Why you’d want a Lotus Esprit (1987-2004)
By the time of the Peter Stevens redesign (coded X180), the Esprit was such a well-sorted, affordable machine that you had to conclude that people bought Ferraris only for the name and Porsches for dependability, so dramatically did the Turbo undercut them on price and beat them on performance.
Mid-range acceleration was blistering, handling awesome and only the soundtrack proved disappointing. The Stevens makeover was claimed to be much more aerodynamic than before, as well as being stiffer and more spacious, with better trim, instruments and controls – but it was 500lb heavier.
The gearbox was changed to the stronger Renault GTA transaxle, necessitating outboard rear brakes. The new Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection process for glassfibre body production improved quality and Kevlar reinforcement stiffened the shell. It was built as NA (1987-’89, 268), Turbo (1987-’92, 1207), Turbo SE (1989-’92, 1546, plus 62 SE high wing) and Sport 300 (1993, 64).
Julian Thompson tidied it up to produce the S4 of ’93, with new rear wing, bumpers and side scoop, plus a much-revamped interior incorporating Vauxhall parts from Lotus’ new owner.
It continued to 2001 in S4 (1993-’96, 622 built), S4S (1995-’96, 332), V8 (1996-’98, 435), GT3 (1996-’98, 196), V8-GT (204) and V8-SE (1998-2001, 306), plus Sport 350 (’99, 54) forms, before being facelifted again by Russell Carr (292 made).
The big rear wing on the V8-SE was optional on the V8-GT, and many specified it. It’s vital to know your Esprits. For example, the Sport 300 was a homologation special for the GT1 version that raced at Le Mans in 1993. With 302bhp, a stiffer chassis and massive rear track, it’s worth more than double the price of a standard model.
Developed at a cost of £5.5m at the same time as Lotus was developing the Elise, the V8 was a long time coming – because the four-pot was just so good. In the end, though, the Esprit needed an engine that sounded better, but the V8 still needs an aftermarket exhaust to sound its best. It had the image, and class, to stand tall alongside V6s, V8s, V10s and V12s from its rivals.
The Esprit’s balance and agility were legendary, which Lotus succeeded in carrying forward to the V8s, while endowing them with superb braking, too – but the extra weight made it more of a handful, and more liable to bite. The best-balanced was the 2-litre GT3. The V8 is also much more complex, and hence costlier to run.
Lotus Esprit (1987-2004): what to look for
Confirm that everything works, including aircon and ABS. Cars unused, especially over winter, suffer faults where damp has corroded contacts and terminals.
See above for trouble spots
Look for a detailed history and evidence, on paper and under the lid, that the engine has been cherished, including cambelt changes every three years or 36,000 miles on four-cylinders and two years/24,000 miles on V8s.
Oil leaks are common on ‘four’, while V8 issues range from heat damage to cylinder liner seal failure and blown pistons.
Turbos get very hot. If careful warming and cooling is not carried out, life is limited. Check for white smoke and reduced power. A recon V8 unit is £522.
Cooling is critical: rads are prone to rot and fans to seize. Inspect intercoolers and aircon heat exchangers. Even oil coolers can split. A water pump is £114.
Full hide was initially an option. A good upholsterer can repair light damage to leather more cost-effectively than other materials, but a full retrim is expensive.
Suspension bushes wear and dampers have a limited life. Irregular tyre wear indicates incorrect geometry. Also inspect power steering rack for leaks.
Renault 25/GTA ’box suffers if abused: first and second synchros fail first. Incorrect oils have wrecked some; poor selection often isn’t just maladjustment.
Lotus Esprit (1987-2004): on the road
Anything less than snap acceleration and top-class handling indicates that something is wrong. Study the bills and try to buy a car that has always been pampered, and properly stored if unused for long periods.
Don’t pay full price for an Esprit without full history and look for even panel gaps, especially around headlight pods. Odometers can fail: look for odd readings in the paperwork.
The four-cylinder engine was thoroughly developed by this stage and, if carefully maintained, is very reliable. Cars with a chargecooler have a separate electric pump for the intercooler circulation, which suffers with age; the impeller can be replaced, but a new pump is better.
The V8 was new, exclusive and magnificent – but highly strung. “Preserve that engine at all costs,” warns Geoff Davidson at Esprit Engineering. “Parts are getting scarce and they suffer from DiY mechanics stripping threads.”
Extreme exhaust heat, and vibration, have knock-on effects on various components that, if ignored, lead to a £10-15,000 engine rebuild – so check extremely carefully. If the wastegate operators (two on V8s) fail due to heat-induced corrosion, the engine can overboost with devastating consequences.
Turbos, intercooler pipes, oil feed pipes, catalytic converters and exhaust systems can all have short lives if not treated with respect: £4k to sort. The V8 clutch lasts 20,000 miles in normal use; a heavy clutch and difficult gear selection mean imminent replacement.
Budget £1000 each end to properly overhaul the suspension. Steering racks wear on early cars (as do column UJs) and can leak on PAS models.
