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Lotus Esprit S4

EVEN STEVENS Published: 11th Mar 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Reworked Esprit that’s smoother, sleeker and speedier than the original, plus the build quality is far better although don’t touch the unreliable V8. A true modern classic but vet one well Known as the Peter Stevens’ Esprit S4 range, it’s one of the best Lotuses of them all although avoid the unreliable V8. A brilliant driver’s car that’s comprehensively superior to the original and a car that competes with any rival Ferrari or Porsche for supercar status. Unlike the first Lotus Esprit that found fame by being the amphibious wonder that saved James Bond, the S4 is never out of its depth. Where as the original replacement for the Europa disappointed in so many ways, the S4 had the benefit of over a decade’s worth of experience, owner feedback and development and now makes a creditable alternative to a rival Ferrari or Porsche and for a lot less outlay.

HISTORY

1987 Technically not the full blooded S4 but a clever reskin by stylist Peter Stevens bolted onto a modified Esprit chassis – which itself was a modified Europa platform, dating back to the mid 1960s. Codenamed X180, it was essentially a new (22 per cent stiffer) body on the old Esprit chassis with a Renault transaxle (replacing the old Citroën SM one) and revised suspension settings. STEVENSEVENThis Esprit model ran from 1987 to 1993 in 172bhp NA (normally aspirated), 215bhp Turbo or Turbo HC (264bhp)  SE guises.

1989 Less than 300 base Esprits were made and it was quickly dropped in during this year. The Turbo model lasted another year as it was a far more popular pick with 1207 produced.

1991 This left just the well appointed wood/leather, sunroof, etc SE. Anti-lock brakes were installed this year, before the car made way for the ‘proper’ S4 after a production run of more than 1500.

1993 Esprit Sport 300 is introduced. Basically, it’s a stripped out racer with the resultant reduced weight and stiffer bodyshell. Add 300bhp and it’s one of the most hardcore Esprits to be made; you can spot one from a fake (so be warned!) by a special plaque to prove the authenticity.

So to the ‘real’ S4! Lotus was now owned by Vauxhall where a number of trim parts were pinched. So good was the styling that only minor changes were made; bumpers, front spoiler, indicators, roof mounted aerial, side scoop – and Vauxhall Cavalier door handles. A new rear wing improved rear visibility. This generation ran up to 2001 and chief changes included power steering with retuned suspension.

1996 Basic S4 is dropped after 622 were produced. S4S (complete with reworked body kit and OZ wheels) features an uprated turbocharger and a special Lotus-tweaked engine management system to hike the power to 280bhp.

1998 A V8-powered Esprit rumours were doing the rounds ever since 1987. A GM Corvette engine was the logical, sensible choice but instead a twin turbo 3.2-litre came from Lotus. Good for 350bhp this engine was not without its problems – but what did you expect from Lotus? Lower down the range, an SE followed the same year taking over from the GT3 featuring a detuned 240bhp turbo 2-litre which was reckoned by some to be the best handling Esprit of them all. Alas emission regs killed the car off less than a year later.

1999 As the SE bowed out the Sport 350 surfaced being little more than a stripped out V8 with upgraded AP brakes, re-mapped ECU big carbon fibre rear wing and as a result, 80kg less to haul up to 175mph. Just 54 were made.

2002 The final generation is referred to as the Facelift Esprit. Mechanically the car is unchanged with just minor visual tweaks such as a 350 front spoiler and a new rear light design.

2004 After an amazing 30 year run using the same basic DNA the Esprit is dropped. Lotus did plan to relaunch the car around about now but financially, alon

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

Chalk and cheese is the best way to describe the Stevens’ cars from the original even though the S3 had got it right. Being a Lotus, it goes without saying that as a driver’s car it is second to none but the general view is that these later cars – which featured a much stiffer chassis – are not only blinding quick around corners but are also safer and more forgiving when the limit is reached. Leave that for a race track, please, because on the road you’d have to be nuts or very brave to broach the car’s limits. Anyway, apart from this, the car’s width of more than 6ft 2in (that’s broader than the original Range Rover!) means there’s scant road room to play with once it starts to break adhesion…

None of these Esprits are short of shove and it’s more a question of how fast do you want to go. Most of them were turbocharged, which means up to 300bhp and 175mph but even a normally aspirated car with around 170bhp is no slouch (138mph full chat and 0-60mph in less then seven seconds) and will prove to be appreciably cheaper and easier to maintain, although no cars can be considered ‘cheap’ to repair.

