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The Making of a Lotus SUV: Boosting Quality and Slashing Weight

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 7/6/2015 Paul Horrell

Lotus, having been widely ridiculed in 2010 for promising to launch a range of high-dollar cars including a luxury four-door, looks like it might be at it again under its new boss. CEO Jean-Marc Gales has a plan to make, of all things, an SUV.

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The car will be made in China, under a JV agreement with little-known Goldstar Heavy Industrial. But Gales is quick to say it will be branded as Lotus. "It's being designed and engineered and prototyped at [ Lotus HQ] Hethel, [England]," he says.

How can an SUV possibly match Lotus' values? "If [Lotus founder] Colin Chapman was alive, I believe he would have done one,” Gales says. “It will be the size of a Porsche Macan but only 3,600 pounds and will be the most agile and fastest of that class on a track. Lamborghini is doing a SUV like that in their segment. We can do it in our segment. It's logical for us to make one in the Macan segment — the rest are all two tons, even a BMW X3. They take a normal car platform with big tires and brakes and transmission. We will use a four-cylinder engine, take 550 pounds out so we can have smaller brakes; we can use Evora seats."

Sure, the China SUV market is a huge target, but manufacturing there is choked in bureaucracy. The authorities only grant a manufacturing license after the prototype has been built and the business plan written. Those two things are happening now, Gales says.

"We are evaluating two full-scale design models at the moment,” he says. “They are very sporty, and they look very Lotus. They have a modern Lotus nose and a hint of the 1974 four-seat Elite on the side. They look lightweight."

Sales should begin in China at the end of 2019 or in 2020. If that goes well, it might go elsewhere. "We have protected the package and technology for Europe," Gales says. Changes for U.S. legislation, however, would take longer, if feasible at all.

But making an SUV to the required quality is a huge undertaking. A well-finished interior with tight-fitting doors and perfect panels and reliable electrics has always eluded Lotus. In a lightweight sports car you can forgive it (kind of), but in an SUV it's not just more difficult but also more crucial, and Lotus is addressing it.

"We have just hired a new chief engineer for body and closures,” Gales says. “We have a new electrical chief. The door seals on the current Exige drive me crazy. We are working with the suppliers to make them very differently. We will go onto a different level." On the Evora 400 prototype, the finish and ergonomics have been dramatically improved.

The Making of a Lotus SUV: Boosting Quality and Slashing Weight

Of course, Gales believes that making an SUV will bolster profit. Pretty well all sports car companies have fallen for that argument. But he reckons an SUV will do something else, too: improve the sports cars.

If Lotus can get the quality of the SUV to any sort of acceptable level, the sports cars should also gain. But Gales goes further. "We can use parts, such as climate control units, in the SUV, which will be better for the next generation of sports cars."

He’s not concerned that an air-conditioner for a five-seat SUV could be too big and heavy for a two-seat sports car, either. "We could use two small ones in the SUV,” he says. “We can use new instrument panel parts from the SUV in the sports cars. They won't make the sports cars one gram heavier."

Hmmm. Assertions like this are always cast in a poor light because we've heard so many broken promises from Lotus. But Gales is gaining traction. In his year at the helm, he’s improved Lotus' manufacturing, quality, and distribution, so the cars are selling much faster. Annual global sales rose 55 percent from March 2014 to March 2015.

Even so, the whole idea of making a Lotus away from its traditional sports car comfort zone seems like a watered-down version of the previous ultra-ambitious lineup. Is Gales' plan merely Bahar light?

"No. We will remain a sports car company,” Gales says. “We have done the 3-Eleven, the Evora 400. The [2017] Exige will be faster and have bigger wheels and brakes even though it has better air-conditioning and infotainment and lower sills for easier entry. The Elise will have a restyled front clamshell. These cars will keep getting faster and lighter. We launch the Evora 400 in the U.S. as a 2017 car. A year later will be an Evora 400 Roadster with twin carbon-fiber roof panels that stow in the front and weigh just 7 pounds each."

Lotus 3 Eleven Front Three Quarter At Goodwood 2© Provided by MotorTrend Lotus 3 Eleven Front Three Quarter At Goodwood 2 Jean Marc Gales© Provided by MotorTrend Jean Marc Gales
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