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Car Magazine - Lotus Turbo Esprit Road Test
Roger was driving as we forged into Teesdale. ' What a road!' he said with delight as we cleared Middleton and saw the tarmacadam snaking for miles ahead along the dale's northern edge, picking its way between the moors rambling imperiously to our right and the valley tumbling moodily below. The trucks and most of the other cars had chosen easier, more obvious roads. We had to share the peace and pleasure of this one only with a handful of local farmers shuffling along in Land Rovers and a few nomacic sheep. The sun was dropping, aking the sheep and the guide posts and the lines on the road show Persil-white against the moors' vivid colours, but it was off to our left and wouldn't be in our eyes. Perfect. I reached up the turned off the radio.
The 250 miles from London had given Roger time to settle into the Lotus, time to get an idea of tis smooth power, crisp response and refined behaviour. He was now about to learn of its exceptional speed, its unerring precision, its remarkable grip, its immense stability and lovely cornering balance. He was about to discover the depth of the Turbo Esprit's ability and why, at a stroke, it has lifted Lotus to the highest plateau of sports car performance. Earlier sessions with Turbo Esprits had endowned me with that balmy knowledge and, as Roger began to wind the Turbo out in the gears, I nestled back into my snug leather lounge with a private smile, confident that the car would do nothing nasty to its driver and ready to enjoy the experience of watching him reach deep into it in order to sound its depths. The Lotus began to devour the road. Most of the bends soon proved to be too slow for second, however tight they might have looked. Third was the right gear. Its flexibility, mid-range oomph and 91mph at 7000rpm give it precisely the right spectrum. It contained its own message too: the Turbo is very fast but is not demandingly fast. Its power is not peaky; it does not lie within a narrow rev range. You do not have to keep flicking away at the gear lever. The engine might be a 2.2 litre four but it delivers its performance with the magnidtude of a V8. Thus third is a superb gear for a series of bends, strung close together. You could come out of a tigh bend as slowly as 30 mph and still have instantaneous acceleration, or charge through a faster bend at upwards of 80mph and still have plenty of revs and power in hand to provide for a full-power exit. Third in the Turbo Esprit, gives you so much while demanding so little, and you'll use it to atune yourself to the car until you've gained adequate knowledge of its balance, become accustomed to the entry speeds of which it is capable, and its accelerative power within the bends, to allow correct use of second for the slower bends and fourth for the faster curvers. You will want to do it correctly, to choose the right gear, to select it at the right point on the road, to use the right amount of power not because the Turbo insists but because you've become so quickly aware of the fundamental smoothness and fussiessness with which it cruises, bends or not. You will wish to match its smoothness - as if you were a supremely accurate guidance system... simply because it deserves to be handled like that.
Roger pressed on, the gearshift starting to work. Occassionally, I tensed as we stormed towards yet another bend, particularly the right handers where there wass nothing ahead but the remnants of a skimpy fence and open air. Surely the car was going too fast to get around? Yet Roger was accelerating, not braking, I'd remind myself that it was my impression that was wrong, not his. So my anxieties were fleeting, infrequent things, dinimishing with each mile as I learned my own lessons. I switched to analysing my own environnment. We were pushing hard and fast through bends tight enough to cause the car to generate a great deal of lateral force, yet I was still lounging comfortably in my red leather tub, bounded on one side by the soft padding of the door trim and on the other by the leather over the deep central tunnel, and held firmly in place by the seat's soft, deep side sections. I felt the lateral forces but wass largely unaffected by them because the car corned so flatly. It was equally free of fore and aft pitch, maintaining a beautifully flat attitude whether braking or accelerating, rising over crests or dropping into dips Bumps affected each wheel at a time, not the car as a whole, and then only very little. The suspension, while maintaining such marvellous directional and lateral stability, worked with enough flexibility to absorb the bumps without disturbing my comfort. Yet there was enough communication to give me reassurance too. I marvelled. I was being transported as stably, levelly and comfortably as if we were still on the motorway. As a car for a passenger, the Esprit had already displayed ample virtue. Roger was driving masterfully but, comfortable as a passenger or not, I could stand it no more by the time we'd covered the 25 miles to the township of Alston and there wasn't much left of the dale and its exquisite road: I had to have the pleasure of driving the Esprit there myself. Even as we entered Alston I was selfish enough to as Roger if he'd mind swapping over.
