First drive: Lotus Emira prototype review

A truly important coupe: Hethel’s last combustion-engined car, its final creation under Geely ownership, and the replacement of three models

The last Lotus petrol-engined car must be also its most successful. The Emira will be responsible for replacing all three outgoing Lotus models – Elise, Evora, and Exige. However, it will have to achieve greater heights than the cars did together.

Hethel has spent a lot of money on a high-tech production line. It features autonomous sleds that move cars between stations. We’re told it can produce up to 4500 cars annually. This is a figure Lotus hasn’t come close to since the time it assembled the Vauxhall VX220/Opel Speedster and the still-fresh Elise S2 in early 2000s. The stakes are higher because of the need to generate revenue to fund the next wave of pure-electric vehicles.

You will be happy to know that our first time behind the wheel the Emira was a pleasant one. Since Lotus first arrived in Norfolk in 1960s, Lotus has invited journalists to Hethel to test drive its new models. It would be wrong to pilot a new Lotus elsewhere for the first time.

This car is not a finalized version. However, director of attributes Gavan Kershaw insists that it is not a pre-production car so I can make excuses for things I don’t like. It’s actually what is internally called a VP2-level prototype – one which was borrowed from the car pool being used for testing the driver assistance system. It’s very similar to the one that will be delivered to buyers later in the year, both mechanically and visually. The interior is almost complete and the chassis settings are nearly signed off, with the exception of some ungrained surfaces panels. There are some quirks. The Track driving mode isn’t yet active and I’m told to expect warning lights.

This prototype uses the Emira’s carried-over powerplant option, the 400bhp Toyota V6 familiar from Lotus Evora. This is combined with a standard six-speed manual gearbox, and a mechanical limited slip differential.

The suspension is softened and the Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres are road-friendly. The gentler settings were a smart choice in wet and windy conditions at Hethel.

The Emira has many similarities to the other cars it replaces. Phil Popham, former Lotus boss, promised a sports car with the same practicality, comfort, and driving style as the Porsche 718 Cayman. However, the Emira is well-equipped for the segment. The Emira is more user-friendly, practical, and better finished. It has a more comfortable and close-fitting driving position, which continues to include the prominent visual reference points of its tops.

This Lotus trim feels more luxurious than any other Lotus. There are lots of stitched surfaces, and an Alcantara steering wheels with control panels.

Although the Volvo roots of the column stalks are evident, the crisply rendered custom graphics of the twin digital screens don’t reveal any parts-bin heritage. Instead of a complicated touch interface, physical switchgear features a driving mode selector as well as proper heating and ventilation controls. It’s a nice touch to have a helmet-wearing person on the air-distribution buttons.

The Emira felt much more mature than the Evora during my 45-minute stint at Hethel. However, there are many dynamic similarities, which is a good thing considering the car’s handling abilities.

The powerplant has remained unchanged is the most obvious analogy. The Mercedes AMG turbocharged four-cylinder unit is intriguing, but the supercharged Toyota V6 feels familiar.

The Emira sounds quieter at low speeds than Evora. This is because the default Tour driving mode, which keeps the exhaust valve closed on start-up, makes the engine more quiet. Selecting Sport will open it, giving the engine a more hushed idle. However, regardless of the mode selected, the engine can still find its voice at higher revs with larger throttle openings.

It is also pleasing to be able to see in the rear-view camera the bypass valve of the supercharger opening and closing.

The V6 isn’t an incredibly powerful engine, with its redline at 7000rpm. Its broad mid-range muscle, and torque-free responses make the V6 feel responsive and quick across the board.

In a world where 400 bhp is compared to 1430 kg, the Emira’s power-to-weight ratio is not as sharp, the Emira still has enough desire to be interesting on the track, despite its huge grip. Kershaw said that Lotus expects to see a lot of customers for junior supercars who are frustrated at their inability to unleash them onto the roads.

The prototype’s gearshift was more precise and heavier than the Evora’s disappointed one. However, it felt sometimes tight when shifting between its planes, particularly between third and fourth. It did not have active rev-matching for downshifts like the Evora’s disappointing one. Drivers will need to be familiar with the heel-and–toe shuffle in order to achieve optimal smoothness.

The brake pedal remains firm enough to function as a steady fulcrum even under the heat load of an enthusiastic track user.

Lotus chose to use hydraulic assistance, even though it might seem anachronistic to use an engine-driven pump. The four-pot will use electrohydraulic systems. Emira’s steering is flawless. The Emira’s response times are linear and precise, with clear feedback at all loadings. This includes accurate reporting of slip angles under large cornering loads.

Similar to the suspension, Lotus’s first impressions are favorable for using no active systems. The Touring-spec prototype showed a level of pliancy even on Hethel’s rough surface. This bodes well for real roads. After a few laps I began to look for kerbs that would give springs and dampers more opportunities to digest them.

You can feel the roll when cornering harder, a characteristic of Lotus that helps you to orientate yourself towards rising loads. However, the combination of a wider track and the strength of the Goodyear tyres creates very impressive grip. The prototype’s gmeter indicated that it could generate more than 1g of lateral acceleration when navigating on a rain-swept track. It was enough to make me curious about how the combination of Cup 2 tyres, Sport chassis and a dry surface would feel.

It’s not surprising that I am enjoying the most friendly version of the Emira when it comes to slippery conditions. Kershaw and his chassis engineers are especially proud of the Emira’s abilities when it pushes through its high limits, both in termsof how well they are flagged but also how benign it remains beyond them.

This is highlighted by the hairpins at each end of the track. Rindt corner at the north end is slippery enough for the Emira’s front to run out of grip before its rear axle. The proximity of Armco barriers at the track’s end encourages prudence, while giving the stability control an opportunity to show its ability to reduce understeer due to the greasy surface. The track’s further end features a generous run-off that circles the tight right-hander Andretti. This encourages bolder approaches.

Harder power applications sooner tip the handling balance. Sport driving mode first allows for a small amount of rear-end slip. With the stability completely disengaged, the Emira is easy to persuade into exaggerated oversteer. The Emira’s copious torque and generous steering locking make it possible to easily generate and maintain impressive yaw angles even for something mid-engined. All this, without any active drift mode.

While hoonery can be fun, the Emira’s subtler and more dynamic qualities shine best on track. It is happy to feel mid-engined for all the right reasons, and perhaps none of the wrong. The V6’s mass and position help to turn the car, and allow for small inputs to adjust the cornering line. However, there is no sense of skittishness when pushing or when transitions between tighter turns have braking inputs and steering inputs that overlap to an extent that would be unusual in most cars.

It is friendly and benign even under difficult conditions. It is like a Lotus.

There are many questions that remain unanswered. The most important is how the Emira will handle outside Hethel’s limits. Also, how the AMG four-pot and dual-clutch auto gearboxes will work together with the car’s laid-back, dynamic personality.

Kershaw says that when Kershaw first saw the car, he and Russell [Carr] realized that the design team had ripped it out of the park. Kershaw adds that they said “we’re going have to work hard for that.”

It was clear from the outset that he and his team had succeeded. You don’t have to be drooling yet if you aren’t already.