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First Drive

Lotus Emira i4 review: British sports car with an AMG hot hatch heart

£81,495 when new
810
Published: 07 Aug 2023
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So this is the cheaper Lotus Emira for people who can’t stretch to the V6?

It’s the entry-level car in terms of cylinders (four, not six), and power (360bhp, down from 400).

But the new Lotus Emira i4 is not a cheap and cheerful door to Lotus ownership. Right now Lotus will only sell you a kitted out ‘First Edition’ model, and it’s priced from a chunky £81,495. That’s £4,500 less versus the adjusted pricing for the V6 ‘First Edition’. 

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I thought the i4 was going to cost about sixty grand? 

Indeed: that’s what Lotus estimated a couple of years ago. But since then rising inflation, material costs and production backlogs at Hethel have juiced up the expense. It’s gone from dicing with the basic, brilliant Alpine A110 to asking well-seasoned Porsche Cayman GTS 4.0 money. You could buy a BMW M2 manual – or the car that the Emira owes its engine to – and save £10,000.

Ouch. That’s the Mercedes-AMG A45 right?

Indeed – the Emira i4 uses the same turbocharged 2.0-litre ‘M139’ four-cylinder lunatic of an engine that powers AMG’s hottest hatch. Except, whereas it makes 415bhp in the A-Class, here it’s reined in to a sensible 360bhp. Partly that’s due to a revised intake and exhaust, and partly because Lotus doesn’t want it tripping over the V6 model.

Is 360bhp enough?

Yes. It’s a lovely amount of power for the road. The figures are healthy: 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds and 171mph flat out. Keen geeks will have noticed that means it’s only a tenth of a second slower off the mark than an Emira V6. In real life, it feels fast enough to be exciting, but far from scary. But not so punchy that you never feel like you’re scratching the surface of its capabilities.

Does it sound like a cheaper engine?

As four-cylinder turbo engines go – usually a pretty nondescript configuration – this is a real entertainer. It whooshes and whistles and chunters and chirrups. It sighs and whirrs. The turbo is a real character; a personality in the cabin with you. Drop the windows while you’re manoeuvring and it sounds like there’s a helicopter in hot pursuit somewhere over the dreary engine cover. This isn’t trying to hide the fact it’s turbocharged. It celebrates forced induction. All hail the boooooooossst!

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Then there’s the bassy growl of the engine itself below the turbo’s histrionics. It morphs from an Alpine-like grrrrr to a furious bwaaahhhh as the revs climb beyond 7,000rpm, summoning memories of chuffing quick Mitsubishi Evos. There’s a sense it’s a barely contained ball of angry energy, fizzing away under the disappointingly dreary engine cover. 

So, while there’s plenty of lag, you won’t mind because you get to enjoy hearing the turbo doing its work, and anticipate when the whack in the back will arrive. 

Do you miss changing gear yourself?

Controversial one. The Emira i4 is only available with AMG’s eight-speed DCT gearbox and paddles hung a little too low on the oblong steering wheel. The manual is reserved for the V6. It’s intergalactically better than the autos Lotus stuffed into Evoras, occasionally holding onto a gear too long if you’ve been cruising then request a sudden surge, but otherwise excellent. In eighth gear at a steady 65 or so it’ll sail along doing more than 40 miles per gallon. 

And what about when I’m not being boring?

The manual shifts aren’t quite as enjoyable as they could be. The paddles don’t have much of a discernible click to them (though they are metal and feel expensive: take note Audi and BMW) and downshifts happen just a fraction later than ideal. On the way up, it’s magic: a full-bore launch is seamless.

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The transmission is also slow to jump between Drive and Reverse, which makes parking a bit of a faff. And we’re not massive fans of the gearlever design, which takes two tugs to accept Drive or Reverse, and oddly asks you to nudge it left and right to shift gears on the stick. 

Is the Emira i4 a lightweight Lotus?

The signs are good. The engine is smaller than the V6. It sits in a new aluminium subframe, replacing the steel item in V6-powered cars. So yes, the Emira i4 is lighter overall. By, erm, 12kg. But the weight distribution is more balanced, because the smaller powerplant has been shoved further forward in the engine bay, and from the look of the hump beneath the back window it looks as though it lies lower than the V6’s prominent supercharger.

How has that affected the handling?

If you’re a Lotus chassis engineer with a backside gyroscope calibrated to sense earthquakes on foreign continents and you've jumped straight out of an Emira V6, it'll be night-and-day. You’ll notice how the suspension’s been retuned and the Sport and Track driving modes get new coding to take advantage of the smaller, frothier engine. If you’re not, you’ll still have fun.

This is a hugely confidence-inspiring car. It’s rich in that gorgeous sense of balance you get from the best-mid-engined chassis (Cayman and Alpine, anyone?) The car pivots from around your hips, generates massive grip, and you can just sense through your backside when the outside rear tyre has had enough and is about to give up. I was happier driving the Emira i4 fast cross-country than I was the (prototype) V6 I drove last year.

Is this the Emira to buy?

Well, the price is an obstacle. TopGear.com has reached out to Lotus for a steer on how much a ‘non First Edition’ version will cost, but high sixties would be our guess. It’s just as well this has the best interior of any Lotus ever, and interior connectivity to embarrass a Volkswagen. It ought to: it’s commanding grown-up money.

Then again, perhaps the rivals don’t matter. No, really.

The Porsche 718 Cayman is in the very late stages of life right now, and has a much more dated cabin than the modern, pleasingly trimmed Lotus (sentences you never thought you’d write, eh?) The best Alpine A110 is the standard car. We wouldn’t bother with the A110S, which the i4 directly competes with. The BMW M2 isn’t an out-and-out sports car. So the Lotus can carve out a successful little niche for itself. 

Frankly, you’re better off doing less hand wringing and just trying one. They’re not going to be around forever. Lotus has confirmed it’s already working on an all-electric sports car due in 2028. Soon enough you won’t even have the agony of choosing what size engine to have in your impossibly pretty, extremely head-turning mid-engined Lotus sports car.

Anything else I need to know?

Some housekeeping round-up bits for you: everything you put in the boot gets quite warm if you drive spiritedly, even on heavily cambered or rutted roads the Emira never scuffs its nose (so don’t worry about there being no chin-lift button), and we’d still prefer the Tour suspension versus the stiffer, more tramline-hungry Sport chassis with the ultra-sticky Cup 2 tyres. There you go, we just saved you some money after all.

Photography: Johnny Fleetwood

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