The S4 was always pitched more upmarket than any previous Lotus Esprits and the interior was a lot more luxurious than any other Lotus. If still in good order, it’s a nice place to be although it’s still a tight fit. “You don’t sit in an Esprit, you wear it”, remarked one road test. On the other hand, these later Esprits are far more civilised than the harsh and noisy 1970’s car and luggage space is acceptable.

Traditionally, Lotus has always impressed with its balance of performance against acceptable economy. If it is in good tune and not thrashed at every opportunity, most ‘four-cylinder’ cars will return between 20-30mpg – only the V8 with its frightful 14.7mpg figures go against the grain.

The car’s intimidating width was picked up upon by Supercar & Classics who still reckoned that the base Esprit, not so corrupted by power, was a real cracker. 

“If there’s a series-production road car with higher cornering powers than an Esprit, I’ve not driven it”, remarked the experienced tester. Autocar & Motor said of the new Esprits in 1987 that they represent “a package that anyone in the supercar market would be foolish to ignore.”  However, it felt that the Austin Maxi door handles that were still used were “an unworthy link” with its past. The weekly went on to test the Turbo in 1988, saying it was the first road Lotus to top 150mph and, as you’d expect, praised its handling, roadholding and ride although noted the lack of all round vision. “Cars that can reach 150mph and cost less than £30,000 are thin on the ground. By supercar standards, the Esprit Turbo is something of a bargain.”

Carrying on the spendthrift supercar analogy Car simply said the Lotus was “More fun than a Ferrari”.

PRICES

According to leading Lotus light Paul Matty you have to split the ‘softer’ Stevens vehicles from the proper S4 and he feels that the latter, especially the S4S (his favourite) will become much sought after classics in the future. However Scott Walker of main dealer Bell & Colvill belaives the later cars will never have the cult status of the original (thanks to James Bond). He describes the general standard of cars as “not brilliant” and you can spend thousands to bring a tired car up to spec. He recommends an ’87-’91 SE as a sound choice for around £15,000, a GT3 perhaps £3000 more. He only touches V8s that he personally knows.

IMPROVEMENTS

So long as it is up to spec a standard Esprit is good enough for many although many are not and it really should be a starting base, meaning a thorough service with careful adjustment to the geometry. This usually transforms many cars say the specialist because there’s so much to put right! To make a good Esprit even more excellent, uprate the brakes up to 1994 Brembo spec. There are numerous kits around to do this costing around £600 which is good value if the originals are shot anyway – and they may well be. The Europa-derived suspension benefits from a tailored spring and damper kit (£550 from PNM Engineering (0151 630 6101) and if you want to fit polyurethane suspension bushes then this specialist advises that you only use Lotus spec parts.

If a stock 2.2 Esprit isn’t quick enough then you can obtain a strong 250bhp or so by fitting a turbo dump valve (£125) along with an adjustable wastegate actuator for another £250.

What To Look For

GENERAL

• The ‘S4’ IS still a Lotus, which means indifferent cars and quality not to mention ownership care. So check every car out well and don’t leap in and buy the first that you see. Drive a few to seat a reference point as they do vary enormously.

• Know your Esprits! There’s a real mish-mash of models and spin-offs and it’s easy to buy something that isn’t quite the real thing. Contact a specialist or club if in doubt. The ‘Softer Stevens’ reshell isn’t as good as an S4 even though the cars look much the same. They aren’t – but this model is still better than earlier Esprits, say experts.

• Is the car honest and straight? Supercars can have super shunts and as with all Lotus chassis, even a minor biff can wreck the frame. Have any car checked by the likes of HPI, RAC or AA for its past history. A service history is critical on this highly-strung performance car, especially on newer models.

