Currently reading: First drive: 2022 Lotus Emira prototype review
Truly crucial coupé: Hethel’s final combustion-engined car, its first creation under Geely ownership and the replacement for three models

Lotus’s last new petrol-engined car must also be its most successful. The Emira is charged with replacing the entire outgoing Lotus range – the Elise, Evora and Exige – but will need to reach greater heights than those cars ever did collectively.

Big money has been spent on fitting a new high-tech production line at Hethel – one that features autonomous sleds to move cars between work stations and which we’re told has been scaled to build up to 4500 cars per year. That’s a production figure Lotus hasn’t got close to since it was assembling the Vauxhall VX220/Opel Speedster alongside the still-fresh Elise S2 in the early noughties. With the need for revenue to help fund the forthcoming wave of pure-electric cars, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Yet you will be pleased to hear that our first experience behind the wheel of the Emira is reassuringly familiar. Lotus has been inviting journalists to Hethel to drive new models on the factory’s test track since it first moved to Norfolk in the 1960s. It would feel wrong to be piloting a new Lotus anywhere else for the first time.

The car you see here isn’t a fully finalised version, but nor, as director of attributes Gavan Kershaw is keen to point out, is it a finished car pretending to be pre-production so that excuses can be made for anything I don’t like. Rather, it’s what is known internally as a VP2-level prototype – one that has been borrowed from the pool of cars being used to test the driver assistance systems. Visually and mechanically, it’s close to what the first buyers will be receiving later this year. Barring some ungrained surface panels, the interior is nearly finished and chassis settings are close to signed off. But there are quirks: the Track driving mode isn’t active yet and I’m told to expect some warning lights.

This prototype is using the Emira’s carried-over powerplant option: the 400bhp supercharged Toyota V6 familiar from the Lotus Evora. This is combined with the standard six-speed manual gearbox and a mechanical limited-slip differential.

It also sits on the softer Touring suspension and road-friendly Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres, rather than the track-biased Cup 2 rubber that will be an option. In wet and very windy conditions at Hethel, the gentler settings seemed a good idea.

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Much about the Emira is familiar, but there are also some very obvious differences from the cars it replaces. When former Lotus boss Phil Popham promised a sports car that would be benchmarked to match the Porsche 718 Cayman on practicality and comfort as well as driving manners, many suspected we would eventually discover a ‘for a Lotus’ proviso, but the Emira seems well up to segment standards. It’s more usable, more practical and much better finished, the cabin accessed over narrower sills and with a comfortable, close-fitting driving position that continues to feature the obvious visual reference points of the tops of the front wings.

The quality of trim feels plusher than in any previous Lotus, with plenty of stitched surfaces and a thick-rimmed Alcantara steering wheel incorporating control panels.

The Volvo origins of the column stalks are obvious, but the crisply rendered bespoke graphics of the twin digital displays don’t show obvious parts-bin heritage. Physical switchgear includes a driving mode selector and proper heating and ventilation controls, rather than a fiddly touch interface. The helmet-wearing figure on the air-distribution button is a nice touch.

My 45-minute stint on track at Hethel confirms that the Emira feels like a much more grown-up car than the Evora, but also that there are plenty of dynamic similarities – which, given the handling prowess of the old car, is definitely a good thing.

The most obvious parallel is the barely altered powerplant. The prospect of Mercedes-AMG’s turbocharged four-cylinder unit is an intriguing one, but the supercharged Toyota V6 feels like an old friend.

The Emira is more hushed at low speeds than the Evora, the default Tour driving mode on start-up keeping the exhaust valve closed. Selecting Sport opens it and gives a bassier idle; and regardless of mode, the engine finds its voice at higher revs and bigger throttle openings.

Being able to see the supercharger’s bypass valve opening and closing on top of the engine in the rear-view mirror is pleasing, too.

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The V6 still isn’t a stratospheric revver, its redline set at 7000rpm. But the broadness of its mid-range muscle and its torque-free responses make it feel keen and effective pretty much across the board, also tolerant of being short-shifted.