Experience said cool it, settle in slowly. Establish an equilibrium. Play yourself into the car, and the car into the road. Don't make the fatal mistake of going too fast too soon. Familiarity mercifully shortened the normally lenghty process of adapting to the Esprit's high steering wheel and scuttle, its intimidating 6ft 1in width and its low driving position. Given that, the car felt instantly and beautifully available. I wasn't so fussed about the gearshift mounted high on the central tunnel as Roger had been; the point lay more in the short-throw delicacy of the mechanism itself, although changes into second had to be slower because of slightly dodgy synchromesh in our much-abused demonstrator than was normal. If the narrowness of the footwell was annoying, I was pleased enough again to accept the trade-off of precise, short-action and well-balanced pedals, set deliberately so that their efforts are match as closely as possible to each other and to the gearshift and steering.
As we ambled through what was left of Alston, I mused that in the Turbo Esprit the 195/60VR15 Goodyear NCT radials on the front wheels took the weight of the steering slightly beyond the normally impeccably complete Lotus balance. But that it had its own compensation too: there was the meaty feel of the small, thick-rimmed leather-covered wheel to match the reassuring feel of the steering itself. And, dribbling through Alston's narrow streets, I was pleased to have the Esprit's fine part-throttle response and its outstanding flexibility. Here was a docile car happy to be driven at walking speed in any congested street yet, in a few minutes, it would be travelling so tremendously quickly.
On the open road again, a start a what seemed like 50mph was soon shown by the accurate speedo really to be much more. The car felt so secure. I concentrated on my gearshift points. At 7000 rpm (with another 300prm to go before encountering the ignition cut-out), first was going to give me 41mph, second 62, third its lovely 91 and fourth a handy 123. Fifth, I knew, would take the Turbo to a certain 152mph and, given a lot of room, maybe a little more. On this road fourth was more than enough, although such is the Turbo Esprit's torque - with its curve running flat enough to spread its peak of 220lb/ft all the way from 4000 to 4500rpm - that fifth would provide plenty of solid performance upwards of 60mph or so too. The choice of tempo was all mine. The stability of the Esprit was again one of the first things that stood out as I began to tackle the bends, mostly more open on this stretch of the road than they'd been the other side of Alston. There was such an overwhelming feeling of security, creating the impression that, without a trace of flab in the suspension or in the transition from one modest attitude to another, the car would always retain its unerring precision. That impression was reinforced by the response to the steering. Turn the car into a bend and it just followed the line precisely; tighten it even more to hug a bank within a blind corner and it did that perfectly too.
Brake hard and deep into a bend and it budged not a whisker at either end. Give it full power on the way out and the tail refused to move unless the bend was slow enough for first, or happened to contain a bump of two at the point where the full 210bhp was being unleashed. Even then a snip of opposite lock - nothing more than a tiny flick of the wrists - or a reduction in the power for a split-second had it perfectly back in line. The rear end grip was staggering. But even more surprising, even more pleasing in a curious way, wass the absence of anything that might be called appreciable understeer. Pushing as hard as is possible with the Turbo Esprit into bends should sometimes bring enough understeer to force you to back off or face running very wide at the front. Within all reasonable (but remarkable) bounds, it just wasn't happening in the Lotus. So with a feeling of security and trust in the car that built on my eariler experience to become the greatest I've ever gained from a car, I carried on with the pure pleasure of making mincemeat of that road. 'What a car!' said Roger with awe as we left Teeside behind and headed on along more open roads for Gretna and Scotland.
It was the pursuit of pleasure that lay behind our journey anyway. My plan to give away a Turbo Esprit to a CAR reader was coming to fruition, and if I couldn't keep it myself then I was jolly well going to grab one for a few days and set out on a trip that whould arm me with a private bank of memories. I wanted sheer indulgence and I knew of the roads upon which I could get it. If I needed any excuse at all to head for them, well then I wanted a new arm and cartridge for my turntable and why not take it to the Linn Sondek factory in Glasgow than have them fitted at a dealer in London? Art Director Stinson and photographer Dawson played into my hands by having to go to the Highlands to photograph the Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz Gelandweagen. Meet me, I said with a wicked smile, at the top of Rest And Be Thankful, in the hills above Loch Fyne. Roger Cook, when he heard of my plan, found reason to leave his Radio Four Checkpoint programme for three days 'research' in Scotland.
We carved across the A74, the obvious route north to Glasgow, at Gretna and headed further west for Dumfries. Then, as we ran up on long rows of articulated lorries that were themselves being held up by doddering cars, another aspec of the Turbo Esprit came into play: its straightline performance. We could hang back slightly, spot a gap 'way up ahead and then steam past with room to spare, and it didn't seem to matter how short the straight. If we were down to 40mph, full throttle in second gear had us a 60mph in just over 2 sec. That sort of overtaking prowess brings a combination of safety and exhilaration that creates a feeling of wonderful relentlessness.
