its gentlest Tour dynamic mode the Eletre feels properly quick, launching hard enough to chirp its P-Zeros and continuing to pull to the point where the speed turned from motorway to Autobahn, this accompanied by a synthesised soundtrack which gives a sense of pace without trying to dominate the experience. Selecting Sport sharpened responses without introducing any obvious harshness.
Air suspension and adaptive dampers are standard, and even on the ultra-smooth track the basic suspension setting felt obviously soft in the way the Eletre S’s nose lifted under acceleration. The cars in Wuhan also had pretty much a full set of the Eletre’s dynamic features: 48-volt anti-roll, torque vectoring and active rear steering – some of which will be optional on the lesser European models. The only feature obviously missing from the list of possibilities for the cars in China was that of carbon-ceramic brakes.
I’d much rather have started in a car devoid of all the optional systems and then added them one at a time. The steering isn’t bad, and the engineers at Lotus’s German technical centre that led the development of the Eletre have managed to get some discernible feel through the electrical assistance. But the active rear axle’s determination to tip the Eletre into the Wuhan track’s many slow corners deny the linear steering responses that have been a Lotus hallmark since, well, forever.
The tight bits soon reveal another issue: understeer. It would be surprising if this wasn’t so given much of the track would be perfect for karting; persuading anything this big and heavy to turn is always going to be closer to a fight than a dance. Yet it soon becomes clear that the Eletre S isn’t just running wide on the track’s slowest turns, but also the quicker ones too. I soon learn to drive around it: getting the car pointing straight before unleashing fury. But this wasn’t what I was expecting.
There is an excuse. The tight track is designed for use at gentler speeds, marathons rather than sprints, and the air temperature is a sweaty, humid 35 degrees on the day of my drive. The combination of big load and temperature has been overheating the hard-working tyres and spiking pressures. A reminder that while active systems might be able to disguise the laws of Newtonian physics, they can’t break them.
Moving onto the Eletre R takes the performance up by several notches. Although as civilised as the S when driven at lower speeds, this is one of those sharp-end EVs capable of generating genuinely uncomfortable accelerative forces. More impressive than the brutality of the R’s launches is how slowly acceleration tails off as speeds get serious. The R’s rear motor features a two-speed gearbox like the Porsche Taycan, helping it get to a top speed of 165mph.
I didn’t manage that on the day but I did get close. Initially, I wasn’t allowed to max the cars on the main straight. But, sensing my frustration, the Wuhan plant director Xi Tan stepped in. Mr. Tan is Geely’s go-to guy for setting up new car factories, the Lotus plant being his seventh, and he was determined to prove the quality of its products. He got into the passenger seat of the R and, through an interpreter riding in the back, ordered me to accelerate from a standstill down nearly the full length of the straight, braking on the 200m board before the hairpin right at the far end. The Eletre had about 750 metres to play with, and the speedo was reading 240km/h – 149mph – when I hit the anchors, Tan laughing next to me. Even allowing for a bit of speedo inflation, this is an SUV at least as quick as most supercars, in a straight line at least.
Fortunately, the Eletre’s brakes bite hard, too. Even on the standard steel discs the R hauled the speed off without drama, and they dealt with big thermal loadings from the many corners well, too. The pedal feels firm and natural, and regenerative and friction braking is blended pretty much invisibly. The Eletre does have variable regen levels, selected by a paddle next to the steering wheel, but even in the strongest setting the regen isn’t very aggressive.
While the Eletre R’s Tour and Sport modes felt pretty much the same as those in the Eletre S, the brawnier car gains an extra Track setting. Selecting this in an R wearing fresher and cooler tyres meant much less understeer, and also the ability to neutralise some of what was left by playing with the car’s balance, especially by turning under braking. Despite this there still wasn’t an abundance of chassis adjustability in evidence. The R is very stable, but as the rear motor powers an open differential, torque vectoring is done by braking one wheel to redirect effort to the other. This could be felt working, but nowhere near as aggressively as in a car with a full torque biasing differential; there is no equivalent to the drift mode of the Kia EV6 and forthcoming Hyundai Ioniq 5 N. I also wasn’t able to turn off the ESP in any of the prototypes, but none of them felt especially playful on the challenging track.
Four hours on track left plenty of questions unanswered. I’ve no idea how the Eletre’s air suspension will deal with the challenge of real-world bumps, or how much grip it will find on cold, wet roads. I’ve not tested the range or the charging speed, or even the piloted driving system – although there was the chance to see how the LIDAR sensors which hide away in the bodywork and spray themselves clean when they detect dirt. We’ll circle back on those once we’ve driven a finished one later this year.
But one box is ticked: the Eletre is definitely the most radical departure in the long and mostly distinguished history of Lotus road cars. It’s the heaviest, the tallest, the fastest and the smartest, not so much an outlier as an explorer venturing into new territory. It won’t be loved by many of the brand’s existing fans, many of who will doubtless see it as a betrayal of the company’s core values. But alongside the two other China-built EVs that will be launched behind it, the Eletre is going to redefine what a Lotus is. This is the brand’s year zero.
Specification | Lotus Eletre R Prototype
Engine: Twin electric motors, one front, one rear
Transmission: Single-speed reduction (front), two-speed gearbox (rear)
Power (hp): 905
Torque (lb ft): 726
Top speed: 165mph
Weight: 2400kg (est)
WLTP range target: 304 miles
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