Lotus Europa

The new Lotus is a perky performer, but a bit too 'Blue Peter' for Michael Booth

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Would suit Emma Peel
Price £33,895
Performance 143mph, 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds
Combined fuel economy 30.4mpg
Further information 0870 900 0565

I think we can all agree that Lotus is one of those indisputably good things, like yoga or puppies. Certainly that has been the view of the motoring press ever since Colin Chapman launched the Lotus 7 in 1957 and wowed the world with its lightweight chassis and sublime handling. Lotuses are always fun, relatively cheap, not too thirsty and as attention-grabbing as many cars twice the price - the David to Porsche's Goliath. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, everyone, both fictional heroes (Emma Peel, James Bond), and real-life racing gods (Ayrton Senna and James Hunt), drove them.

But Lotus seems to have lost its way in recent years. The Esprit was discontinued in 2004, leaving just the Elise and its derivatives to keep the production line busy. The days when every boy dreamed of a Lotus that could swim, and every older boy dreamed of a Lotus driven by Diana Rigg, were long past.

I shouldn't have been surprised then, to read the largely negative reviews of Lotus's new model, the Europa, but it still came as a shock to hear some of the company's staunchest fans lay into the new car. The Europa, they said, was not what Lotus had promised. It was an unhappy compromise, another reheated Elise - or, worse, a Vauxhall VX220 - rendered redundant, if not ridiculous, by its more accomplished competition. Lotus had pitched the car as "business class", but the company's idea of luxury appeared to amount to little more than a few hastily applied carpets.

But when mine arrived the first thing that grabbed me was the new styling. This has to be the best-looking Lotus since the original Esprit, with more harmonious, full-bodied lines than the Elise. Some faces look better with a little more padding, and the Lotus's is one of them. Unfortunately, these days my own extra padding isn't limited to my face, and so the Europa is as awkward to enter as the Elise (or has my arse grown since I tried the Exige a couple of months ago? Quite possibly). The sills have been lowered to make access easier and the car is wider, but the interior is far removed from any notions of luxury; it's still a baked-bean can with some plastic padding. Still very much an Elise. It looks and feels hand-crafted... but in a bad way. You don't find plastics like this in Korean cars these days; the ergonomics are appalling; and in your rear-view mirror you can see overpaint in the engine bay. It's all a bit Blue Peter.

Of course, it is still joyous to drive, with the same lightning steering and throttle responses, roll-free cornering and hungry acceleration as the track-sharp Elise. Actually, the two cars' performances might diverge on a race circuit, but on the road you only notice the good things about the Europa: you don't clench your bum when you see a pothole and there is an excellent six-speed gearbox. It is only when you stop to consider that you could have a Porsche Cayman for not much more, that you appreciate the daunting challenge it will face in the market place.

In one of the more unlikely alliances in the automotive industry, Lotus is owned by the Malaysian manufacturer, Proton. The company promises that the next Esprit, due to start production in December 2009, will still be made at the factory in Hethel, Norfolk. That ought to ensure its inherent Lotusness, but the Esprit will need to represent a quantum leap in quality, comfort and practicality if Lotus is to remain relevant in the 21st century.

It's a classic: Lotus Eclat Excel

The last time Lotus tried to make a grand tourer it came up with the awkward looking Eclat (later named the Excel, and eventually - when everyone pointed out that it was the same car - the Eclat Excel).

The Eclat was itself a development of the 1974 Elite, a wedge-shaped two-plus-two intended, like the new Europa, to offer drivers more luxury and refinement. These were, however, relative terms when it came to plastic, four-cylinder Lotuses built in the wilds of Norfolk.

Nevertheless, the acceleration and handling were exceptional thanks to lightweight, spirited, twin-cam engines and race-bred suspension. From the Elite's launch in 1974 to the end of Excel production in 1992, Lotus built over 5,000 of these front-engined GTs.

These days, sadly, the Elite/Eclat/Excel is not especially cherished and does not command high prices among collectors. You can pick one up for around £5,000, but you should also budget for a socket set and AA membership.

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