Lotus’s new path to recovery as a car manufacturer is to build an own-brand range of non-sports models including a saloon and an SUV, according to a Malaysian website which in the past has proved accurate at reporting secret proceedings in the boardrooms of Proton, the sports car maker’s parent.
According to our source, the saloon and SUV scheme is the brainchild of new Lotus CEO and European industry heavyweight, Jean-Marc Gales, appointed at the beginning of May to “drive Lotus’s transformation plan".
Gales’ specific mission is clearly to restore the viability of car manufacturing at Hethel — after a plan two years earlier to expand sports car manufacture by making six different models, espoused by his ex-Ferrari predecessor, Dany Bahar, failed spectacularly. Since then, Proton (with Lotus) has itself been sold to a new owner, Malaysian-based DRB-Hicom.
What are we to make of the Gales scheme, if the reports are true? First impression: it sounds a lot more believable than the previous plan for three key reasons.
One: Jean-Marc Gales is a genuine European industry heavyweight who led the PSA Group for three years between 2009 and 2012, and introduced the super-successful DS marque during his tenure. He knows how modern car manufacturing works better than any previous Lotus boss.
Two: even impressively profitable Porsche justifies (and finances) the building of its iconic sports cars by making more than twice as many SUVs and saloons. If Lotus could make a non-sporty range work, it could conceivably go right on making the enthusiast-oriented sports cars it has always made, while investing more to make them better.
Three: Lotus is expert in modern flexible platform technology, having produced impressive show concepts of its own in the past, and worked on secret projects for clients. It would also have an opportunity to improve economies of scale by sharing its under-skin technologies with Proton, which itself needs better cars, without compromising designs for either brand.
There are gigantic hurdles, of course. Failed Lotus revival plans are numerous so the company may face a tough task convincing suppliers and supporters that this one will work.
Staffing is another one; much of the impressive talent pool assembled by Bahar has melted away, absorbed by Bentley, JLR and others. Will such people trust Hethel with their futures again?
And what about manufacturing? Lotus hasn’t actually made a fully fledged non-sports car before — with proper door seals and ventilation, assembled to standards that can match the premium models with which it would want to compete.
This, to me, looks the biggest hurdle, though I have to admit I haven’t seen Lotus’s new manufacturing facilities that are supposed to make such things easier. They will need to.
Last and most important comes the potential buyer. Would you buy a Lotus saloon or SUV? What would you expect it to be like? With no track record in creating either SUVs or saloons with Lotus badges, Hethel’s designers would certainly have a free hand.
Perhaps too free a hand. I wouldn’t give you much for the company’s sales chances if the new 'straight' models looked the slightest bit like any Proton that shared its underpinnings — and that strikes me as a mistake the money-conscious Malaysians might make unless very well advised by Hethel insiders.
Still, that might be a chink of light we’re seeing at the end of the tunnel. For Lotus, achieving profitability from car manufacture presents a long and steep hill to climb, but if Jean-Marc Gales is on his game and some of the above assumptions are right, it no longer looks completely impossible.