From the October 1979 issue of Car and Driver.

Today's question is: What do Jimmy Stewart and Colin Chapman have in common? The answer, of course, is Hethel, an airfield scratched into the flowering mustard fields of northeast­ern England near Norwich. Stewart was the commanding officer there when Liberator bombers were flying off against the Nazis during World War II. Chapman is the com­manding officer there now, and on the runways where Liberators came and went, the Lotus Elite, Eclat, and Esprit now test.

The three cars that make up the Lotus fleet for 1980 are manufactured in a cluster of long, low buildings that look as if they might actually be the hangars Colonel Jimmy stored his planes in 36 years ago. They aren't, of course. Out past the runways/test track to the west, you can see one of the old hangars, its paint long since lost to the English win­ters, its huge front door gaping open, its windows punched out. There's a lot of history floating all around, and it's hard not to feel it when you're standing on the old runway in the fading summer light. In fact, with just a little effort you can almost hear the rumble of four 1200-horsepower Wright radial engines warming up at the far end of the run­way, almost see in the heat shimmer a Liberator straining against its brakes. The interlude with the past is short­-lived. The Liberator becomes a white Esprit, and the four radial engines are reduced to four screaming cylinders as Sherman races past, the fifth wheel straining against the suction cup that holds it lamprey-like to the Lotus's slim, Italianate flank.

1980 lotus esprit s2View Photos
Mike Knepper|Car and Driver

No, we don't usually go to the factory of origin to do road tests. This visit grew out of a routine call to Lotus of North America to arrange for an Esprit to test. Lotus, we found, was in the mid­dle of a giant reorganization in the U.S., and simply had no cars to hand off to road testers. But Steve Ramsden, presi­dent of Lotus North America (the new company name), said why don't you go to Hethel and test there. So we did.

It's important to understand that Lotus today is not the Lotus of memory. Memories of spidery, quick little throw­backs (the 7), of slick, agile roadsters (the Elan), of raw-boned, thinly dis­guised race cars (the Europa), may be an important part of the Lotus legend, but now nothing more. Today, Lotus is the purveyor of expensive, sophisticated, sleek, luxurious exoticars—machines for those with the money with which to indulge themselves, and also the desire to flout the Italian tradition.

1980 lotus esprit s2View Photos
Mike Knepper|Car and Driver

Certainly, the Esprit—the Lotus we chose to concentrate on—is at least a match in looks to anything currently available from the Italians. But this should come as no surprise since it was designed by the ubiquitous Giugiaro. The quality of materials and their fit and finish is easily up to world exoti­car standards. And, as our hours on the test track (runways) at Hethel and on the surrounding motorways, highways, and narrow lanes proved, the Esprit's steering, handling, brakes, and comfort give away nothing to the competition. And by doing nothing more than being there all this time, the four-cylinder en­gine is suddenly reaching parity with its bigger-displacement brothers.

When it was introduced in the Elite in 1974, the little 2.0-liter—despite its four valves per cylinder and its efficient performance—didn't seem quite right in a $16,000 exoticar. But time and the investors have worked in its favor. The combination of economy and performance now makes more sense than thirsty V-6s and V-8s. The engine—originally designed for the ill-fated Jensen-Healey sports car but always intended for a Lo­tus something or other—is the highest-­output 2.0-liter available in a passenger car. With two Zenith CD1 75SE carbs fit­ted for U.S. emissions specs, the engine produces 140 horsepower at 5800 rpm (160 hp at 6200 rpm in Europe with twin Dellorto carbs). It isn't a neck­snapper, but it will move a 2500-pound Esprit with, well, elan. And get 16 mpg in the EPA city cycle in the process. There may still be those elitists out there who simply don't want a four-cylinder anything in their exotics, but they're a dying breed. In any case, Lotus has the horsepower doctor at work even now, and some interesting things are in the offing.

1980 lotus esprit s2View Photos
Mike Knepper|Car and Driver

Although an automatic transmission is available on the front-engine, four­-passenger Elite and on the 2+2 Eclat (they're the same car with slightly different physiognomies, which result in dif­ferent seating arrangements), it's a five­-speed only for the two-seat, mid-engine Esprit. The gates on the Lotus-built transmission are closely spaced, and once you learn the correct pressures and angles to apply, the stick slides from one to the other quite nicely. Except for reverse. On our test car reverse would frequently disappear into the me­chanical fifth dimension and refuse to reappear until it was good and ready. Much fuming, cursing, working the stick with both hands, clutching and de­clutching, and all the other tricks wouldn't help. When it was ready it was findable, but not until. Clutch effort, by the way, is very high. Spending much time in stop-and-go traffic could be a painful experience.

The non-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is a delight: quick, precise, and with the right amount of road feel trans­mitted to your hands. Even major course corrections seem to require little more than thinking them to make them happen. The Esprit responds.

1980 lotus esprit s2View Photos
Mike Knepper|Car and Driver

It also handles. It's a well-known fact that locating the engine between the axles does good things for weight distri­bution and esoterica such as the polar moment of inertia. So the Esprit starts out with that mid-engine advantage. The front suspension is simple but effective: unequal-length control arms, coil springs, shocks, and an anti-sway bar. At the rear, there is a trailing arm, a coil-shock combination, and a lateral link for each side. The result is a basi­cally neutral-handling car that will go into mild understeer when pushed. But add a little more wheel to get the weight shifting, and the tail will move out to put you into induced oversteer that's easily controlled with the throttle.

Inside, the Esprit is an ergonomic delight. Once you wedge your body through the narrow door opening, ne­gotiate the slim space between the seat and the non-adjustable steering wheel, and settle your backside into the race­car-like bucket seats (no backrest adjust­ment!), you'll find everything where it can be easily seen and reached: The in­struments are housed in a wraparound binnacle that sits on top of the dash. There's a closeness, a comfortable intimacy you feel when you're snuggled into the wraparound buckets with all the controls at your fingertips. Some of that intimate feeling also comes from the lack of visibility at the rear quarters. But that seems a small price to pay for what is easily one of Giugiaro's best design packages.

The Esprit must also get the nod as the best Lotus Mr. Chapman and Com­pany have cranked out. The Elite has al­ways been a rather strange-looking cre­ation, although its occasional seating for four is something of a redeeming virtue. The Eclat is simply a less useful Elite, although it does look a little better. The Esprit, on the other hand, is a purpose­-designed car that gets the job done. It is mechanically advanced, its performance is entertaining if not awesome, and it is flat beautiful to look at.

Lotus will hint at things coming in the near term: things like turbocharging, V-8s, and even a four-door luxury car. And that's all well and good. But for now, the Esprit will do just fine.

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1980 Lotus Esprit S2
Vehicle Type: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door coupe

Base/As Tested: $30,955/$31,965
Options: leather trim, $620; metallic paint, $390.

DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head
Displacement: 120 in3, 1973 cm3
Power: 140 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 130 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm 

5-speed manual

Suspension, F/R: control arms/trailing arms
Brakes, F/R: 9.8-in disc/10.8-in disc
Tires: Dunlop SP Sport Super Radial Formula 60
F: 205/60VR-14
R: 205/70VR-14

Wheelbase: 96.0 in
Length: 167.7 in
Width: 73.2 in
Height: 43.7 in
Curb Weight: 2444 lb

60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.7 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 26.8 sec
Braking, 70–0 mph: 194 ft 

City: 16 mpg