Featured: The Evolution Of The Fastest Lotus Sports Cars

The Evolution Of The Fastest Lotus Sports Cars

By Nauman Farooq
August 24, 2015

The typical method of making a car faster is to fit the largest and most powerful engine as you can find, but in his late ’20s, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman started to realize other ideas for going more quickly.

In school, Chapman studied structural engineering from the University College London, and eventually found employment with British Aluminium, a place where he started to see the benefits of lightweight materials.

The amateur racer and enthusiast soon learned a simple maxim: making a car lighter will make it faster everywhere, while adding power will only make it faster in a straight line. This approach became the foundation on what his company, Lotus Cars, was built upon. Lotus designs performed well—particularly on the track, where they were usually lighter than rivals—despite often using smaller, less powerful engines.

Here, the key word is often…but not always. Sometimes, engineers were allowed to push the Lotus formula as far as it would go. Here are our favorite fast Lotus road cars. 

Starting with Seven

While Lotus Cars first saw that light of day in 1948, it was the brand’s seventh product in 1957 that really put it on the map—and it was named, simply, “Seven”.

On its introduction, the Seven was the culmination of all that Chapman had learned about building sports cars. While it was powered by a weedy 1.2L, 4-cylinder engine that produced just 40 hp, the Seven performed well because it weighed just 1,100 lbs.

With time, however, the Seven has been offered with many different, more powerful motors until it was considered outdated by Lotus. Caterham Cars bought the rights to produce it in 1973, and since then, it has worked tirelessly to transform its 7 into a monster, with the top model now boasting 620 hp/tonne and appropriately named the Seven 620 R. With 310 horsepower, same as a modern EcoBoost 4-cylinder Ford Mustang, the 620 R will do 155 mph and zero-to-60 mph in less than three seconds. 

Making a quantum leap

Lotus developed many other models after the Seven, and most of them followed the same principle of keeping things light. Models such as the original Elan, Europa, and Esprit all offered great performance with just four cylinder motors.

Apart from the Seven, the Esprit is the most iconic classic Lotus model. First introduced in 1976, the Esprit was powered by a 2.0L, four-cylinder motor that produced 160 hp. While performance was decent, there was room for improvement, and that lead Lotus to turbocharge its engine, resulting in the hottest British sports car of 1980, the Esprit Essex Turbo. Under its engine cover, there was 210 hp on tap, helping the car top out at 150 mph. From then on, the Esprit Turbo was added to the line, quicking becoming the Lotus model to have.

The ultimate four-cylinder Esprit was introduced in 1993, the Sport 300. Powered by a turbocharged 2.2L motor that made 302 hp and 287 lb-ft of torque (on 98 octane fuel), this 2,740 lbs sports car could sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds, and on to a top speed of 168 mph. There was more to come, however… 

Four more cylinders

The Sport 300 wasn’t the fastest Esprit, because in 1996, Lotus gave its beloved sports car twice as many cylinders and twice as many turbos. The Esprit V8 had a twin-turbocharged 3.5L unit with 350 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, which helped drop the 0 to 60 mph time to 4.4 seconds, while raising the top speed to 175 mph.

To firmly establish the Esprit as a supercar rather than just a sports car, Lotus soon offered a new top model of the V8 called the Sport 350. This model didn’t offer any extra horses under its rear hatch, but keeping Chapman’s ethos in mind, at 2,866 lbs the Sport 350 was 176 lbs lighter than a standard Esprit V8. It also received a chassis upgrade, stiffer suspension, improved AP Racing brakes, and a new aero pack. Lotus had planned to build just 50 examples of the Sport 350, but four track-only versions were later built for the Japanese market, bringing the tally up to 54. 

Going back to basics

In the new millennium, Lotus started phasing out the Esprit, which had morphed into a more luxurious GT car and started concentrating on the Elise, a sports car model the company first introduced in 1996. While this model was first offered with a Rover K-series 1.8L, four-cylinder unit, good for just 118 hp, with time, the power output improved dramatically.

