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Lotus in transition: As Elise and Exige “Final Editions” roll out, new Evora variants come in

Back in 17 September 2010, at the British Embassy in Tokyo, an event rife with symbolism took place: Lotus Cars CEO Dany Bahar gave Toyota president Akio Toyoda a white Lotus Elise R powered by Toyota’s last Yamaha-designed 1.8-liter 2ZZ-GE VVTL-i 4-cylinder engine. The event was a Lotus/Toyota mutual admiration lovefest, as reported by Autoblog, AutoWeek and an entry on the Automotive News Blogs (the latter subsequently taken down or relegated to their subscriber-only archives). Bahar said:

“The presentation of Toyota’s last 2ZZ engine in the Elise is a symbolic gesture of our continued respect and deep appreciation for our partner not only acknowledging our past but also looking forward to our future together. There is no one superior to Toyota in terms of reliability.”

Toyoda added:

“A Toyota engine in a Lotus car creates a completely unique drive feeling – a special blend featuring the best of Lotus and Toyota that we hope many car lovers continue to experience and enjoy…The Lotus test course can be considered the start of my driving career…I want all my executives to drive this Elise and experience it for themselves.”

Toyoda then fondly recalled his first exposure to the brand roughly 30 years ago during a visit to Lotus’ testing grounds. He took a car for a spin around the track and toured Lotus’ underground workshop, a visit he likened to “descending into a James Bond 007 world.” and added that he considers the Lotus Elise the very embodiment of fun-to-drive. Vividly proving this, as Toyoda sat behind the wheel of his new toy, he stomped on the gas, drove through a line of startled reporters and revved the engine in an impromptu spin around the embassy grounds.

Roughly two weeks later came the Paris Auto Show press conferences, and, for this author, the most memorable was Lotus’ orgasmic explosion of five new-generation concept sports cars that denoted the carmaker’s inexorable march upmarket, plus a sixth Lotus City Car Concept tucked away in a corner (more on this later). Yet, ambitious as this future Lotus roadmap is, we couldn’t help but wonder about the present and the immediate future, and what would happen to the Lotus Elise. Would it die abruptly, at least in North America and other export markets? Seeking clarity, we sought out the spokespersons at the show’s Lotus stand, one of which informed us that the whole “Akio Toyoda getting the very last 2ZZ-powered Lotus Elise ceremony” was, in fact, symbolic, and that the carmaker had stockpiled enough of the engines to last until the end of the 2011 model year, roughly in August of this year. The end, however, came a bit sooner than that, for the Golden Gate Lotus Club’s Chapman Report Online, via Autoblog reported on Saturday 16 April 2011 that a trio of Elise and Exige “Final Editions” would be built between now and July 2011, for arrival in the US and Canada between June and August 2011. Here are the basics on each of them:

Lotus Elise SC Final Edition
Perhaps Akio Toyoda did get the very last Elise R (powered by a naturally-aspirated 189 hp 2ZZ-GE engine), but, in a sense, he was cheated, as North America’s Final Edition is a supercharged Elise SC. This boosted (albeit non-intercooled) iteration of the 2ZZ engine produces 218 hp@8000 rpm and 156 lb/ft of torque@5000 rpm. Lotus will only make 15 copies, priced at US$57,500 plus destination charge. Four exterior colors are available (Ardent Red, Aspen White, Chrome Orange and Carbon Grey) are available, and include the Touring Package with sport seats trimmed in black Alcantara; Bilstein sport pack dampers with Eibach springs; Torsen (Torque-sensing) Limited Slip Differential; black 5 Y- spoke forged wheels with Yokohama ADVAN A048 tires; black rear diffuser; matte black painted hard top, roll bar cover, transom panel and door mirrors; and a special numbered plaque. The sole available option is the $995 StarShield, which is clear protection film applied to the car’s nose, rocker panels, exterior mirrors and lower rear panels, applied at the port for U.S.-bound cars only. Although no pictures have been released, we expect it to look very similar to the Elise SC RGB shown above left.

Lotus Exige S260 Final Edition
Half as exclusive as the Elise SC Final Edition (with 30 units to be built as opposed to the Elise’s 15), the Exige S260 Final Edition uses an Eaton M62 supercharger (versus the Elise SC’s smaller M45 unit) plus an intercooler to produce 257 hp@8000 rpm and 174 lb/ft of torque@6000 rpm. While also featuring the Touring Package, Torsen Limited Slip Differential and black Y-spoke forged wheels with Yokohama ADVAN A048 tires from the Elise SC Final Edition, the Final Exige is available in Lotus’ full suite of interior and exterior color options. This includes a no-cost choice of black, red, magnolia or biscuit leather inside and solid or metallic exterior colors. More importantly, the suspension is the full-fledged Track Package with double adjustable Ohlins dampers. Priced at US$67,500 plus destination charges, the option list includes Lifestyle and Premium exterior colors and StarShield protection.