BODY AND CHASSIS

• By the late 1980s Lotus was on the case concerning chassis rot and all cars featured galvanised chassis. Fine, except that excessive engine bay heat usually causes the protective layer to flake off – especially Turbos – so check, particularly around the exhaust manifold region.

• Accident damage is more likely; check for damage and repairs, especially for localised patch repairs, at the front in particular. At the rear, see that the chassis bolts are all there and tight – it’s often not so. And watch for trashed and crashed track day cars.

ENGINE

• Listen for noisy cams and cranks, especially on start up (should quieten down when warm) and oil leaks between the head and cambox; proper repairs run into hundreds while a smoking wheelarch means lube is dripping on the hot exhaust manifold.

• Critically this engine must have its cambelt changed every 24/36,000 miles✎ The turbo installation is a good one and only the usual wear (does it smoke on start up or when powering on?) need be of concern. Check the intercooler is cold after a good hot run.

• Avoid that V8. This Lotus unit was plagued with major problems, which were never fully eradicated. Biggest fears are failed pistons and bore liner seals, overheating and bad vibrations. It’s a bit like MGF head gaskets…

• What causes the V8 to fail? Well many Lotus experts feel it is due to the inadequate radiator the V8 wore that was inferior to ‘fours’. The sheer cost of repairs can almost write off some V8s and Paul Matty has converted a few to the evergreen Rover V8 power unit – not as glamorous but a lot more reliable!

• Another major and expensive worry, particularly on V8s, is corrosion to the oil feed and coolant pipes. Exhaust fractures are common on all cars.

TRANSMISSION

• The Renault transmission is an improvement over the original Citroën unit but, depending upon who you speak to, it’s still suspect and needs watching. Turbo boost was deliberately regulated in first and second gears to preserve the cogs but in time and hard use they fail and are prone to weeping seals. If the transaxle does cry enough, look forward to a repair bill well in excess of a grand.

• Clutches take the usual hammering if used hard, although the real fault is not adjusting it properly as this is an involved job. However, braided metal clutch lines to give a firmer action helps.

TRIM

• Look for waning cockpit trim. As with any low slung car, the trim can take a bashing and a retrim can cost around £5000 if really shabby. The good news is that most switchgear, handles and so on are bought in from other car makers so there’s a good chance Toyota and Vauxhall bits fit.

• So long as water hasn’t got the electrics (and it can), apart from failing electric windows (usually just the switches on later cars), no-go pop up headlamps (motors) and broken switchgear, all should be okay. Bear in mind though, that the S4 was the most complex Lotus yet, so check that all the dash warning lights illuminate and extinguish when they should.

Three Of A Kind

RENAULT GTA
RENAULT GTA
GTA is a close rival although it’s rear rather than mid-engined. It wore the Renault badge not Alpine and so the image was never there, but ability still is. The handling is as involving as a Porsche 911 and while the 2.5 V6 Turbo is really fast, the 3-litre 250bhp normally aspirated alternative is a much wiser choice. The GTA is a true supercar bargain if you get a good one – and there’s not many around.
FERRARI 328/348
FERRARI 328/348
This is the car Lotus wanted to woo enthusiasts away from with the higher brow and better quality new Esprit. Widely regarded best all round modern Ferraris, the 328/348 range has all the pace and passion from you expect from this Italian icon but with previously unheard of luxury and build quality. Priced around the same as a similar Esprit, it’s said that post ’93 cars are better than the earlier mounts.
PORSCHE 911
PORSCHE 911
When you’re talking sensible supercars, you can’t leave out the 911 and the beauty of this eternal Porsche is that there’s a variety of generations to choose from, all for around similar money such as the 3.2 Carrera and the 964 range which ran from 1989-’93. Available in two and four-wheel drive and convertibles, no other supercar is as easy to run, even as a daily, but they aren’t exactly exclusive.

Verdict

The Stevens supercar is a world away from the original Esprit. Unless you unearth a good one, avoid the V8 and go for condition above spec on all models – and know your versions. The S4 is one of the best Lotuses ever made and of the likes we’ll never see again from Hethel, making it a surefire supercar classic.



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