Lotus Europa SE - get back in touch with the road
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 auto show and production of this mid-engined V6 GT 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 light structures and alternative power units.
It also builds the Tesla electric sports car that's based on the bonded-aluminium structure of a Lotus Elise.
So 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 1960's and was conceived as a luxurious, softer-edged, compact GT, not open like the Elise but with a fixed roof like the racy, almost-hard-core, 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's 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 can go round corners more quickly.
One simple change has transformed the troubled face. The front foglights are set in housings no longer black but body-coloured. This means that, instead of being drawn to a nose shape that looks like it is made 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 door sill to get past, making decorous entry difficult, and a conflict of sights greets you once you're in. As an SE, this Europa has the Luxury Touring Pack that 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. Yes, they're from the old Vauxhall Cavalier, which reminds you of a key difference between the Europa and its siblings. It's 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. 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, through a window which, from the outside, you can see the engine. It was always a good engine, this two-litre turbo, and with the SE's power boost to 170kW, 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.
There's no power steering, or any need for it in such a light car, so you feel every camber change, every tiny rough patch, and once you've recalibrated yourself to this level of detail every road becomes a sensory revelation. Hardly any cars do this nowadays; 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 external mirrors.
Instead, the Europa makes you think about things, and do things yourself, in the way sports cars used to do.
Drive far in a Europa and you'll learn more about the terrain you have covered than in nearly anything else with a solid roof and a heater, Exige excepted.
Maybe that's what "grand touring" should be about.
Forget the fat and thirsty Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis. In our grave new world, what you need is a Europa. - The Independent, London