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Lotus Esprit Turbo SE

Lotus Esprit Turbo SE Chargecooling and suspension revisions make the Esprit Turbo a still more credible alternative to the supercar greats

OPINIONS ABOUND AS TO WHAT makes a 'supercar' and who knows how many of them Lotus has listened to. 'What is crystal clear, however, is that with the 42,500 Esprit Turbo SE, the Norfolk-based car maker has produced a driving machine with the pace, dynamic ability and visual presence to live with the established greats. This much was obvious when we drove the car last May. That Lotus achieves this improbable feat with a 14-year-old design powered by a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine that claims an even longer lineage, is something to wonder at.

But then the Esprit, particularly the Turbo, has always upset the applecart. In the past, it has sought to be both a senior league supercar and a bargain. In Italy and Germany, no such synthesis has ever existed, nor is it ever likely to. The Lotus is about to get a British rival, however, in the shape of the Panther Solo, born out of the same essentially minimalist concept that sired the Esprit, the simplicity and efficiency of which shines through: it does more with less.

Whether the SE does enough to justify its 8600 price premium over the regular Turbo is more questionable, though. With its longer list of standard equipment, re-tuned chassis, extra spoilers and greater grunt (achieved under the 'green' umbrella of a catalyst-equipped exhaust and unleaded fuel-only running), it has priced itself out of its original market and into an altogether tougher class. It is a sobering thought that, at 36,750, the Porsche 911 Club Sport is over 6000 cheaper and that you could buy a BMW 535i and a VW Corrado 16V for the same money.

The Turbo SE needs to be very special indeed. The 'green' engine is just that. If the regular Turbo's 215bhp and 2201b ft of torque from just 2174cc look impressive, they pale by comparison with the SE's 264bhp and 2571b ft. Heavy duty fuel and ignition management and a compact and highly efficient water-cooled intercooler — which Lotus likes to call a 'chargeccoler' — are mostly responsible for the four-cylinder 16-valver's dramatic hike in specific output. In fact, the chargecooler is so good that if the ambient temperature drops to 20 degrees C, the engine can deliver up to 280bhp for short periods.

It is little wonder Lotus feels confident in claiming a top speed of 163mph and 0-60mph in 4.7secs. On a blisteringly hot afternoon at Millbrook — with the ambient temperature well into the 30 degrees C — we couldn't quite make Lotus's day but we got very close, recording a mean maximum of 159mph and a best two-way 0-60mph time of 4.9secs.

The ton comes up in a sizzling 12.4secs. In round figures, it means that the SE can trade acceleration statistics with the five-speed Porsche 911 Turbo — no longer made but still regarded as a reference for serious supercar performance — and emerge from the encounter unscathed. Both cars have tremendous traction off the line and hit 30mph in 1 .9secs. At 60mph, they're still locked together (4.9secs), though by 100mph, the 911 has pulled out a small lead (12.1 against 12.4secs). By 110mph the Esprit is back on terms (15.2secs each) and, even at 130mph, there's nothing between them, the Porsche just one-tenth in front, at 22.7secs. Eventually, however, it's the British car that gets the upper hand, going on to its maximum of 159mph, some 3mph faster than the 911.

The SE is just as effective when it comes to fourth and fifth gear flexibility and this time leaves the Porsche struggling. Its fourth gear 30-50mph time of 6.1secs, for example, easily beats the Porsche's 7.6secs. Compare the Esprit's scintillating 4.0secs fourth gear 60-80mph time with the Porsche's 4.3secs. In fifth, the Lotus is even mare dominant, recording 50-70mph in 6.3secs, 60-80mph in 5.8secs and 70-90mph in 6.0secs (8.6, 7.0, 6.3secs for the 91 1).

Although occasionally prey to some management/induction hiccups, the engine revs with remarkable freedom and smoothness, turbo boost building swiftly and solidly to deliver stunning mid-range acceleration for overtaking. But the high-tech twin-cam doesn't sound like a supercar engine. It clatters worryingly from cold and rasps rudely on full throttle.

The gear ratios are generally well spaced and stack third, fourth and fifth gears quite close together. While this obviously stretches the gap between first, second and third, the SE nevertheless storms past 60mph in second on itsway to 67mph at 7000 rpm,and third is good for just on 100mph. The power flows with tidal energy, the only ripples being provided by the gearchange with its rather indistinct action and a tendency to graunch if shifts are rushed.