If you’re looking for the ultimate K-series Elise—and one of our favorite track cars—you’ll want the 340R, which started as a concept car before being adapted for the road. It featured a VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) version of that 1.8L motor, with 177 hp, plenty to move just 1,545 lbs of car. While fast, the 340R wasn’t built for outright speed, its purpose in life was to be one of the best handling cars on the road or the track. 

Faster with four

In the year 2000, Lotus also unveiled the Exige, a more hardcore version of the Elise. It also featured the same 1.8L K-series VHPD motor from the 340R, but offered unparalleled luxury over its flyweight and semi-transparent sister: the Exige came with doors, windows, and a roof.

In 2004, Lotus started offering the Elise and Exige models with a 1.8L engine taken from a Toyota Celica GT-S. This unit was good for 190 hp out of the box, but Lotus had even bigger plans for this motor. By supercharging the 2ZZE-GE motor in 2006, the company was able to bring power up to 220 hp. Over the years, this engine has been tweaked even more, first to 240 and now to 260 horsepower. 

But the quickest Lotus road car ever is…

Feeling this four-cylinder unit was at its limit of performance and reliability, to go faster, the Exige would need a bigger engine. So, in 2012, a Toyota Camry-sourced V6 engine was introduced in the Exige S V6. However, Lotus felt the need to supercharged the 2GR-FZE unit, so it now headlines at 345 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.

Bringing us neatly to present, this is the motor and chassis that underpins the upcoming Lotus 3-Eleven, surely the most mental road car the company has released for sale. With more improvements, the supercharged Camry motor is now pumping out 450 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. According to Lotus, the 3-Eleven can sprint from zero-to-60 mph in just 3.0 seconds, and top out at 174 mph—better still, the track-only “race” version, which tips the scales at just 1,984 lbs, can top out at 180 mph. Only 311 examples of the 3-Eleven will be made, with production starting in February 2016. If you have about $130,000 burning a hole in your pocket, and are looking for the ultimate “Fast Lotus,” don’t get all mixed up: the 3-Eleven might just be the car for you.

Image sources: lotus7register.co.uk, auta5p.eu, lotusespritturbo.com, seriouswheels.com, wheelsage.org, seriouswheels.com/jkl/Lotus, exoticcarsite.com, cars-data.comlotuscars.com


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Samuel Cordeiro
Samuel Cordeiro
8 years ago

The 2004 192 HP engine was the 2ZZ-GE, not the 2ZZE-GE 🙂

Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick
8 years ago

Great to see an Esprit article! The Esprit, for many of us born in the 70’s, was a car that we posted on our walls. I am lucky enough to own an Esprit S4. The attention this car gets over more costly exotics is amusing when it is taken to shows and rallies. Quirky…yes…reliable…absolutely. In 13 years of ownership it has been nothing more than maintenance and improvements. The car likes to be driven. With few modifications, the Esprit will outperform cars with much bigger engines. I always wondered why the car magazines of the era favored the Italian cars over Esprits when in real life the Esprit is faster…they must’ve been paid off. I hope to see an Esprit featured on here soon!

Spencer Canon
Spencer Canon
8 years ago

One of each please! I love the Chapman philosophy, the rawness and the race car roots. I own an 89 Esprit, and I respect the hell out of that car. GS’s skepticism about its supercar status is probably warranted, since it doesn’t embody the excess that seems part of “supercar” definition. But it’s cut and dry purposefulness is what I love about it. It’s light, despite being imposingly wide and long, and it managed to be quicker than most of its rivals despite only 4 cylinders. The Esprit well-built (stop chuckling, it is!) and examples that have been properly maintained are quite reliable (seriously!). Most importantly, it’s incredibly fun, challenging and visceral. And having driven many other not-quite-supercars of the period, like the 348, NSX, Viper, ‘Vette and 911, the Esprit is no better or worse, but certainly offers a unique experience. Now if I could just get some carnal knowledge of that Exige S!

