Lotus Esprit Turbo
Bargain Ferrari-rivalling supercar
or flaky plastic pretender?
Everyone knows the Esprit's affordable,
but could you actually live with one?
We're here to help you decide. Like the Porsche 911, the evergreen Lotus Esprit appears to have been with us since the beginning of time, fighting Italian mid-engined exotica for supercar supremacy from its base in darkest Norfolk. Catch sight of an Esprit on the roads today and the arresting silhouette still has enough drama and poise to warrant a double-take. Impossibly low, fabulously sleek, beautifully proportioned and clean, it looks like a low-flying missile locked on to its target. Like the Porsche, the Lotus has been the subject of constant development, but for us it was the Peter Stevens redesign of 1987 that marked the Esprit's ascendancy to true superstardom.
Stevens softened the edges of the sharply creased, wedgy Giugiaro original, endowing it with a butch, muscular body, it's these cars, fitted with 4-cylinder turbo powerplants, that now make the best buys second-hand and therefore it's these that we will be focusing on here.
Of course, for people like us the looks would count for nothing if they weren't matched by equally stunning driving dynamics and stirring performance.
The Lotus reputation has been built on fiercely precise, incisive handling with feelful steering combined with a compliant, supple ride, and the Esprit certainly did its bit to enhance that reputation. It doesn't have the nervous handling traits that have plagued many mid-engined cars; instead it has an abundance of grip with incredibly sharp turn-in and power oversteer that's so controllable you just can't help indulging yourself.
In this respect the Esprit is brilliant, confidence-inspiring and intoxicating, urging you to drive it hard. But it does have flaws. The turbos suffer from lag, the engine note has uncharitably been likened to a cement mixer full of rocks, the gearchange lacks precision and some aspects of the interior have remained firmly in the '70s. The pedals are offset and cramped; the trim rattles and creaks; the style is definitely old-school. Whether you can live with that depends on where your priorities lie.
If you can accept the shortcomings, the Esprit represents fantastic value for money. An early SE Turbo in perfect condition can cost just £15,000 and from a specialist dealer too. Rarely does so little money by quite so much automotive theatre.
But buying the car is one thing; running it can be quite another. Lotuses have in the past developed another, less desirable reputation, one for poor reliability and big, big bills. You needn't be scared you just need to know what you're looking at and the possible pitfalls. Treat it right and the Esprit can be reliable enough to be used as daily transport.
In fact it works better that way. Like a lot of other high performance machinery, the Esprit responds better to regular use than occasional outings and ultimately it will prove more economical per mile too. As we will see, some of the servicing will require deep exploration of your wallet. The simple fact is that although you may be able to buy an Esprit Turbo for hot hatch money, this is no mass-produced tin-top and parts are expensive. You can't shortcut the expense either. Fitting substandard parts and delaying services will, in the long-term, prove false economy, with expenditure spiralling higher to cover even bigger problems further down the line. Buy the best you can afford, but don't ignore the running costs.
Not only did the car change in 1987, but the name did too. Up until that time, it was always known as the Turbo Esprit, but the two words were reversed to mark the Peter Stevens redesign. Underneath, it was essentially the same car. Boost was increased to add 5bhp to the 210 of the Giugiaro version, giving the Esprit Turbo a top speed of 146mph. More importantly, the pensionable Citroen SM gearbox was junked in favour of a Renault 25 unit, which, although criticised today, seemed a big leap forward at the time.
There was a short-run special edition in '89, the 40th Anniversary model, which was the last carburettor-equipped Esprit, and that made way for what was to become the biggest selling variant, the Turbo SE. Its emissions-friendly fuel injection system combined with a chargecooler (a water-to-air intercooler) helped the 2.2-litre twin-cam 16-valve four to produce 264bhp, pushing the Esprit on to 164mph. Aside from the badges, the SE could be identified by a fairly subtle rear wing, an oil-cooling duct ahead of the front wheels, straight-line side-skirts and larger, fatter wheels. Suspension geometry was slightly revised to cope with these changes, but little adjustment was needed the chassis was already the Esprit's strength.