The clutch is fine, though, its action being neither as weighty nor as sharp as some Italian rivals. Reasonably refined by supercar standards, the SE can count good suppression of mechanical noise among its strengths. Even when wrung out to the red line, the hardworking 'four' does not sound strained or harsh; nor does it get unduly loud. Wind rush is present but not a problem, even when travelling at three-figure speeds — mostly thanks to efficient double door seals. Tyre roar isn't too bad either.

There's no denying Lotus's claims that the SE's engine isn't only potent but is also very efficient, when you look at an overall consumpdon of 23.5mpg. Compare that with the 911 Turbo's 16.6mpg. Even with the proviso that the Esprit's figure was calculated from a longer-than-usual mileage, the difference is too great to ignore. The projected touring consumption of 27mpg allows a maximum range of over 450 miles on a 17.3-gallon tankful.

Some elements of the face-lifted Esprit's handling did not meet with wholehearted approval and Lotus has sought to address the criticisms — especially the over-heavy steering — at the same time acknowledging the extra power with modifications for the SE's chassis. Thus there are geometry, spring rate and damper stiffness revisions and a fractional increase in ride height to improve both comfort and stability.

More obviously directed at the extra power of the SE are the beefed-up brakes with harder pad material and extra cooling. Tyres are ZR-rated Goodyear Eagles, specially developed for the Esprit and the Excel — 215/50s at the front and 245/50s at the rear. The Esprit's cornering power is largely unchanged by all this and remains chillingly good. This side of an F40 or 959, we doubt that there's another road-going chassis that can generate quite as much grip.

Tyre slip angles are very small and body roll virtually nonexistent. In normal brisk driving, terms such as 'understeer' and 'oversteer' have no context. Push hard into a tight or tightening bend and the nose will run a little wide but this can be cancelled or turned into mild oversteer with judicious application of power. This is an essentially forgiving chassis with a feeling of imperturbable stability. That said, it is still not quite right. True, at speed, the Lotus can feel wonderfully fluid and pointed, negotiating a series of S-bends with considerable finesse and relatively little effort. Yet it all seems strangely uninvolving. The steering's weighting is both lighter and more linear than before but the delightful turn-in crispness and front-end bite that characterised the Esprit has gone. There's precision, yes, but not that delicious feeling of intimacy that makes the difference between huge competence and greatness. A pity.

The Turbo SE's ride, on the other hand, is almost beyond reproach. It has all the hallmarks of great control, combining this with exceptional suppleness. At low speeds, small bumps and ripples can promote some jiggling but on the whole the Lotus feels comfortable and composed. If any criticism is to be levelled at the brakes it's that they are slightly overservoed, which makes delicate application harder than it should be.

The SE's all-leather cabin has more of a 'quality' ambience than the regular Turbo's, an impression helped along by the large slab of burr elm surrounding the instruments and switches in the expansive 'boomerang pod' binnacle. Mind you, it doesn't make the instruments any easier to read. Some of the smaller dials are partly or wholly obscured by the edge of the 14ins, leather-rimmed steering wheel. It's a cosy and comfortable driving environment, though, with well-shaped and supportive seats and convenient controls.

Standard equipment includes the full-leather trim, a removable glass sunroof, air conditioning, central locking and a radio pre-fit kit. An ice-warning light is also standard on the SE. But equipment isn't really the issue here.

With the Turbo SE, Lotus has made a break for the big time and has succeeded admirably in all the most obvious respects. To many eyes, the Esprit always looked the part and now those looks are matched — even surpassed — indeed. The SE is fabulously rapid and enormously capable; it must now be counted among the few cars that can dispose of miles along demanding roads with an altogether greater degree of authority and efficiency than even the fastest fast hatchback.

And yet there is something missing — the small things that make their impact on a subliminal level; an engine that's worth listening to; steering that communicates with fine resolution. Call it the seduction factor. For all its towering ability, it's something the Lotus doesn't have.

So what does make a supercar? Perhaps the answer isn't as obvious as it first seems.

Price: 42,500
Top speed :159mph
0-60: 4 9secs
MPG: 215

For: Terrific performance, massively confident chassis, styling
Against: Steering feel, lack of ultimate involvement


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