Lotus Exige S260 Final Edition – Matte Black
At the pared-down 2009 Tokyo Motor Show, the sole foreign-carmaker world debut was the Lotus Exige Stealth shown at left, which bore the Lotus Exige Scura moniker outside Japan. This murdered-out matte black-with-gloss black stripes-and black interior model was a 35-car limited edition sold only in Europe, Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) and select Asian markets. Better late than never, North America gets its own limited run of 25 Lotus Exige S260 Final Edition – Matte Black cars. Sharing its specification with the regular Exige S260 Final Edition save for a dedicated set of black 5-spoke ultra lightweight forged wheels, it sells for US$69,900 plus destination charge, essentially a $2400 premium for the matte paint. No options are offered, and the only interior seating available is black Alcantara. It remains unclear if the beautifully contrasting gloss black stripes from the Scura/Stealth will make their way to the Matte Black Final Edition, but this author certainly hopes so.

Where do the Lotus Elise and Exige go from here?
A number of factors converged to force the Lotus Elise and Exige’s exodus from the North American market. The aging 2ZZ-GE engine’s last appearance in a North American-market Toyota was in the 2006 Matrix XRS, while in European-market Toyotas it died with the 7th-generation Celica and failed to make the Corolla-to-Auris transition. The engine’s lack of compliance with stricter Euro 5 emissions standards currently in effect further doomed it. The current Elise will carry on in Europe, however, in its base model, which is powered by Toyota’s 1.6-liter 1ZR-FAE 4-cylinder engine, tweaked by Lotus to produce 134 hp@6800 rpm and 118 lb/ft of torque@4400 rpm. Actually, that tweak is only good for a 4 hp boost and unchanged torque ratings versus its more mundane applications in Toyota’s European-built Auris, Avensis and Verso models.

With the 1ZR-FAE not homologated for U.S. and Canadian emission standards, perhaps its similarly-powered non-Valvematic 1.8-liter sibling, the 2ZR-FE that powers our Corolla, base Matrix and Scion xD could’ve fit the bill, but Lotus justifiably felt that such a sharp drop in power wouldn’t fly in North America. The final death knell for Elise in North America, however, is the 2006 U.S. law requiring “smart” airbags with varying deployment force according to the size of the passenger. A hardship for low-volume carmakers such as Lotus, the company’s original exemption from the law was granted a single extension that expires in August 2011.

Less clear is what happens to the Lotus Exige going forward. Its two current models, the Exige S and Exige Cup 260 are powered by differently-tuned supercharged variants of the soon-to-be-extinct 2ZZ engine, and there have been no indications that it would be down-powered in the manner of its Elise. And, quite notably, the Exige did not receive the Elise’s 2011 Evora-esque facelift, shown at right. Further, the official Lotus Cars site’s Car Configurator page currently only allows for Elise and Evora configuration. So is the Exige on its way out everywhere? Or will it return, as some rumors have it, powered by the Evora’s Toyota-sourced 2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6? We asked two different Lotus spokesmen at the New York Auto Show press conferences about the latter possibility, but they would neither confirm nor deny the rumors.

Lotus Evora with IPS (Intelligent Precision Shift)
With the number of Elise and Exige variants in decline, a growing Evora model range will carry Lotus forward until the marque’s planned ascension upmarket continues with a reborn Esprit. The Evora itself is notable for being the first rear-mid-engined 2+2 since the 1970s heyday of the Italian Ferrari Dino GT4 / Lamborghini Urraco / Maserati Merak triumvirate. After debuting in July 2008 and going on sale a year later in a single model powered by Toyota’s ubiquitous 2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6 driven through the Aisin EA60 six-speed manual transaxle from the European Toyota Avensis diesel, additional Evora IPS and Evora S models were unveiled at the 2010 Paris Auto Show.

The Lotus Evora with IPS (Intelligent Precision Shift) is simply Lotusspeak for the 6-speed automatic transaxle option. To be more precise, this is essentially the U660E transaxle used in front-wheel-drive V6 versions of the latest Toyota Avalon, Camry (including the Australian-built Aurion), Sienna and Venza, as well as Lexus’ ES 350 and RX 350. In fact, Lotus even leaves the individual gear ratios unchanged. That does not mean, however, that Lotus has left the automatic untouched. As shown above, paddle shifters as well as sport and full-manual modes have been added, with the latter, according to Lotus spokesmen, including a lockup torque converter for 2nd-thru-top gear à la IS F. Per official Lotus specifications, the Evora with IPS gains 117 lbs and is 0.4 seconds slower in 0-60 mph acceleration versus its manual counterpart.

