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Best of 2023

Progress Report: 1999 Lotus Esprit GT3 vs 2023 Lotus Emira i4

The new AMG-powered Emira is far from the first (or maddest) 4cyl Lotus…

Published: 26 Dec 2023

Whoops, you’d made a typo there TG. Didn’t Porsche invent road-going GT3s?

Here’s the first of a few fun pub facts: Lotus did the OG GT3. In 1997, it stripped out creature comforts from the Esprit S4, fitted a 2.0-litre turbo engine instead of the usual 2.2, and yes, scrawled some ‘GT3’ graphics along the sills. The result was one of the rarest, most revered Lotus road cars to date – almost two years before Porsche hit on the same tactic for the 996 GT3.

Why haven’t I heard of it. Why didn’t they make many?

Only 196 units, to be precise. The GT3 was effectively a niche run-out model for the four-cylinder Esprit as the company wanted to focus on its new, more profitable V8 version. You had to be a geek to appreciate what you were gaining by losing air-conditioning, soundproofing, the radio and the rear wing, to save weight. Inside lay bucket seats as standard. Not in this one though. This, according to Lotus test drive god Gavan Kershaw, is a ‘pansy spec’ GT3. And he’s allowed to say that, because this late model, with the comfier seats and equipment boxes ticked, belongs to him.

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Driving the Lotus handling tsar’s own car around his test track? Good luck.

Indeed – bit like taking up the guitar then having to play a facemelting solo to Slash on your first lesson. But I’ve got bigger problems – the steering wheel. It’s large and stubbornly non-adjustable. And my legs don’t fit between it and the squishy seat. Which is an excellent excuse for not trying too hard when you’re driving Mr Handling Balance’s personal Sunday drive pride and joy.

So why didn’t Lotus create a Porsche-like GT3 dynasty?

They didn’t know what a winner they were onto. The gearshift is very slick and the engine belies its humble 2.0-litre capacity with an amusing heap of turbocharged shove. Claims of 240bhp and 0-60 in just over five seconds made this a real supercar humbler in the latter Nineties, with a deftness a Diablo couldn’t hope to match. But once Lotus used up its supply of 4cyl motors, it went after Ferrari’s 360 and co with a V8. Pity – Norfolk was ahead of its time. Rarity means the GT3 is one of the fastest appreciating Lotuses around.

And is the Emira i4 a worthy successor?

Let get one thing straight: the new Emira with power-by-AMG isn’t a lightweighted love letter to purity. At 1,446kg for this kitted-out First Edition, it’s around 200kg heftier than the Esprit.

Obviously you don’t feel that in a straight line, because it’s got an eight-speed auto and 360bhp to hide it. 253bhp per tonne in the modern car demolishes 192bhp per tonne in the orange one. But we do miss the almost telepathic sense of connection the Emira’s slightly lacking compared to Lotuses past. It’s an incredibly forgiving, rounded sports car, but somehow not memorable enough. Still, with a square steering wheel that’s awkward to hold, it does at least have something tangible in common with the forgotten GT3.

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