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Lotus Europa S

It’s small enough to make you feel vulnerable when surrounded by other heftier
vehicles but Anthony ffrench-Constant finds that the Europa S is serious fun to drive

The Mini Cooper S in which I travelled at 100 mph for the first time down the A1 back in 1965 aside, it’s the Lotus marque which became most strongly imprinted on my small-boy-smitten-by fast- car psyche at roughly the same time. Sadly, this was for wildly conflicting reasons which have left me, if not exactly scarred, then at least somewhat ambivalent about this legendary sports car manufacturer.

Both the headmaster of the Victorian gothic mansion masquerading as a school in which I was imprisoned, and his son, drove, um, Loti.The headmaster owned a gold Elan +2 in which successive school leavers suffered the ecstasy of embarrassment known as the ‘Facts of Life’ bit-of-a-chat. The poor man had the job of trying frantically to explain just how little either birds or bees have to do with the process of human procreation to a succession of saucer-eyed small boys who – short trousers brought to permanent half-mast by the weight of conkers, dead frogs and the occasional Sherbet Fountain – were actually only interested in encouraging him to drive ‘really, really fast, sir…’

This largely positive, if somewhat cringe-worthy memory was, however, neatly nullified by the headmaster’s son, whomwe all had pegged as a gently psychopathic bully and who had built his own bright red Elan. Back then, this wonderful piece of automotive design could be bought in kit form in exchange for a handful of coloured beads, and brought to life in remarkably short time with the aid of little more than a basic tool kit, a hoist to insert the engine and a large tube of Germoline. The resounding raspberry of that 1600 cc exhaust reverberating up the driveway came to fill an entire generation of schoolchildren with dread.

Thereafter, my Lotus experiences to date have been restricted to a weekend wrestling with the hilarious outbursts of the turbocharged doorstop that was the previous generation Elise and a brief flurry of highly enthusiastic activity in the current, mid-engined Elise; perhaps the closest thing Lotus have yet conjured by way of a true spiritual successor to the original Elan.

In those days, the Europa was a diminutive, striking, slab-sided, mid-engined car resembling the world’s smallest pick-up truck. Since then sports cars have come a long way. But Lotus hasn’t, because today’s Europa is a diminutive, striking, slab-sided, mid-engined car resembling...well, actually, the Vauxhall VX220 Turbo.

As out-and-out sportscars built around the central Lotus tenet of performance through light weight, both Elise and Vauxhall share Lotus’ beautifully crafted, ultra-lightweight, aluminium box-section chassis bonded, astonishingly, with nothing more than the high-tech equivalent of boiled-down Shergar.This Europa S, however, has rather more of Vauxhall’s now defunct VX220Turbo about it, and even uses a derivative of the same engine, rather than the Toyota sourced powerplants found in the rest of the Lotus range.

Though equally diminutive, this is a much better looking car than the Elise; I always preferred the slightly angular looks of the VX220 to the ‘please replace your divot’ series of interconnected holes that is the hallmark of the former. But what’s most interesting about today’s £32,995 Europa S is Lotus’ determination to tar it with the gently misleading and wholly inappropriate Gran Tourismo brush…

Proceedings begin with the gently indecorous process of climbing aboard through an improbably narrow aperture and over an impossible wide sill. The alleged concession to GT creature comforts here being that, though the Europa is only 3 mm higher than an Elise, the aperture has, in fact, been widened by some 90 mm – about three and half inches. Not that my somewhat hastily constructed frame has noticed. By the end of my time with the car I’d managed to hone the entry process sufficiently to climb aboard vaguely in the manner of a man who’d actually paid good money to own it, but I never really cracked extrication with any more decorum than a roughly manhandled sack of recalcitrant coal.

Once on board, the Europa cockpit is, like any Lotus, condom snug and distinctly spartan. Leather clad, fixed rake bucket seats offer reach adjustment only, and there’s no steering column adjustment whatsoever, so it’s something of a surprise to report that I could hunt down the ideal driving position with no trouble at all. That seat, however, has minimal padding, and it’s left to the suspension to remove the sting from the worst excesses of the road surface.