We live in a crazy world where 400bhp pitted against 1430kg no longer produces a sharp-end power-to-weight ratio, but the Emira has more than enough urge to feel interesting on track, despite the huge grip generated by its chassis. As an aside, Kershaw says Lotus anticipates a fair amount of custom from owners of junior supercars frustrated by the inability to unleash them on the road.

Although the prototype’s gearshift felt more precise and better weighted than the Evora’s disappointing one, it sometimes felt tight when shifted across its planes, especially between third and fourth. It also lacked any active rev-matching on downshifts, as will the final car, requiring drivers to have some familiarity with the black art of the heel-and-toe shuffle for optimal smoothness.

Fortunately, the brake pedal is firm enough to serve as a steady fulcrum, staying so even after the thermal loadings of enthusiastic track use.

The Emira’s steering is beyond reproach, entirely justifying Lotus’s decision to stick with hydraulic assistance through what might seem like the anachronistic use of an engine-driven pump (the four-pot will use an electrohydraulic system). Reactions are accurate and linear, with crisp feedback at all loadings from a pit-lane trundle to accurate reporting of slip angles building under big cornering loads.

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The suspension is similarly well judged, first impressions vindicating Lotus for going without any active systems. Even on Hethel’s smooth surface, the Touring-spec prototype demonstrated a pliancy that bodes well for real roads. After a few laps, I was seeking out kerbs to give the springs and dampers more chances to prove their ability to digest them.

There’s noticeable roll under harder cornering, a familiar Lotus trait that helps you orientate yourself to rising loads, but the combination of a widened track and the tenacity of the bespoke Goodyear tyres produces very impressive grip. According to the prototype’s g-meter, it was able to generate peaks of more than 1g of lateral acceleration on the rainswept track. That was enough to leave me very curious to discover what the combination of Sport chassis, Cup 2 tyres and a dry surface will feel like.

But I’m not disappointed to be experiencing the least aggressive version of the Emira in slippery conditions, given the friendliness of its handling. Kershaw and his chassis development engineers are particularly proud of the Emira’s talents when pushed through its high boundaries, both in terms of how well flagged the limits are but alsoof how benign it stays beyond them.

The hairpins at either end of the track highlight this. At the north end, Rindt corner is slippery enough to have the Emira’s front axle running out of grip before the rear end, with the proximity of the Armco barriers at this end of the track encouraging prudence but giving the stability control the chance to prove its abilities to quell understeer on the greasy surface. At the further end of the track, the much more generous run-off around the equally tight right-hander called Andretti encourages a bolder approach.

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Earlier, harder power applications soon tip the handling balance and establish, first, that the Sport driving mode allows a modest amount of rear-end slip. Then, with the stability fully disengaged, that the Emira can be easily persuaded into lurid oversteer, the copious torque and generous steering lock making it easy to both engender and hold impressive yaw angles for something mid-engined. And all this without an active drift mode in sight.

Yet while hoonery is fun, it’s the Emira’s subtler dynamic qualities that shine brightest on track. It has the happy knack of feeling mid- engined for all the right reasons and seemingly none of the wrong ones. The mass and location of the V6 helps to turn the car and to allow small inputs for adjusting the cornering line, but without any sense of skittishness when pushed or when the transitions between some of the more tightly packed turns have braking and steering inputs overlapping to what would be a daring extent in most cars.

It feels friendly and benign, even in challenging conditions and with unfinished settings. It feels like a Lotus.

Still, there are still plenty of unanswered questions, the most significant being how the Emira will cope outside Hethel’s boundaries and how well the combination of a punchy AMG four-pot engine and dual-clutch automatic gearbox will meld with the car’s laid-back dynamic demeanour.

“When we first saw the car and realised that Russell [Carr] and the design team had knocked it out of the park, we said ‘we’re going to have to work hard to get close to that’,” says Kershaw.

On first impressions, he and his team have managed it. If you’re not drooling already, feel free to start.

Lotus Emira prototype specifications

Price £75,995 Engine V6, 3456cc, supercharged, petrol Power 400bhp at 6800rpm Torque 309lb ft at 3500rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Kerb weight 1430kg 0-62mph 4.3sec Top speed 186mph Economy 29.1mpg CO2 225g/km Tax band 37% Rivals Jaguar F-Type, Porsche 718 Cayman, Toyota GR Toyota Supra

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