And that, quite frankly, is just about all we know at this point, for Lotus has yet to offer the world’s automotive press a chance to sample the Evora IPS. Road & Track‘s Mike Monticello, however, quotes Lotus CEO Dany Bahar as stating that, “It’s been a long time since Lotus created an automatic and we’ve spent a great deal of time refining this one to make sure that it perfectly complements the Evora drive experience.” Indeed, for those of you that would expect Lotus founder Colin Chapman to be spinning in his grave at an F1-like 18,000 rpm at the notion of an automatic transmission Lotus, we should remind you that, during his lifetime, the Elite II (Types 75 & 83), Eclat and Excel 2+2s offered an optional 4-speed ZF slushbox. If, in fact, Mr. Chapman is spinning in his grave over anything, it’s bound to be over the fact that the Evora weighs more than 3000 lbs., and let’s not even discuss the planned retractable-hardtop Elite or the 4-door Eterne…

Lotus Evora S
Of far more interest to the hardcore enthusiast is the other new Evora variant, the “S” model. Available only with a 6-speed manual transaxle, the “S” stands for supercharger. Adding an Eaton TVS (twin vortices series) blower to the standard Evora’s 2GR-FE 3.5-liter Toyota engine boosts the horsepower level from 276 to 345 hp, and bumps up the torque by around 35 lb/ft, peaking at 295 lb/ft at 4500rpm.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because this is precisely what Toyota Australia did to create the short-lived Toyota Aurion TRD model. For the uninitiated, the Aurion is the badge that the current V6 Camry wears Down Under, where Camrys are 4-cylinder only. To compete against the plethora of local GM Holden and Ford Falcon performance versions, the Aurion was fitted with the world’s first production application of the aforementioned Eaton TVS supercharger for a 323 hp rating and 300 lb/ft of torque. Optimistically launched in August 2007 with a target of 50-70 units per month, the Aurion TRD never met even that modest target, likely because the performance promise of the engine was undermined by its being offered only with front-wheel-drive. On 31 March 2009 Toyota shut down its TRD Australia division and, with it, production of the Aurion TRD and TRD Hilux pickup.

As evidenced from the numbers above, Lotus managed to extract an extra 22 hp over what Toyota managed for the supercharged 3.5-liter V6 that bears the 2GR-FZE moniker. Although Lotus spokesmen we spoke to at the 2011 New York Auto Show swear that they “started from scratch” in their own pairing of the Toyota V6 and the Eaton TVS supercharger, the fact that both Evo and Top Gear first drives of the Evora S mention Australian firm Harrop in conjunction with the engineering of the supercharger installation, just like the Aurion TRD makes that claim a bit suspect.

Will the Evora be the last Toyota-engined Lotus?
At the 2010 Paris Motor Show unveiling of Lotus’ 5 future concepts, conventional wisdom combined with the specifications released by the company pointed towards Esprit, Elite and Eterne models powered by a boosted version of the Lexus IS F’s 2UR-GSE 5-liter V8, an Elan powered by a boosted version of the current Toyota 4Runner and FJ Cruiser’s 1GR-FE 4-liter V6 (or, perhaps, a yet-to-be-unveiled direct+port-injected 1GR-FSE variant thereof) and a next-generation Elise powered by a boosted 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, likely a derivative of the 3ZR-FAE engine used in Europe’s current Avensis and RAV4, as well as a number of Japanese Domestic Market models.

Yet, barely a month later, rumors started that Lotus honchos felt that, in order to properly compete against the likes of Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini, Lotus needed to develop its own dedicated, clean-sheet, from-scratch engines. Of course, other rivals such as Spyker (with its Audi V8-powered lineup), Pagani (which uses Mercedes-AMG engines) and Koenigsegg (whose engines are heavily modified 4.7-liter 4-valve DOHC versions of the Ford Modular V8) will agree to disagree. And, conversely, Lotus is perfectly capable of coming up with its own engine, as it did with its 900-series 4-cylinder range that debuted in 1972 as the first modern DOHC, 16-valve production engine.