The rather primitive looking instrument binnacle has been lifted straight from the Elise, and there’s no centre console at all, just a raised central floor rib from which the transmission linkage runs astern, topped off with an aluminium sleeved hand brake. This Europa S benefits from £1250 worth of something called a Luxury Touring Pack, which effectively comprises a deliciously tactile, walnut and tulip wood sphere of a gear knob, posh carpeting, and such copious swathes of bright orange leather that I spent most of my occupancy feeling like a head-louse holidaying on Chris Evans.

Air-conditioning is also part of the GT package, but even that is pretty basic, with the choice of air distribution restricted to either windscreen or fascia vents, and a three-speed fan the lowest setting of which is still powerful enough to threaten an inadequately secured hairpiece. Courtesy of a bigger boot, once again given the full Chris Evans treatment, the Europa’s luggage capacity is better than that of an Elise, but not by much, and on-board storage is all but non existent. Despite feeling about size of a shirt button in the context of more conventional offerings, the Momo steering wheel is a delight to hold and, when manoeuvring at low speeds, instantly reveals the only draw-back to the legendary Lotus helm feel; there’s no power steering here, and this, allied to the turning circle of a supertanker, can make car parks something of a nightmare.

Oh, and, the stereo is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard unless you turn it up to window-flexing volume. At most speeds all you can hear is road and wind noise and the threshing of expensive camshaft millings allied to a whoosh of spooling turbocharger scant inches behind your head. So much noise, in fact, that cracking the widow open at 80 mph doesn’t seem to add to the din in the least. Mercifully we’re now spared the old Rover ‘K’ series lump that use to propel the first examples of the latest generation Elise and sounded like the threshing of decidedly inexpensive metal to which some daydreaming mechanic had somehow forgotten to add any lubrication whatsoever.

Shunning the Toyota sourced powerplants currently finding favour elsewhere in the Lotus model range, the Europa uses a derivative of Vauxhall’s 2.0 turbocharged engine, which, boasting the £1200 Aftermarket Performance Upgrade Kit fitted to the specimen I drove, equates to 222 bhp and some 221 lb.ft of torque. Lest this sounds less than impressive, it’s still sufficient to catapult a car weighing just 995 kg from 0-60 mph in 4.9 seconds, 0- 100mph in just 12.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 147 mph.

Reassuringly harnessed by remarkably powerful, uprated cross-drilled and ventilated disc brakes boasting sublime pedal feel and prodigious stopping power, the Europa S does, indeed, go like a stabbed rat. And the only slight disappointments as the road scrolls enthusiastically into the cockpit between two prominent wheel arches that allow for the perfect placement of the car are a less than wholesome din from the engine bay as the powerplant comes on song, and a decidedly flat spot in power delivery at around 3500 rpm – just when things should be getting interesting.

While I’d no more willingly drive it any distance up a motorway that I would a Go-cart, the Europa S perfectly re-creates what many consider to be nothing short of the default A and B road sports car experience we’ve come to expect from Lotus. The deliciously accurate, un-assisted steering is a muscular, relentless, writhing anaconda of road surface information and the crisp 6-speed gear change compliments it perfectly, even if the gear lever verges on over-familiarity with the left leg in 6th.

Despite being awarded slightly softer suspension than the Elise to give a fractionally more supple ride (though, it must be said, the Elise ride is already remarkably good for such a thoroughly sporting machine) the Europa needs to be pushed hard through corners by one far braver than I before a hint of understeer signals the advent of traction limits.Well within those limits, the Lotus’ cornering abilities never cease to amaze and, throughout, entertain hugely.

Like any properly quick car, then, the Europa S is tremendous fun to drive. It’s also a remarkably petite machine, and it takes several determined miles to shake off feelings of incredibly vulnerability on well-trafficked roads.Most other cars tower over the Lotus, eliciting worries that it might actually be sneaking alongside someone well below the view from their door mirrors.

Once cured of such phobias, we’re merely left with the problem of the Europa’s billing as a GT and, of course, the cost.The on-the road price of the model I drove is a substantial £36,395, which puts it well within the realms of such all-round competents as the most powerful versions of the Audi TT, BMWZ4 and Nissan’s ludicrously inexpensive 350Z. Indeed, try as I might to enjoy myself, my time with the Europe S was increasingly blighted by the nagging knowledge that for the same price, I could be driving the consummate mid-engined two-seater GT: Porsche’s fabulous Cayman.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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