The car maker's new boss, Dany Bahar, on his five-year plan to forge the "driver's car" and the company's plans for a regional presence.
Lotus chief Bahar looks to keep driving passion alive
So I'm interviewing Lotus chief executive Dany Bahar in his big, sparsely appointed office with its panoramic glazing and flood of natural light. It's about the same size as Ron Dennis's over at McLaren but not quite as obsessively, compulsively tidy. We're sat on a pair of facing black leather sofas: angular, achingly minimalist, probably Italian.
So far Bahar has been batting away my questions with casual good humour, giving a fair impression of a man who hasn't heard them a hundred times before in the nine months since this former Ferrari marketer took the top job at Lotus and stunned the motoring world with his five-year/five model plan to return the iconic British sports car maker to profitability and the global premier division. His responses are predictably upbeat. All "year one" financial, development programme and factory expansion targets met. A few adjustments, of course - Elan launch postponed after customer feedback suggested it was too close in power and positioning to the Esprit, though it's still pencilled in for spring 2013 - but, basically, despite the challenging economic landscape, everything's going to plan. Smiling, reclined, arms draped over the backrest of his sofa, Bahar's on autopilot.
Then I ask him this. In a group test between a Ferrari 458 Italia, a McLaren MP4-12C and the new Esprit, which wins? Bahar leaps to his feet, scoops up an armful of dog-eared magazines from a nearby shelf (Dennis would have a heart attack) and sprays them on the low-rise table between the sofas. They're decades-old copies of Autocar, Motor and Car, all with the previous Esprit going toe-to-toe with its supercar adversaries of the day, frequently to headlining effect. "This is where the Esprit should be," he says, galvanised by the prospect of glories yet to come, "and the comparison you just mentioned is exactly the idea."
I'm slightly startled. Dany Bahar the petrolhead has just entered the room and there can be no doubting his passion for the job. His prediction seems prescient in the retelling. A few weeks later, the first Ferrari v McLaren twin tests appear in the media and the McLaren's "lack of soul" is a recurring theme. "I'm not sure that the 458, with its huge technology, gives you the honesty we're looking for," says Bahar. "And the McLaren's maybe just too perfect: too dry, too cold. I think the Esprit will be the most authentic driver's car."
He adds: "It's because we have a strategy of not incorporating any technology that is actually not needed. It doesn't mean all our cars have to be the same weight as an Elise. If we can make a car that is lighter than our competition, it will be a super achievement.
"We will never be perfect and we don't want to be perfect. If you drive a sports car out of passion and emotion, you don't want it to be perfect. What I fear, and this is the road we will not follow, is that all these supercars are going in the direction where they rely too much on technology, and we don't want to do that.
"We'll put as much F1 tech as we can into a car, such as a KERS system, but only that which contributes to the driving pleasure, not the systems that help you drive."
Sounds tempting, especially given the recent announcement that Lotus will now build its own engines for the new range and not have to rely on Toyota/Lexus as a supplier. It seems a daunting task, and an unlikely one considering everything else Lotus has on its plate. I ask Bahar how it's been possible. "Again, the customer feedback told us the new cars won't be pure Lotus unless they have pure Lotus engines," he explains. "Yes, it's a big undertaking, but the luck we have is that postponing the Elan has freed up some capital expenditure for our engine programme. We haven't wasted any time; development started October last year and we'll have our first fire-up of the engine in the next two to three weeks. It's a V8 but it will form the basis for an engine family that also comprises a V6 and in-line four, so it will serve the needs of all our future products.
"Our V8 far exceeds the power and torque figures of the Toyota-sourced V8. It's 80 kilos lighter and 40 per cent smaller, too. I would compare this engine to the one in the Ferrari 458. I think it deserves the additional investment. And don't forget the V8 will be used in the Esprit, the Elite and the Eterne.
"We try to use as many components as possible across all the cars, from drivetrains to the suspension, brakes, electronics," he adds. "This is the only way we can get the investment to affordable levels. It continues with the strategy, the DNA of the company: to have a clever engineering approach, to have a clever manufacturing approach. I think if you try to understand what we're doing, it's 100 per cent Lotus."
I can't help wondering, though, if the Esprit will be 100 per cent ready by spring 2013. We've seen the full-scale mock-ups but exactly where, I ask, has the Esprit got to in its development? Surely the first prototypes should be up and running by now? And getting the quality right isn't going to take just a few months. Bahar remains unfazed: "We've built the first rolling chassis, with fully running prototypes coming in October or November. They'll be put through the rigours of an industry-standard test, with some of the powertrain and chassis development taking place here at Hethel on the new track facility but also at the Nürburgring and Idiada, in Spain.
"I think, to be realistic, we will never achieve the solidity of a Porsche. But what we can do is replicate the quality of rival manufacturers by using their suppliers. We have never been famous for our interiors - that's not our core competency - so we're outsourcing the complete interior to people who do this for Porsche, for Lamborghini, for Ferrari. If we cannot deliver the quality ourselves, we go to the people who can."
What readers of The National want to know, of course, is when Lotus will be coming to the UAE, and what with? Bahar's face lights up again. "My favourite holiday destination!" he exclaims. "I know this market well from my previous experience with Ferrari. The affinity with sports cars here is obviously huge. And I think, not to be present in the UAE, or even the Middle East in general, is something we can't afford to do.
"Our competitors are doing significant numbers, so it's an important market and we have very nice plans to enter it this year, details of which we'll announce at the Dubai auto show [in November]," he says. "We'll have a state-of-the-art showroom in Dubai and prepare the market with the current range before the introduction of the Esprit. All the new models will be sold in the UAE."