We had enough performance to deal with anything we encountered on the final stage of our run into that troubled, passionate Scots city - and soon we encountered little more that the odd truck and a few cars, all despatched as if they were motoring in a different time zone. Our relationship with them seemed surreal. Darkness had closed in. The Turbo's lights were up to the job and we cruised even faster than I had anticipated. It was in the bends that were long and blind that it was perhaps most impressive of all. Once it had been settled with throttle lift-off, turned in and then fully stabilised with the mildest possible re-application of throttle so that it felt as if it were being restrained by a gigantic soft-gloved hand, it just followed the curve so very perfectly, brushing the grass with extreme precision in the left-handers and following the road's white line in the right-handers. That feeling of perfect control and stability when you're in a long and blind bend, and you must hand in equilibrium between a trailing throttle and serious power application, is crucial - perhaps the ultimate pointer to a sports car's quality. The Lotus was better than flawless. capping its in-bend balancing act with its delightful, potent surging out of the bends - tossing them behind it - when the exits were at last in sight and the throttle could be pushed fully open. Superb, too, was the way in Which I could bring it blasting out of a demanding right-hander to be faced just a few yards later with a left. More often than not there was no need to brake before turning in. When it was necessary, the Lotus slunk squarely into the road with the pedal delivering feel by the millimetre and millisecond. Again the Lotus stayed perfectly on line and resisted any tendency for the nose to run wide. The remarkable thing was that while it came so perfectly accurately into bends, it maintained such stability that it never twitched in too far with the tail edging out. You could play, to see if there was fault, by really standing on the brakes. Still the car maintained perfect attitude. It wass so increadibly safe as well as so outstandingly pleasureable to drive, and the effort I needed to exert to cover the ground so swiftly on a challenging road was satisfyingly low. Happily, there was great comfort with it all too. The Turbo's suspension works as quietly as it does competently. Roger, I noted, was asleep long before we neared Kilmarnock and swung properly north onto the A77 for Glasgow. I've had some fine drives to Glasgow, but this one had been the best and I was as fresh as I was happy as we drew up at last at the house of the good Ivor Tiefenbrun, engineer, turntable maker par excellence and lover of fast cars. 'Is it as good as it looks', he asked as we settled down to attack his supply of 43 year-old Macallen, and all Roger and I could do was look at each other and grin like a pair of Cheshire cats.
It was raining next morning as we worked our way along Loch Lomond side to the soaring hills and great swooping glens of the sout-western highlands. Not even the Turbo's prowess could take us beyond the clutches of mimsers huddling nose-to-tail. We just kept our distance and relaxed with the warm feeling of comfort and security that the Lotus imparted. But we broke loose on the long, open, glorious run up through Glen Croe to the Rest And Be Thankful summit. The Lotus sprinted up the long climb like a racehorse turned loose on downland. I'd dreamed of charging this superb piece of road with a properly fast car; the Lotus brought it all to fulfilment. There, at the top, were Messrs Stinson and Dawson. Just into our stride, we had to stop. For the rest of the day we were mainly puddling about finding locations and taking pictures, but there were dashes inbetween, certain bends to be taken flat out again and again. The pottering even had its use: it threw up the exceptional flexibility of the Turbo's engine; the way it would pick up so smoothly and unhesitatingly from as little as 1500rpm in second, third or even fourth. In fifth, it was responsive enough to provide notable pace from around 2000rpm.
Serious acceleration started from around 2500rpm and beyond that it was dynamite. Yet there was no peakiness, none of the big step that is characteristic of turbocharged engines; it was only the curious twitter of the wastegate dumping excess pressure when the throttle was released at high revs that reminded me that the engine was turbocharged at all. The only difficulty in handling the car on narrow roads - or in the city - stemmed from its vision. Most mid-engined cars are poor in this area; the Esprit, with its striking styling, is among the worst with the Turbo further handicapped by the louvres our the engine. They restrict rear vision even more. Turning in tight areas or parking thus required careful checking of the electrically-adjustable mirrors and a lot of neck-craning. The steering, however, was never nastily heavy and nor was the clutch. So, through a long day spent trundling about on all sorts of tiny roads, in and out of villages, on and off precarious piers, Roger and I lived easily with the Turbo and we'd dearly have loved to have turned south down the western side of Loch Fyne and pursued the A83 all the way to Campbelltown and its Springbank, taking the opportunity to stay at that haven for gourmets and CAR readers, the West Loch Tarbert Hotel, on the way. But we had to head back to Glasgow, although even then we had further cause to admire the Turbo because, to avoid the congestion along Loch Lomond side we took the alternative road from Arrochar to Helensburgh, and found that the Lotus handled its endless stream of dips and crests with exceptional applomb. It crested the sharp rises flatly and securely and never once bottomed in the dips. On a road that would have had many cars with a lot of road clearance and long suspension travel trundling sedately, we travelled unabated. I took the reserved and cynical Ivor out for a swift blast in the car that night, the roads almost awash from a downpour, and hoped that the pace seemed as effortless to him in such attrocious conditions as it did to me; by then I knew so much about the car's ability that I was afraid of over-selling it. We went down to his factory the next morning, ostensibly to pick up my newly-updated turntable but to look too. To wander within the Linn factory is very much like being within the engine shop at Ferrari - or Lotus. There's the same fine engineering, the same sort of dedicated people making and assembling components with exceptional efficiency, patience and care. The concept of the Linn turntable is quite straightforward but all its components are machined to within 0.001in, thus making it an object of marvellous precision and helping towards its remarkable performance. In the fight against low-quality, digital recording systems, Linn are also building their own direct-cut recording equipment. The place was humming, a pocket of outstanding British achievement, like Lotus themselves.