8 years ago

Esprit!! You know, James Bond lit up our childish imaginations, but it was really Julia Roberts that made a lotta guys desire Esprit. Can’t remember which rental company it was, that added a couple of Esprits to their Hollywood franchise fleet after Pretty Woman, it’s true. And all the hookers in that area started wearing blonde wigs…I don’t think this one is true.
I had a friend whose dad bought her an Esprit 2.2 Turbo for her 21st birthday (and hated her and her dad and her entire family for that), and when she let me drive it, I was kind of done in 15 minutes. It was exhausting. It was never on my ‘if I had money’ list ever since, till I saw the Top Gear’s Patagonia special. Things they did to that car, and how it survived, was enough to make me want one.

Ian Miles
Ian Miles
8 years ago

The Slinger is in full effect. Because they said Fastest Lotus not influential Lotus. Thus the Elan is not there, simples. The Lotus finally bacame a Supercar, yes it really did. Flat plane cranked twin turbo V8, much like the modern McLaren engines. Better interior and quality as proven by May driving one around South America.
As for your assertion about Lotus currently. Clearly you have not read the latest sales and revenue figures, the reviews of the Evors 400 and the new CEO’s sensible but robust plans for the future, part of which were the Evors 400 and Exige Super Cup.
The future might not be as rock star as Bahr’s vision it is however very certain. You are recycling old arguments from the 90’s. Driven an Evora 400?
I do not think someone like Bahr would be dumped on another company without making a serious decision to do so. So your fact is really just conjecture, unless of course you have quotes from Ferrair and Bahr. His plan had many sensible and ambitious ideas. (5 car line up, new Esprit, more exotic). It lacked finance and if he had stayed on as Chairman with Gales as CEO then it could have worked. Especially given Bahr’s new job…..
Oh and Lotus F1 has nothing to do with Lotus as does the Lotus motorcycle. Bit like Rolls Royce and Rolls Royce Aero engines. Completely seperate.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
8 years ago

The question here being ; How could you of possibly left off the most influential car Lotus ever built ? Of course I’m talking about the Lotus Elan .

As for the Esprit in any guise being a genuine ‘ supercar ‘ . Hmmmn .. not really . Truth be known the Esprit was always an interesting exotic , a legitimate alternative choice etc but once Lotus tried punching above its weight [ both literally and figuratively ] with the Esprit in its doomed attempts to gain ‘ supercar ‘ status they were continually a day late .. a second [ or two ] too slow …. and more than a few dollars/pounds short

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
8 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

PS; In light of Lotus’s rapidly approaching critical mass financial crisis both with the road cars – engineering and especially their doomed F1 efforts of late its becoming rather doubtful that even one 3-Eleven will ever see the light of a production day .. never mind 311 of them . Fact is Lotus is well on its way to being relegated to the bins and annals of history .. due in no small to the fact that their quality is abysmal .. especially in light of their excessive prices … the competition is too stiff as well as swift .. and of course the recent past what with the pretentious antics of a certain Mr Dany Bahar when he was at the helm .. not to mention the millions wasted on their ill fated F1 efforts of late . Ahhh .. Dany … Ferrari’s less than subtle revenge on Lotus showing who’s really the boss instead of who was pretending to be *

* A little known fact . Lotus was convinced they’d poached Dany Bahar from what was then FIAT SpA/Ferrari when in reality it was Ferrari ‘ dumping ‘ Mr Bahar on Lotus’s doorstep knowing full well what the end result would be

Pietro  Lo Fria
Pietro Lo Fria
8 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Sir Jimmy Page, can you please expand upon the Dany Bahar and the “boss” story in more detail? I find this to be utterly fascinating. Now as a semi functional adult, to understand the influence of Chapman and the legacy he left behind is important and not discussed much anymore. I recall Colin Chapman was being investigated for some impropriety (?) before his passing.

I believe also the point you’re making is Chapman’s pursuit of innovation (mid-engine and the sideskirts) and Signore Ferrari’s refusal to adapt. These are the stories that make me rub my hands with excitement.

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