Lotus Cars Boss Confirms There's Life in the Esteemed Brand Yet

Mike Duff
Photo credit: Lotus

From Car and Driver

  • Lotus is bringing out a new sports car on a new platform by the end of the year, according to new boss Phil Popham.
  • The company intends to bring out a new range of cars from entry-level to supercar, he told C/D.
  • U.S. federal standards will be on the top of Lotus's list to ensure growth in our market.

It has been nearly nine years since Lotus's then boss, Dany Bahar, stood next to six concept cars at the 2010 Paris auto show and promised to build all of them. The unveiling, and Lotus's recruitment of a roster of celebrities with little obvious connection to the brand is now remembered as a high point for corporate hubris. None of the new cars ever made production, and Bahar was ousted from his position less than two years later.

Beyond updates of its existing models, Lotus hasn't launched anything since; the brand's most recently introduced model remains the Evora, which we first drove almost exactly a decade ago.

But now Lotus has both a new owner-Chinese giant Geely, which also has Volvo in its stable-and a new boss, with former Jaguar Land Rover executive Phil Popham having recently replaced Bahar's successor, Jean-Marc Gales. Car and Driver was invited to the company's Hethel, England, headquarters earlier this week to find out what he is planning for what remains one of the world's most famous sports-car brands.

High Awareness, Low Familiarity

Popham spent most of his career with Jaguar and Land Rover, ending as global operations director for the two brands, but left four years ago to take control of Sunseeker, a luxury-boat builder in England. He says the decision to take the Lotus role was only made after several meetings with Geely's senior management, including chairman Li Shufu, and being persuaded how seriously the Chinese company takes its new subsidiary.

Popham admitted that Lotus has "high awareness but low familiarity," a situation especially true in the United States, where many remember the company fondly but few have seen any of its recent products. The good news is that the U.S. is seen as a crucial part of expanding sales in the future.

"We've got to make sure as part of the engineering plan that all the cars we produce in the future, all volume cars, will be federally approved," he said. "The U.S. is a huge market for anyone making sports cars; we can't miss it." While the Evora 400 (pictured above) is still on sale here, both Exige and Elise have long since lost street-legal status in the United States.

In the short term, Popham says that the existing bonded-aluminum architecture will continue to be used but that development has already started on a much more modern architecture to replace it.

“We are investing in an all-new platform for sports cars. That's what we will have to do for the future," he confirmed. "Obviously that will take time; we've been in the industry for long enough to know that doesn't happen overnight. But we're starting now."

More Emphasis on Usability

In the shorter term, we can expect to see Lotus switching from Toyota powertrains to those supplied from elsewhere in the Geely group. Popham doesn't demur when we suggest that Volvo's turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-three might work particularly well in a lightweight sports car. Electrification will play a role, but Popham says the brand will continue to offer internal-combustion models for the foreseeable future.

There is also going to be an increased emphasis on usability. "I want cars that are fun, but that people can live with on a daily basis," Popham said. "I want to get the people who test-drive a Lotus and a Porsche and say the Lotus is a better experience but the Porsche is the safe choice." Lotus products will become easier to get in and out of, better trimmed and better equipped.

Later this year, we can expect to see an attention-grabbing halo model. Popham won't talk specifics. However, he did indicate that the all-new sports-car platform will underpin several models. The range will start with those with entry-level pricing similar to today's Lotus products-the base Elise is considerably cheaper than the Porsche Boxster in the U.K.-and go all the way up to supercar-level performance. "I wouldn't like to define what our ceiling is," he said.

What about a Lotus SUV?

Before the Geely takeover, Lotus had started work on what was meant to be a crossover, which was to be produced in conjunction with little-known Chinese maker Goldstar Heavy Industrial. The project got as far as advanced design studies and the signing of a joint-venture agreement, but the Geely takeover ended that deal. After that, the expectation wa that a Lotus SUV would be switched to an existing group platform, most likely the Compact Modular Architecture that underpins the Volvo XC40. But Popham gives a definite no on that one, saying that the brand will need to have significant input into the architecture of any future Lotus SUV.

"We’ve got to make sure that whatever platform we use can definitely deliver the DNA of Lotus: performance, dynamics, and light weight," he said. "What we won't do is take an existing platform and just try to make a Lotus out of it. That wouldn't work."

Hethel has already started to expand its resources. Lotus had just 150 engineering staff at the time of the Geely takeover. That has risen to 250 and is on course to reach nearly 500 by the end of this year, and 600 by the close of 2020. The brand will also get to call on Geely's wider engineering and design resources, including that of a new studio being opened in the English Midlands, but Popham insisted that all projects will continue to be led from Hethel; Lotus's engineering expertise will also be used by other parts of the group.

Money is being spent elsewhere, too. Work has already begun on a new customer experience center on the site, and the office of company founder Colin Chapman is getting a much-needed restoration.

There aren't any official volume predictions. Popham appears determined not to make the mistake of his predecessors, who have left hostages to fortunes. "What you'll never get out of me is a sales forecast, because the best you can ever be is correct," he said. "We will have record years-my ambition is to take Lotus volume beyond previous peaks-but we will do it in stages."

Lotus bosses have tended to be good at grandiose plans; what the brand really needs is somebody who can deliver on them. Time will tell if Popham is that man.

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