It seems almost unfair jumping from an as-new RB5 to a thoroughly used Esprit S4. We’d wanted a slightly earlier SE, easily available at £10K, but we were let down at the last minute and Gavin Farmer kindly stepped into the breach with his S4. You can get a tatty S4 for £10K, rising to £14-15K for a very fit example, but the basis of the experience is the same as the SE – from the turbocharged 2.2-litre ‘four’ kicking out 264bhp and 261lb ft, to the wonderful profile and promise of Lotus’s magical touch in the ride/handling department.
‘Oh God. Oh dear Lord… this isn’t right. Look at the big shoe-box instrument binnacle, the awful cheap dials, the bits of trim barely hanging on. What the hell is this thing?’ I guarantee these are the thoughts that will race through your mind when you first recline behind the wheel of an old Esprit. It looks and feels pretty damn shoddy in here. Barker is right – it’s just like a kit car, only one built by chimpanzees. Drunk chimpanzees, without an instruction manual.
Subscribe to evo magazine
OK, let’s ignore that stuff. The driving position is great, pedals slightly offset to the left but steering wheel and gearlever just where you want them, transmission tunnel sealing you into the seat. It feels like your bum is hovering millimetres from the road surface, your feet level with the front wheels – you’re at the centre of the action.
The engine is smoother than I was expecting, the ride typically Lotus-supple. The steering is just sublime; it makes even the Clio’s rack feel artificial and aloof. I didn’t think power steering could offer this level of feedback. Even the gearbox – central to so many of the horror stories I’ve heard – feels pretty slick and has a nice heft to it.
On damp roads and with an engine pushing out over 120bhp per litre, I’m acutely aware that the Esprit could fizz into rampant wheelspin in an instant. But the whizz-bang delivery never materialises, boost building smoothly and giving a predictable, linear power-curve. The rear tyres have little trouble dealing with the power, and the Esprit is soon flowing along on a surface of honey, ragged tarmac seemingly pulled taut just before it comes into contact with the front tyres.
It feels small and very low, very Elise-like in fact. And it has a similar balance when you start to work suspension and tyres harder. The wonderful steering warns you in plenty of time that the front is about to push a degree or two wide, and if the turbo is still spooling up then it will continue to slip wide of the apex. Best to just back off and let the Esprit regain its composure. If the turbo is already spinning hard then the understeer slowly bleeds away as the tail lazily arcs into oversteer (in the damp at least), which is easy to catch or hold right until the exit of the corner. Incredible balance for a mid-engined car.
Through quicker corners the Esprit is even better, neutral even when you’re really committed and so precise you simply drive with your fingertips. If it wasn’t for the dodgy build quality and 1970s interior, the S4 could almost pass for a modern sports car. Well, that and the brakes, which are awful. They’re too weak to cope with the Esprit’s performance and hobbled with one of the clumsiest ABS systems I’ve ever experienced. When it triggers, all deceleration stops. Apparently many owners disable it.
|Engine||In-line 4-cyl, 2174cc, turbo|
|Max power||264bhp @ 6500rpm|
|Max torque||261lb ft @ 3900rpm|
|Max speed||165mph (claimed)|