From here until the last SE rolled off the production line in 1993 the changes were mainly the addition of safety items, such as airbags and ABS, though there was a (thankfully) short-lived high-level rear wing, which appeared in 1992.
The SE was superseded in April 1993 by an even smoother, in-house version of the Stevens redesign with softer scoops and curves and a tall rear wing that helped rearward visibility. This was the S4. Even larger, 17-inch, five-spoke alloys were added to revised and now adjustable suspension, but arguably the most important addition was a power steering pump that managed to retain the steering feel but allowed easy parking. Previously, parking an Esprit effortlessly required biceps of a size that would make Lennox Lewis wince.
Just two months later a low-volume, lightweight, race-car copy was introduced. Labelled the Sport 300, its reworked SE engine now pumped out 302bhp thanks to a new Garrett turbocharger, larger inlet valves and ports and more boost (1.0 bar). The taut, reinforced chassis, strut brace and roll-cage mounting points (the cage itself was an optional extra) underlined the intended use of the Sport 300. In effect it was a thinly disguised copy of the X180R race car that had stormed the American SCCA championship in 1992. It came with stunning three-piece OZ wheels, wrapped in gumball rear tyres (315/35 ZR17s) that were so wide they wouldn't have looked out of place on a dragster. They even needed wheelarch extensions to make them legal. AP Racing four-pot callipers with vented discs were standard and inside the cockpit was swathed in Alcantara.
Numbers were limited 50 ÿ with a £65,000 price tag and such an extreme character there was a limited market anyway but in November '94 the best bits of the S4 and the Sport 300 were combined to produce the S4s. The looping, hooping rear wing made it easily identifiable. The engine was slightly de-tuned (to 285bhp) but the wheels were retained to ensure that the Esprit had a road presence to equal almost any Italian supercar you could care to mention. The introduction of a more decisive short-shift mechanism improved the gearbox, removing some of the vague mushiness of the SE.
The S4s was the highest specified 4-cylinder Esprit, but at just over £50,000 it didn't represent the best value for money. That honour went to the no-nonsense GT3, on sale from October 1996, two months after the first of the V8s became available. The idea was to open up the Esprit to a new breed of customer with a price-tag of a then-competitive £40,055 (the V8 was almost £20,000 more). It was a huge bonus that the GT3 also turned out to be one of the best Esprits.
Money was saved by not fitting anything that wasn't strictly necessary and by installing a smaller, 2-litre, 240bhp engine. The lines were clean-up, the rear wing removed, and the only external badging was an optional sticker along the base of the doors. Of course this economy drive had a further benefit of reducing weight and adding yet more agility and tactility. The GT3 felt raw and focused, with an intensity that provided the best form of distraction from the compromises of the cabin. Many GT3 will have had some of the deleted items added back in, as all were available as optional extras. Features like air conditioning may be welcome, but loading the GT3 with extras did rather miss the point of the exercise...
Having decided to take the plunge into Esprit ownership, you need to decide which model to go for. With so many different versions, numbers of each specification are low, so finding the ideal car may take some time. Try to drive as many as you can and use every available resource to swat up on your chosen subject. It's time well spent, because the rewards can be very satisfying indeed.
A full history is absolutely vital, and ideally the car should come with a thick wad of bills and receipts too. It's the only way to tell just how meticulously the car has been maintained and how fresh the main components are. Buying an Esprit without this information is a complete folly chances are youõll face a constant stream of bills to keep the car on the road.
The service history should carry the stamps of either a main Lotus dealer or a recognised independent specialist your best guarantee that any work has been done correctly and with proper parts. These specialists will also have the correct equipment for checking the management system, which although expensive is the only means of doing the job properly.
Every year saw improvements in terms of strength and longevity of parts, so early SEs will require more TLC than an S4. And a car that's had numerous owners should always raise doubts. Bad cars cost a lot just to keep running, and restoring a rough one can prove a financial nightmare.
The engines themselves, as long as they are serviced regularly, are reliable and sting, but there are some points to note. the first thing to check here is that the cam belt has been replaced at the correct intervals, because these intervals are very short. Originally they were set at 24,000 miles, though they were extended by the factory in the mid- '90s to 32,000. Most specialists, however, recommend that you stick to the original schedule. Not having it done could prove an expensive mistake.