We took the A74 south towards the borders but swung off again at Gretna to retrace our steps; we weren't about to bypass that marvellous road through Alston. There, we changed drivers once more so that we each drom the sections we'd missed on the way up. Again there was very little traffic and I pushed the Turbo really hard. There were enough bumps in some of the bends to make my wrists ache as I pressed the car in as fast as visibiltiy allowed; still the Lotus refused to run wide at the nose, or to be moved off line by bumpsteer. It just went where I directed it, with the wheel jiggling solidly in my hands as the wheels rode over the irregularities. I used all the road and ran the car flat - flat in every appropriate gear and braking as hard and late as I could. It was glorious, a new high in 15 years of high-performance motoring, and with its own climax. I came over one crest to find the road spearing down to a visually open right hander that ran through 90deg left. I kept the Lotus flat and swung it really hard into the bend, hareder than I've dared swing any car into a road bend before, and entrusted myself solidly to the roadholding. The tyres loaded to the limit - 1.1g, Lotus claim - but the Esprit simply went around with just the mildest trace of understeer (felt as a slight lightening at the wheel) and then a nudge towards something approaching, but not quite, oversteer as teh tail was pushing hard down by the full power of maximum revs in third. The g-force was high but there was still time for the mind to record the car's flatness. The following left-hander was of smaller radius and I had to brake hard for it and take second gear with a swift double-shuffle to compensate for its defective synchromesh. Then it was back on the power again to feel the car balance out as it left the bend behind in another fraction of a second and romped onwards. I'd never been around a couple of tight corners so quickly and nor had Roger. We grinned at each other and passed on for London, content now just to cruise quite sedately.
When we filled the car we found that we'd returned 20.8mpg after all our hard charging - little less than the 21.3 we'd obtained on the way north. Even with all our stopping and starting in Scotland we'd bettered 20mpg. Later, when I filled the car in London after covering the final part of the return trip on the A1M and M1 at a brisk cruise, the figure was 26.1mpg. Set against the Turbo's performance and cross-country pace, the figures were incredibly good. When we'd been driving the Turbo swiftly and using all the gears and the performance, we hadn't noticed noise. On the motorway, we were conscious of a fairly high but not objectionable level of sound from the fat tyres and windnoise that increased significantly with speed. If you were to be travelling beyond 120mph across Europe you wouldn't have much chance to listen to the radio, though the Turbo still stands as commendably refined overall. The ceiling console installation of the National Panasonic stereo system was far too fiddly for practical use and, ridiculously, the radio was FM only. We forgot the thing altogether and gave it up as an unfortunate £600 joke with no place in a car as valid as the Esprit.
Luckily, it wass merely an option. There was also a mysterious fault with the air conditioning in our car. For part fo the journey it failed to work at all, a handicap in the Esprit because the cabin grew uncomfortable in warm or muggy conditions. We could have done with more luggage space too. We managed to wiggle the turntable's box into the boot proper but it wasn't easy. Only one small bag could then go in too and the other had to be squached around the spare wheel in the Esprit's nose. We found ourselves wishing Lotus could improve the luggage capacity. It would also have been nice to have had aesthetic temptation beneath the engine cover. Its own securing lugs, the oil filler cap and the plumbing looked cheap and messy thereby failing the real engineering which is of the very highest design and developmental quality. I had been happy to tell the people at Linn about the car; I didn't really want to show them its innards. But, dear me, our long and happy excursion had left neither Roger, the perfectionist, nor me, the cynic, in any doubt about the Turbo Esprit's road-going brilliance. It transported us and inspired us, it confirmed my view of its desirability and satisfied my whim. One of you will soon own a Turbo Esprit. I'll swallow my avarice; I'll have my memories.