1 April 2005

Production of the next-generation Lotus Esprit is set to move overseas, possibly to Malaysia, in a cost-cutting move aimed at improving profit at the British sports car maker. The new Esprit is pencilled in for launch in 2007/8, and revealed here in Lotus’ own design sketches (note the Esprit moniker on the rear pillar). It’s an all-alloy mid-engined design using Lotus’ VVA – versatile vehicle architecture – that allows front and mid-engined designs to be built using the same structural building blocks. And in a shock move, sources say that it could use the AMG-sourced V8 from the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.

Several sources report that Lotus is looking at overseas production and the plan appears to be an open secret among the workforce at Lotus’s Hethel HQ in Norfolk. ‘The Esprit would be the focus of the decision,’ said an insider familiar with the project, ‘but I think it boils down to a question of whether you harm your brand by moving production overseas.’

Today’s Elise is not being considered for overseas production, according to our source. ‘You would expect us to go with a new car first,’ he said. Although Lotus won’t confirm its plans, in a statement the company admitted to considering ‘additional production sites.

‘Lotus will continue to manufacture cars and components at its headquarters in Hethel, and has not ruled out opening additional manufacturing facilities elsewhere.’ Malaysia is understood to be the favoured option because that’s the home of Lotus’ parent company Proton. And costs are lower than in the UK.

But shifting production of the new £75,000 Esprit – set to be one of the jewels in the crown of Britain’s sports car industry – overseas would be a huge blow to the UK car industry as a whole.

News of the plan will also be a bitter blow to Lotus’s long-suffering workforce. At the end of this year production of the Vauxhall VX220 will cease and new projects such as the Esprit offered hope to the 400-strong workforce that Hethel would be kept busy.

In 2003, Lotus management predicted a rosy future with production of 10,000 cars a year, split between three different models — the Elise, Esprit and a front-engined 2+2 coupe positioned between the two. Lotus says that this strategy is still current. The key to this potential is VVA, which would enable several cars to be developed from the same architecture and so spread costs over a large production run.

In the new Esprit, the engine is likely to be a in-line mounted V8 with forced-induction. The target weight is a competitive 1300kg and racing is a major consideration in designing cooling and aerodynamics. It’s also said to have a sophisticated launch control and stability system.

Meanwhile, sources say that engineering prototypes of the new Esprit have been seen at Hethel in recent days. Observers say that car is being tested alongside a McLaren SLR and that the two share a very similar engine note, fuelling the speculation about the use of the AMG V8.

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