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Lotus Esprit 350
Top Gear Road test
February 01 1999

The youth lingered, watching us photograph the silver Lotus on Great Yarmouth seafront before wandering over to give his opinion. "So," he said, "you must be doing this for Max Power magazine, then?" Naturally, we put him straight in no uncertain terms but, to be fair, he had a point. It's that rear wing, you see. As big and as in-yer-face as anything on a go-faster adolescent's Nova.

But this wing is no glass-fibre affair. It's made from the finest and lightest carbon-fibre in the land and is mounted upon "lightweight skeletal milled aluminium uprights', if you please. Originally developed for the Lotus Type 115 GT race car, it now graces a limited edition run of fifty Sport 350 Esprits, a road car influenced by Lotus's experiences in GT race championships and described by the company as "the most extreme and focused' Esprit yet.

As well as that wing, Sport 350s can also be identified by their aluminium body colour, blue highlighting of the front and side air-vents, and an extra deep and low front spoiler. There are also blue brake calipers peeping out through new, five-spoke, charcoal grey, OZ Racing wheels, specially designed for Lotus and, apparently, the lightest road wheels money can buy. But don't worry if these subtle differences are lost on you, for there's also a massive Sport 350 logo adorning each door and the roof for quick and easy identification.

It is, however, the things you can't see that make this Esprit special. It's lost weight and clocks in 80kgs lighter than the standard, 1,380kgs Esprit V8. So even though the power of the twin-turbo V8 engine remains the same as before at 349bhp, the Sport 350's power-to-weight ratio has improved. Lotus's electronic engineers have also toyed with the engine management system, re- vising the torque levels in the lower gears for better acceleration.

A normal Esprit V8 has a claimed 0 to 62mph time of 4.9 seconds, but the Sport 350 shaves that to 4.6. So it's bye-bye to any current Aston Martin, BMW, Honda, or Jaguar then. The trouble is, it could also be-bye bye to some important documentation. A few days with an Esprit Sport 350 and you could be left thinking up one hundred and one uses for that little plastic folder your driving licence used to live in.

At least the Sport 350 is well armed for that horrible, stomach-churning moment when you spot the police car. No, unfortunately it does not possess 100-mile-radius blanket Gatso- and speedtrap-disabling technology, but it does have very, very good brakes indeed " four-pot calipers with a Kelsey Hayes anti-lock system are used, with huge new AP Racing 320mm two-piece brake discs which are vented and cross drilled all round. Hit the brake pedal hard and no matter what speed the car is travelling at, it will be back from the land of naughtiness into the realms of legality in a very short time indeed.

While the Esprit's sheer speed is addictive, the V8 engine note isn't. Unlike a Porsche, a Ferrari, a TVR or just about any other seriously fast sports car you could care to mention, the Lotus twin-turbo V8 isn't anything special to listen to, even though it sits right behind your ears. There is, however, an optional sports exhaust which should create a bit more bark.

Nor is there much magic from the five-speed Renault 'box which feels too cumbersome for a sports car. At least Lotus has significantly improved the clutch since we last drove a V8 Esprit, and the car no longer stalls as soon as you think about moving it, although it's still a bitch to get into reverse.

As always in an Esprit, the steering feels superb, with more feel than just about any other car on the planet. The basic suspension remains the same "double wishbones at the front and transverse links at the rear" but stiffer, track-developed Eibach springs have been fitted. The ride feels firm and no doubt the handling is even better than before, but having only driven on roads that were either iced over or soaking wet, we must be honest and report that we didn't exactly chart the far boundaries of the handling envelope.

Short of adding a roll-cage and racing harness, the Sport feels just about as close as you can get to a race car on the road. Being sealed inside the Esprit's cabin with another large chap in the passenger seat is a cosy experience, to say the least. The dashboard is entirely carbon-fibre 'and we're talking the proper stuff here, not mere effect'. It's even awkward to get in and out of like a real race car, but that's just the Esprit being the Esprit. The lid covering the sizeable boot doesn't always open and close properly, but that, too, is just the Esprit being the Esprit.

Lotus wants £64,950 for the Sport 350. It is a very good car and no doubt there will be 50 well-heeled, hard-charging Esprit fans out there who are prepared to hand over the readies for this special sports car. And, no doubt they will enjoy their purchases enormously. But if you have already set aside £64,650 for a new Porsche 911, well, we couldn't really argue with the logic of your decision.

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