Owners should always allow the engine plenty of time to warm through. Remember that these are low-capacity, high-output engines and revving them from cold will seriously reduce their potential lifespan. If cared for, they can see the far side of 100,000 miles before needing a rebuild. Specialist dealer Paul Matty says that he has seen Esprits with 150,000 on the odometer, although he admits they were breathing quite heavily by that stage.
If the temperature starts to rise, stop and let the engine cool before continuing your journey. Fan failure is a common problem and, although it's easy to fix, overheating will ruin the head gaskets and cause the liners to sink. There is no excuse for allowing this to happen though, as the facia has both a temperature gauge and fan failure warning light. The chargecooler vanes have been known to disintegrate, but there is no impact on other components and the replacement cost is less than £100.
Another SE problem regularly seen in Lotus service bays is leaks from the water pumps used by the chargecoolers. Again a fairly straightforward fault to put right, but it pays to catch it early. The Turbos last well and if they do fail an exchange unit can be fitted for less than £300. If you smell petrol in the cabin then it's likely that all that's needed are replacement hoses. The engine mounts should be examined and replaced promptly if in poor condition the ones on the left side suffer most, and failure to replace them can damage other items such as hoses and even the exhaust.
Although the Renault gearbox isn't the most satisfying to use, it is strong and well up to the job in hand. Ensure that it doesn't feel stiff, though, as a lack of lubrication will cause the shaft to rust up, requiring the silencer to be dropped before it can be accessed.
Clutch replacement is an even more time-consuming task as the gearbox needs to come out, taking around 11 hours. The clutch should be replaced at the first sign of it slipping to prevent further (more costly) damage to the flywheel.
Very strong and can easily run for 100,000 miles before the shocks need renewing. Occasionally, small fracture-cracks on the front springs develop something that should be picked up during service.
Steering, wheels and tyres
The combination of large front wheels and a small rack means the the rack is put under a lot of stress, resulting in wear. It therefore has to be replaced every other year, but this can be done economically with the installation of exchange unit. Excessive play in the steering is a sure sign that it's on the way out, so test for this on the test drive.
Examine the exhaust and wastegate manifolds for cracks, which can be caused by the constant expansion and contraction from the extreme temperatures they reach during extended periods of hard running. The studs can also get stuck in the manifold and these are very expensive and complicated jobs to put right.
The brakes last well, considering the performance, and should feel strong. As always, wear rates will vary considerably, but because the car is relatively light it will resist wear and fade well enough to survive a track-day outing. Ensure the handbrake ratchet operates correctly; the fix is expensive.
The electrical systems, although complicated, rarely fail, but don't forget to check that everything works if there's a problem it may be awkward to rectify. Non-functioning electric windows are often down to failing switch rather than the motor, so always swap that (cheap) part first. The headlight pods occasionally fail when they do the culprit is usually a short circuit caused by water ingress, which will need to be dried out.
The paintwork on some of the older cars can show signs of cracking as the glassfibre ages, and red paint can start to date to a pinkish hue. There is only one way to solve both of these faults and that's a cash-intensive respray. Underneath those panels there should be no problems as the chassis is fully galvanised.
If the car is not used for a long period, the air conditioning system breaks up and needs to be replaced, which will be very expensive. The simple solution is to run the car for a while every other week or so. The heaters in the older SEs are not the best and need to be flushed out regularly to operate properly.
What they said at the time
'It will change direction at ridiculous speeds, though it remains compliant enough to drive until the tank empties' Road and Track
'The S4s is one of the most precise cars I've driven, with a brilliantly composed chassis. Grip is enormous and its long-curve handling is outrageously crisp' Performance Car
Esprit parts prices
(prices are all for genuine Lotus items for SE and include VAT but not fitting)
|Front pad set
|Rear pad set
|Brake disc (front)
|Brake disc (rear)
Esprit servicing prices
(prices include parts and labour, provided by Paul Matty)
|12,000 mile service
|24,000 mile service
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