An innocuous-looking metal chassis stands under a well-lit ceiling in a corner of Lotus's Hethel car plant, while a team of engineers study wall-charts. There's nothing too unusual about the chassis itself, but this one is singled out for attention - or rather protection - by Lotus. "That's the Tesla," says Colin Moy, Lotus's manufacturing supervisor and my tour guide for the day. "It uses an Elise chassis and battery technology from mobile phones."
Lotus is coy about its involvement with the Tesla Roadster, an electric-powered sports car sold in America and set for its UK launch in 2008. The test mule I spotted at Hethel suggests that development of the new car is well under way. Last year's US-only production run of 100 "Signature One Hundred Series" cars sold out in three weeks. With a $90,000 (£46,000) tag, the new Tesla won't be cheap, but it represents the kind of progressive development projects Lotus is involved in.
So, no drive in the Tesla, sadly, but I'm offered a go in an Elise S, Lotus's new entry-level product. The sweeping back roads round the Lotus plant in Norfolk are perfect for a car such as the Elise. Even in this, the baby of Lotus production cars, the thrill factor is high as the 1.8-litre 134bhp VVTi engine allows the amazing chassis to be exploited.
It's as dramatic as you'd want for everyday use, and the cabin is surprisingly roomy, although the lack of power steering and other routine comforts such as electric windows mean that it's probably not for everyone. Look to the new Europa for greater refinement.
Next, I'm offered a few laps of the Lotus test track with Gavin Kershaw, principal engineer of vehicle dynamics. As one of the team that developed the Elise chassis, and a driver for the private Lotus Sport Cadena motor-racing team, Kershaw is the perfect pilot to show me exactly what the Elise can do. "Exhilarating" is the only word. Well, not quite; I could say "terrifying". "And this is the slowest one," says Kershaw drily as I cling to my seat.
It's this peerless chassis technology that's going into the Tesla Roadster, lending kudos not normally attributed to electric cars. "The car is using Lotus chassis technology, as in the Elise and Exige, and we are helping with aspects of the engineering," says Alastair Florance, group PR manager. "We're also going to be manufacturing their sports car here."
In fact, Lotus is developing several more "green" modes of personal transport. Work on a new multifuel engine, codenamed the "omnivore", is under way.
Jamie Turner, chief engineer of powertrain research, talks about the company's research into fuel alternatives. "In the near future, ethanol is the answer, but we still need to come up with a fuel that's practical and can be easily stored."
Electric cars such as the Tesla seem to be coming to the forefront of the various solutions mooted to replace the evil internal combustion engine, but are they the answer? "All it would take is for someone to make a breakthrough in battery technology to fire a torpedo through the hydrogen and methanol economy," Turner says. "But, one way or the other, alcohols are going to be a very important solution."
Lotus's immediate thoughts are reserved for its "three-platform" product strategy, which will see it release two entirely new cars before 2010: a supercar in the spirit of the Esprit in 2009; and a "middle car" to sit between that and the current Elise-platform cars, "for people who want to move up in maturity from the Elise, Exige or Europa."
So, if Lotus's plans prove fruitful, within a few years it will not only have delivered some of the most exciting new cars on the planet, it will also have played a significant role in addressing some current engineering incongruities. Now that VW Group has taken a stake in Lotus's parent, Proton of Malaysia, a wider application of Hethel's talents seems likely.
Oh, and Lotus also helped me to solve a mystery that has been baffling Top Gear viewers for years. But you're not remotely interested in that, are you?Reuse content