Lotus Esprit: Wilting Lotus at owner's mercy

By Alastair Sloane

Lotus Esprit. Photo / Supplied
Lotus Esprit. Photo / Supplied

The future of niche British carmaker Lotus is hanging in the balance now that its new Malaysian owner DRB-Hicom is deciding whether to go ahead with a $1 billion product investment over the next five years.

Previous Lotus owner Proton pledged the money for the launch of five new sports cars, including an all-aluminium Esprit supercar.

But carmaker Proton was taken over by Malaysian rival DRB-Hicom, the country's biggest car assembly operation and one of its largest corporations. The Malaysian Government owns a slice of DRB-Hicom.

Lotus CEO Danny Bahar says he expects a decision from the new owner within weeks on whether to back the investment plan, revise it or to sell Lotus. The British Government last year gave $20 million towards the programme.

Bahar said he was confident the carmaker had a strong future. "Lotus remains a special company, and I remain confident and committed that we can bring it back to the top," he told British motoring media.

"We have a healthy order book of 1127 cars, but due to the takeover it has been a very difficult financial time.

"We have spent the last two weeks discussing in detail with our new owners our investment plans and all aspects of the business, which they are now evaluating."

Bahar said that bosses at DRB realise that the uncertainty over Lotus needs to be resolved quickly. "They know the situation Lotus is in, and it is in their interest to resolve the issues as soon as possible."

He stressed that the new owners had absolutely not considered putting the carmaker into administration.

Lotus is celebrating its 60th birthday this year. Its investment plans, backed by Proton, would create 1100 new jobs, five new models, and triple sales to 6000 cars a year. Lotus currently employs 1400 workers.

Bahar - a long-time Ferrari executive before joining Lotus in 2009 - accepts that DRB could decide to revise the investment plan to build four new sports cars and an upmarket city car. The other option is to sell Lotus.

But who would buy it? It has rising debts and faces the prospect of making losses for the next four years until the new models go on sale.

The most likely buyers would be the Chinese, who bought MG. Geeley - which owns Volvo - has been mentioned. So has Toyota - Lotus has used its engines for years.

But Lotus sales have slumped badly in Britain this year, with just 35 cars sold so far, and there have been disappointing sales of its newest model, the Evora.

Bahar says there is a healthy order book of 1200 cars, and that production, which has been cut back because of the cash flow problems, would be back in full swing by next month.

Lotus' operating funds have been severely cut since DRB's takeover of Proton. Under Malaysian takeover rules, funds can only be approved for carrying out the "ordinary course of business" for a firm for a period of 60 days, and does not apply to new investment.

Lotus' cashflow problems have forced it to put back the launch date of the new Esprit from 2013 to 2014. Plans for the Esprit include challenging Ferrari for high-revving supercar honours with its 4.8-litre V8 engine.

It has delivered 425kW at around 9000rpm and 540Nm at upwards of 3000rpm in tests. But chief technical officer Wolf Zimmermann has hinted that it can deliver around 470kW at 9400rpm and about 575Nm between 5500 and 6000rpm.

Such output would give Lotus bragging rights over Ferrari's 4.5-litre V8, which revs to a maximum 9000rpm in the 458 Italia coupe and Spider convertible.

Zimmerman, who spent 20 years at Mercedes-Benz' AMG division before joining Lotus in 2009, is excited about the V8's potential but wouldn't confirm peak output.

"It is a simple design that I believe will be the best high-performance production V8 on the market," he said. The engine uses a dry sump and flat-plane crankshaft and weighs around 170kg.

The unit is modular, meaning engineers can create a four-cylinder by chopping it in half and a V6 by chopping off the final two cylinders.

The 4.8-litre unit mated to a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox will also be under the bonnet of a lightweight "R" version of the Esprit. Zimmerman said the R model would not simply be a stripped-out racer for the road, but a carefully designed evolution of the standard Esprit.

Based on projected figures for the standard car, the R could sprint from zero to 100km/h in under three seconds, and hit a top speed of 345km/h.

Built entirely from aluminium, the Esprit's target weight is 1460kg. The "torque tube"design is reminiscent of the original Esprit's backbone chassis. The car will have forged aluminium wishbone suspension and electro-hydraulic power steering.

Bahar believes the company has created a new icon in the Esprit. "In the past when people thought of the Esprit, they thought of the movies - Pretty Woman, Basic Instinct - but this time around, the car is the star of the show," he said.

"There's a fine balance in acknowledging the greatness of the past while rapidly leaping forward to the future and ensuring that this car not only does the name Esprit justice but also the Lotus brand.

"I think we've managed to find the balance. The design is aggressive. You have to see it to appreciate how low and wide the proportions are, but it still retains a level of dignity, of class and, most of all, exclusivity."

NZ expat Neville Crighton's multi-franchise Ateco Automotive operation is to distribute the Lotus range in Australia and New Zealand.

Plans for the brand here included driver training modelled on the Lotus Driving Academy and using tracks such as Hampton Downs.

"We are looking at using tracks in Australia and New Zealand for the academy," said Edward Rowe, PR chief for Ateco Automotive.

"They are an excellent sales tool for both bringing customers to the brand and demonstrating what the cars are capable of in a safe and controlled environment.

- NZ Herald

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