It’s a force to be reckoned with on the racetrack, but when it comes to the street Lotus has long been little more than an also-ran.
Yet while some had expected the British sports carmaker to simply call it quits and focus on its other lines of business — motor sports and engineering — Lotus is now looking at taking a very different strategy.
In a surprise move, the automaker has lifted the covers on five all-new concept vehicles at the 2010 Paris Motor Show earlier this month. These racy offerings, planned in a new alliance with Japanese giant Toyota, constitute a bet the British carmaker can move from the fringes of the automotive market to at least something close to the mainstream among niche auto manufacturers.
It’s a radical departure for Lotus, which is probably best known to motor sports fans thanks to the efforts of its founder, the late and legendary Colin Chapman. Set up in some old stables in North London in the 1950s, the company quickly became active in Formula One and other high-performance series.
An innkeeper’s son, Chapman became famous for the dictum that the right formula for a winning car was to “simplicate, and then add lightness.” The formula apparently worked, as Lotus went on to win the Formula One championship seven times.
In 1982, four years after Chapman’s unexpected death of a heart attack, at 54, Lotus was purchased by General Motors, but the partnership was trouble-plagued and after a series of changes, the company landed in the hands of Malaysia’s ambitious automaker, Proton, in 1996.
Since then, Lotus has been struggling to make a more serious business of selling cars to the public. The carmaker landed in the public eye with the James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” in which a Lotus Esprit converts into a submarine, and it scored an even bigger success in a pivotal, early role in the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts hit “Pretty Woman.”
Gere, an eccentric millionaire, couldn’t manage the stick shift on his Lotus Esprit and sought help from Robert’s heart-of-gold streetwalker. In practice, it usually wasn’t the transmission that caused problems for potential buyers, however, notes analyst and automotive broadcaster John McElroy, of the TV show Autoline: Detroit.
“Part of the nature of the problem is the basic design of its cars — two-seaters with no space for luggage,” says McElroy. “There’s not even room for a purse, and that’s simply impractical for most people.”
Add a reputation for requiring an owner to be close friends with a mechanic and the lack of a viable dealer network in the United States and you have the present state of affairs where Lotus sales have barely been measured in the 100s.
But well-funded Proton is betting it can modernize its line-up, expand that distribution network and count on some good friends, like Toyota, to help it update the Lotus image.
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Toyota has actually had an ongoing, if modest, relationship with Lotus for some time, providing a pair of small four-cylinder engines for models like the Exige and the Elise. Now it will expand that partnership significantly, Lotus CEO Dany Bahar announced last month.
With Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda at his side, the Lotus executive announced they will work together to develop “tailor-made powertrain solutions for Lotus cars.”
Those will include some of the most powerful engines the Japanese maker has ever put on the street, added Toyoda, suggesting “a Toyota engine in a Lotus car creates a completely unique drive feeling — a special blend featuring the best of Lotus and Toyota that we hope many car lovers continue to experience and enjoy.”
Precisely what the two partners had in mind became apparent just weeks later, at the biennial Paris Motor Show, where Lotus was expected to unveil a new flagship, the 2+2 Elite.
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Instead, it pulled the wraps off a total of five new models, a high-powered debut that rivaled even mainstream makers like Ford, Renault and Mercedes-Benz in the product count.
Also sharing the spotlight was an all-new Esprit, which will make use of the 5.0-liter V8 developed by Toyota for its Lexus IS-F muscle car. But here Lotus will mate the big powerplant to a Formula One-derived hybrid system.
Dubbed KERS, for Kinetic Energy Recovery System, the powerplant designed to recapture energy lost during braking or coasting. But where a Prius might use that power to improve mileage, Lotus has performance in mind. Like a F1 race car, a driver will be able to call on that added boost for a launch down the straightaway or coming out of a corner. All told, the Esprit will deliver 620 horsepower, Lotus claims, getting it from zero to 60 in barely 3.5 seconds and boosting the 2-seater to a 205 mph top speed.
The next-generation Lotus Elise has the attributes of a street-legal go-kart – one that will make 320 hp with its new Toyota inline-four, and hit 60 in 4.2 seconds. At an estimated $55,000, it will be the most “affordable” of the maker’s new models, Lotus claims.
The other new offerings include the lightweight Evora and the Eterne. The latter model will be a shift in direction, a more functional 4-door/4-seat GT with a hybrid driveline that Lotus hopes will help expand the brand’s appeal.
“The biggest difference between the Eterne and its class competitors is that it’s not an evolution of an existing two-door model, it’s a deliberate and considered stand-alone creation. It’s the ultimate four door sports car,” Bahar proclaimed from his Paris stage.
But whether that’s enough to overcome the market’s reluctance to embrace Lotus products remains to be seen. Indeed, many analysts question whether Lotus will ever even bring all the new models to production. Indeed, in an unusual move the auto show unveilings included products not due to market until as late as 2014.
But Lotus has no choice, observers believe. It has perhaps this one shot left to prove it has a reason to exist. Otherwise it may not be around for the next Paris Motor Show, in 2012.
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