Lotus is still seemingly grappling with the issue and sending ridiculously mixed signals, though. On Wednesday 20 April, on the eve of the Lotus press conference, a company spokesman was candid enough to admit that they were still debating whether to launch their first post-Evora model, the Esprit (shown below), with a barely-modified Lexus IS F V8, with a more heavily-modified version of that engine or to roll out a dedicated, totally Lotus-designed lightweight, high-revving V8. The indecision has pushed back the Esprit launch from its original Spring 2013 target to the end of the 2013 calendar year. Weighing heavily on the decision, though, is a heartfelt belief by Lotus’ leadership that, at the Esprit’s expected $180,000 selling price, its clientele demands an engine that is not a Toyota hand-me-down. And, indeed, at the Lotus press conference the next day, Lotus’ Chief Technical Officer Wolf Zimmerman (formerly the Managing Director of Engineering & Production and Chief Engineer of Technical Strategy at Mercedes-AMG) was almost defiantly quoted as reaffirming that the Esprit would use a new, all-Lotus V8.

That still leaves open the question of what will power the rest of the Lotus line. As reality sets in that the Paris Auto Show launch may have been akin to mental masturbation comes word that a more realistic plan will focus on the already-delayed Esprit, Elite retractable-hardtop convertible and next-generation Elise. The 4-door Eterne would be jettisoned (it was an interiorless quasi-afterthought, anyway) and the V6 2+2 Elan was essentially a premature Evora successor. If what Lotus refers to as the 2015 Elise is to compete in roughly its current segment, it’ll probably be more profitable for Lotus to stick to Toyota engine sourcing. Then again, if Lotus develops a 4 to 5-liter V8, half of it could conceivably form the basis of a 2 to 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine.

So, what’s the point of the Lotus City Car Concept?
All this grandiose talk of Lotus moving up to challenge Ferrari and Porsche makes the sixth Lotus unveiled in Paris, the City Car Concept (shown at left), all the more baffling at first glance. Yet, upon further reflection, it makes all the sense in the world. With upscale carmakers particularly challenged by meeting the double whammy of ever-tightening U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and European CO2 emissions laws, we should nevertheless note that such revered marques as Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Bugatti and (probably within a year or so) Porsche are all owned by larger carmakers offering a multitude of super-economy models against which to weigh or average their more ravenous emissions and appetites for fuel. Then we have the situation of Aston Martin, whose spinoff from its Ford parent left it without mass-market fuel sippers against which to average its CO2 emissions. The solution was either a stroke of genius or the world’s biggest April Fools’ joke that really isn’t, depending on your perspective: take the Toyota iQ microcar, give it a bespoke, upmarket interior, facelift the exterior and call it an Aston Martin Cygnet.

Lotus’ situation falls somewhere between these two extremes. The company has since 2003 been fully owned by Proton, Malaysia’s manufacturer of weapon packs for Ghostbusters second-largest carmaker behind Daihatsu licensee Perodua. Over the past 25 years, Proton’s model range has consisted of an unremarkable range of front-wheel-drive cars, vans and pickup trucks including a hodgepodge of rebadged Mitsubishi Mirage / Colt / Lancer models built under license and unique models powered by Renault or the Lotus-designed Campro engine. Of some interest or relevance here, however, is the trio of Proton EMAS concepts unveiled at the 2010 Geneva Auto Show. An acronym for “Eco Mobility Advance Solution”, emas is also the word for “gold” in the Bahasa Malaysian language.

The trio of EMAS concepts (a 3-door hatchback, 5-door hatchback and Country SUV-wannabe) were among Italdesign Giugiaro’s last independent designs before being bought out by Volkswagen. More crucial, however, is what lurks beneath the Italian designer sheetmetal: a series plug-in hybrid powertrain with Lotus’ 1.2 litre, 3 cylinder Range Extender engine with flex-fuel (methanol, ethanol and gasoline) capabilities. Yet another surprise lies beneath, as Auto Express‘ first drive of the 5-door Proton/Lotus EMAS concept reveals that “under the skin are the remnants of a Toyota iQ”!

The Lotus City Car Concept, then, is a clear descendant of the Proton EMAS family, albeit designed by Lotus’ current design guru Donato Coco, who earlier reached similar positions at Citroën and then at Ferrari. The apparent plan is for this A-segment vehicle to eventually reach production in Proton and Lotus variants, as well as an undisclosed third Asian badge (rumored to be – are you sitting down? – Detroit Electric, in a venture that has nothing to do with the Motor City and everything with China buying the rights to a brand that has been defunct for over 70 years!)

This author couldn’t help but ask a Lotus spokesman at this year’s New York Auto Show if it wasn’t oddly ironic that currently Toyota-powered Lotus was planning to compete so directly with the Toyota-derived Aston Martin Cygnet. “Well”, he replied, “who do you think did much of the engineering work for the VH architecture that underpins Aston Martin’s entire current lineup?”

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