Can the Chinese save Lotus by building a SUV?

The simple joy of driving down familiar Irish roads is the one thing I still miss living in Vancouver. People tell me to rent a car and go for a drive here but like the candy and tea, it is just not the same. I want to travel down the familiar roads I have committed to muscle memory decades ago. Those roads allowed me to learn the personality and enjoy my Mini and later Polo. Neither car was particularly sporty or fast but those journeys on those roads in those cars made me feel fully alive. That is why I love cars and driving. To me, nothing else compares. 

For that reason, some car companies resonate with me more than others. Funnily enough, Lotus has never been one of them. Lotus are a small British car maker that has clung to life over the last few decades, soldiering on with aging sports cars. The company was founded by Colin Chapman in 1952. Chapman believed in lightweight cars and the original Lotus Elan became a landmark car in the 1960s. In the 1970s, James Bond in The Spy that Loved Me drove a Lotus Esprit that could turn into a submarine! By the early 1990s their cars were appearing in video games such as Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge on the Amiga 500. The Elise was the car that saved them in the 1990s and is still in production today. It is a "true" sports car; a rear-wheeled drive, mid-engine chassis with a fibreglass body propelled by a Toyota engine. 

Lotus shares many characteristics with contemporary companies like Aston Martin and TVR. It is small, produces niche models, and lacked investment. However, Lotus has survived this long because it has always had a particular skill. Its people can tune a cars suspension like masters and have acted as consultants, through its engineering division. You can "feel" Lotus's skill in such cars as the Toyota MR2, Nissan GT-R and even the famous time travelling DeLorean DMC-12. In most cases, these cars breathe with the road, roll to a degree and can rotate on their chassis with control and communication. This is a dying art as we live in a automotive world dominated by turbo charged road monsters that substitute driving feel and precision for power and grip. We have the current BMW M4 that can pummel any road into submission and the Porsche GT3 RS that can lap race circuits at unbelievable speeds with a lot of computer control and electronics. The driver is there to merely steer the wheel and will probably be redundant in a few more years. 

That is why I was excited to see a lone leaked patient image for a Lotus SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) that appeared during the Geneva motor show. I think Lotus has the potential and ability to be a huge contributor in the coming decades. I believe they can teach many automotive makers a thing or two about natural handling characteristics, particularly as we move to electric cars.

Lotus was bought by the Chinese company Geely last year and that was the best thing that could happen to them. Firstly, Geely has pleasantly surprised me. When they bought Volvo from Ford in 2010, I assumed they would strip the company and Volvo would die a slow death similar to SAAB. Rather, they invested in Volvo and left them to their own devices. This cash investment and independence has seen Volvo re-emerge as a legitimate car maker. Their whole range has been refreshed, with new saloons and more than a few SUVs in their portfolio. Geely, for its money gets to use Volvos platforms for its own cars sold in China. They also have global plans for their other car companies PROTON and Lynn & Co.

Lotus finally has the financial backing it needs to develop new cars and the idea of a SUV makes perfect sense when you think about it. Using a small donor platform like the Volvo XC40 would be an ideal for Lotus. Small enough to still be sporty and fully developed by Volvo. Lotus could easily take these components, tune them and release a sister car that doesn't steal sales from Volvo as it will be a sportier car.

This new SUV will put Lotus back on the map, generate revenue for the company and allow them to develop new sports cars like the Elise and Evora. These cars are track day motors and again, will always only appeal to a niche market. Louts doesn't have to chase sales, but its expertise and brand image will help sell Geely's other brands.

Now that is a lot of marketing speak and it makes sense on paper too. But the most important reason for Lotus to build a SUV is I would buy it. I appreciate the BMW X1 and X3 but they are chasing sales, like Audi and Mercedes and are softer more comfortable cars as a result. The Porsche Macan, is in a bigger class and much more expensive so that car is out. I've noticed a white Mazda CX-3 parked outside my house and the more I see it, the more I like it. The size is perfect for the city. It has good looks and handles well for a hatchback on stilts. And it has back seats and a boot (trunk) making it a realistic purchase. Something the Elise and Evora are not. 

The idea of cruising down an empty, winding country road in my Lotus SUV get me excited. As a driver, I want to feel like I am driving something special and I know this Lotus will be that car. I can only hope the hurry up and build it. 

 

Image of Lotus SUV owned by Autocar (www.autocar.co.uk)