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Lotus Esprit V8
BBC Top Gear Road Test
March 1998

Like tortoises, supercars live a long, long time. Also like tortoises, supercars move (out of showrooms, at least) very, very slowly. No one except Ferrari (the hare of the supercars game) can afford to replace cars that sell in tiny numbers very often. Instead they polish their shells and give them fresh lettuce to make them look smarter and go faster.

The Lotus Esprit is a case in point. It's been around since our Zac was a schoolboy sneaking in to see Roger Moore drive one in The Spy Who Loved Me. And it's been tarted up on an annual basis ever since. A couple of years back, the Esprit got a bigger makeover than most when Lotus (after years of thinking about it) finally put a V8 engine into its mid-engined chassis rather than just rely on the old two-litre turbo. Now it's time for a few more tweaks so we see a new interior, improved clutch and gearchange and various other more minor updates. If you're into Esprit-spotting you'll also notice a different rear wing, mounted higher and on the rear hatch cover. Enough excuses, then, for another go in Britain's only mid-engined supercar.

And go the Esprit V8 most certainly does. The twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V8 that Lotus developed especially for this car might sound more like a witch's cackle than an angelic choir but it can certainly deliver the performance goods. Understandably so; the Esprit packs a power-to-weight punch better than anything bar a Cerbera so it will top 170mph and hit 100 from a standstill in under 11 seconds.
You'd be hard pressed in routine driving to spot that the Lotus engine uses a turbocharger " merely stunned by its shattering acceleration when you floor the throttle. It's up through the rev range so quickly in the lower gears that you're fumbling for the next gear while still coping with the blast through the last one.

Be a little more analytical about the engine, though, and you'll discern a slight mildness low down that makes the surge of speed, when it comes, even more spectacular. There isn't the same instant throttle response that comes in a non-turbo performance motor. That lack of instant throttle response and the stiff clutch do cause embarrassing stallings early in one's time with the Esprit too. The clutch and gearshift have supposedly both been improved in this latest V8 but, to be honest, you could have fooled me. The clutch may be lighter but it's still snappy and the shift is still slow and needs a very firm push or pull between gears, reverse being particularly awkward.

But you soon forget all this when you get the Esprit out on to some country roads. There is something special about a Lotus chassis " the ability to put together a supple ride that just seems to get more comfortable the faster you go.

The brakes are awesome too, able to stand the car virtually on its nose without the ABS kicking in too soon, and the steering is as good as they come.

And so, finally, to the new interior " the point, after all, of a day's thrash in the Esprit. At last Lotus has shed the wood-and-leather look (much to the relief of a few cows, no doubt) which was as '70s as a Roger Moore hairdo. Instead, it's gone for the minimalist approach with a simple four-dial binnacle in front of the driver and neat push-buttons on a redesigned centre console. It's simple, smart and vaguely reminiscent of the way Ferrari do things " but horribly let down by a nasty flat panel across the front of the screen which carries big, ugly Pioneer speakers and looks like something a Max Power reader bodged in.

Like all such cars, the Esprit is a bit of an inelegant struggle to enter or leave " this usually becoming a sort of semi-crawl onto the pavement. It's more cramped inside than some. The driving position's fine if you're about five-nine but a squash if you're taller and, as previously mentioned, the pedals are small, tight together and irritatingly offset. There's also only a tiny map pocket at the back of the seats, so if two or you are in the car your coats and everything else has to go into the boot (which is, in estate agent speak, 'deceptively spacious').

You can live with all this but the terrible rear vision " most of the slit-like rear window is filled by the spoiler " and the way headlights reflect off the glass and the rear buttresses at night can make the Lotus a tiresome pain in the neck in traffic.

Still, for what is a 23-year-old, it does well. Plenty of newer rivals will envy its performance and chassis. There's plenty of life left in this tortoise.


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