Lotus Esprit (1987-2004) price guide
- Show: £22,000
- Average: £14,000
- Restoration: £6000
- Show: £25,000
- Average £17,000
- Restoration: £9000
- Show: £34,000
- Average: £23,000
- Restoration: £13,000
- Show: £38,000
- Average: £25,000
- Restoration: £13,000
- Show: £44,000
- Average £30,000
- Restoration: £20,000
Lotus Esprit (1987-2004) history
1987 Oct Stevens Esprit launched, NA (open back) & Turbo (glass back); early cars have black spoilers, Citroën gearbox; US cars Bosch injection
1989 May Turbo SE added, EFI, intercooled, wood dash, rear wing, 264bhp, 0-60mph 4.7 secs, 163mph
1990 NA production ends
1990 Oct ABS added
1992 High rear wing instead of glass back, enlarged cabin space, wider-opening doors
1993 Sport 300 semi-racer: 300bhp, LSD, AP Racing brakes; facelift into S4, power steering
1995 S4S gets upgraded turbo, 300bhp
1996 Stripped-out GT3 replaces S4S: 240bhp 2-litre turbo; V8 added, twin-turbo, 350bhp
1997 Oct Revised interior, new rear wing
1998 GT3 dropped; V8 offered as GT (low spec, great value) and SE (fully loaded, £10,000 more)
1999 Sport 350 (AP Racing brakes, OZ mags)
2002 V8 facelift, rear lights, wheels, S350 brakes
2004 Feb Production ends
The owner’s view
A Triumph Herald fan who traded up, via an Esprit Turbo, to the V8, Barry Kearley had to rebuild this car before he could drive it.
As he recalls, “It had stood for four years and wouldn’t start. I’ve fitted two new turbos, cambelts, idlers, engine management, fuel tank, radiator – an enormous amount. The ECU was particularly difficult; Lotus wanted £2000.
“In the end Hangar 111 reprogrammed an S1 Exige ECU: perfect, for under £300. There are lots of parts-bin items, from Isuzu, Vauxhall and Saab, and The Lotus Forums is hugely helpful.
“There are horror stories of engines going bang, but I enjoy the challenge of putting cars right and it now runs perfectly. I’ve never driven a car that’s as much fun. The first time, I got out shaking from the thrill and still do: I can forgive it anything for that!”
A highly capable car with rear-mounted turbo PRV 3-litre V6, the A610 undercut the Esprit, but felt slightly less involving because it was smoother and quieter. Beware chassis rot.
1991-’95 • 818 • 20-25mpg • 0-60mph: 5.5 secs • top speed: 162mph • price new: £37,980 (1992) • price now: £12-20,000
Costlier new than an Esprit, the exquisite all-aluminium NSX with its superb V6 kept pace with the Lotus. It is an engineering gem, provided you find one that’s been cared for, not neglected.
1991-’05 • 18,000 • 16-27mpg • 0-60mph: 6.8-4.5 secs • top speed: 155-175mph • price new: £55,500 (1992) • price now: £25-50,000
Lotus Esprit (1987-2004): the Classic & Sports Car verdict
Great value new and still cheap for supercar performance and handling, Turbo and V8 Esprits offer among the most rewarding driving experiences available under £50k – provided you buy a good one.
V8s are pricier, with greater potential to bite, but sound better and offer ultimate kudos. Full history and careful ownership make a huge difference, so buy the best.
- Bargain supercar
- Stunning appearance
- Great forum and specialists
- Blissful handling and blistering acceleration
- Lacks proper supercar soundtrack
- Many have been tracked and abused
- V8 can be extremely expensive to sort, so it’s worth having a professional inspection
Lotus Esprit (1987-2004) specifications
- Sold/number built 1987-2004/4-cyl 4297, V8 1291
- Construction steel backbone chassis, GRP body
- Engine all-alloy dohc 16-valve 2174/1973cc ‘four’, with twin Dell’Orto DHLA45 carbs or EFI plus Garrett T3 turbo or all-alloy dohc 32-valve 3506cc V8 with electronic injection plus two Garrett T25 turbos; 172bhp @ 6500rpm-349bhp @ 6500rpm; 160lb ft @ 5000rpm to 295lb ft @ 4250rpm
- Transmission Renault GTA five-speed manual transaxle, driving rear wheels
- Suspension front double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear upper/lower transverse links, longitudinal radius arm, a-r bar on V8; coils, telescopics f/r;
- Steering rack and pinion, 2.8 turns lock to lock (3.1 on V8), power assisted from 1993
- Brakes 10.5in discs front, 10.8in rear, with servo; 10.2in ventilated front on Turbo; V8 vented 11.7in front, 11.8in rear; Sport 350 12.6in f/r
- Length 14ft 2.5in-14ft 6in (4330-4417mm)
- Width 6ft 1in (1854mm) Height 3ft 9in (1150mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm); V8 7ft 11.3in (2420mm)
- Weight 2609-3040lb (1186-1380kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5-4.1 secs
- Top speed 138-175mph
- Mpg 16-30
- Price new £47,790 (1992)
BUY A CLASSIC LOTUS ESPRIT