Lotus Europa SE
The Lotus Europa SE doesn't have power steering or state-of-the-art electronics, and it's the better for it
Sunday 11 January 2009
You might have read about the new Lotus Evora, a sophisticated Lotus designed to steal sales from Porsche. It was the star of the London motor show, and production of this mid-engined, V6-powered GT car is under way with sales starting in March.
That's the big Lotus news, along with the fact that the company still exists. A strong research and development division is one reason; Lotus does much of this for other motor industry clients, and has much expertise in the attributes we'll need in the near future such as lightweight structures and alternative power units. It also builds the Tesla electric sports car.
The Tesla is based on the bonded-aluminium structure of a Lotus Elise. So, too, is the other new Lotus, the latest version of a car most of us had forgotten about. The Europa, whose name reprises that of Lotus's first mid-engined sports car in the 1960s, was conceived as a luxurious, softer-edged, compact GT, not open like the Elise but with a fixed roof like the racy, almost-hardcore Exige.
Nice idea? Maybe, but the Europa has been scuppered by curious frontal styling and a feeling that, as no car of this family is ever going to be a paragon of refinement and civility, it's superfluous. So it has had a bit of a makeover. There's now a cheaper entry-level version and there's the subject of this test, the Europa SE, which, at £32,293, has a bit more power and the ability to go round corners more quickly.
One simple change has transformed the troubled face. The front foglights are set in housings which are no longer black but body-coloured. This means that instead of being drawn to a nose shape which looks as though it is formed out of pastry rather than glass fibre, your eye now homes in on the smiley air intake that has long been a Lotus trademark.
Now let's thread ourselves into the cabin. There's a high sill to get past, making decorous entry hard to achieve, and once you're in, a conflict of sights meets your eyes. As an SE, this Europa has the Luxury Touring Pack which includes swathes of self-consciously stitched leather over what, in the Elise and Exige, is normally a stark and pure dashboard.
And what's this? The key and the stalks on the steering column look familiar. They are from the old Vauxhall Cavalier, which reminds you of a key difference between the Europa and its siblings. It is powered not by a Toyota engine but a turbocharged Vauxhall one, as used in the faster version of the now-gone Vauxhall VX220 which was itself Elise-based and Lotus-built. The stalks come as part of the engine's electronics package. You sit very low, of course, but it's airy in here in the way an Exige is not. There's a good view aft, via a window through which, from the outside, you can see the engine. It always was a good engine, this 2.0-litre turbo, and with the SE's power boost to 225bhp it's even better. Its energy extends through the speed range, helping you to make the most of the Europa's fabulously subtle, and supple, suspension dynamics.
There's no power steering, nor any need for it in such a light car. So you feel every camber change, every tiny ice patch, and once you have recalibrated yourself to this level of detail every road becomes a sensory revelation. Hardly any cars do this nowadays, and to experience it is a joy.
However, to regard the Europa as a proper grand touring car in the usual sense is fanciful, given the noise from the tyres, the primitive air-conditioning which demands use of the noisy fan if any air at all is to enter the cabin, the lack of any internal adjustment for the door mirrors. Instead the Europa makes you think about things, and do things, yourself in the way sports cars used to do.
Drive a big distance in the Europa and you will learn more about the terrain you have covered than in nearly anything else with a solid roof and a heater, Exige excepted. Maybe that is what "grand touring" should be about. Forget the fat, thirsty Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis. In our grave new world, what you need is a Europa.
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