Lotus announces all-electric supercar

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on April 17, 2019.

The Lotus Evora GT4 Concept painted in colours of the British and Chinese flags.

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Yesterday in Shanghai, Lotus announced a concept for the first fully electric British hypercar — Type 130.

Unveiled in the morning of the first day of this year’s Shanghai International Auto Show, the Type 130 would be the first all-new car from the Hethel, England-based automaker in 11 years.

The news arrived after word that Lotus parent company Geely would begin manufacturing cars in China, working from a new US$1.3 billion (RM5.37 billion) factory in Wuhan. A spokesman from Lotus declined to say when the factory would open but said the new vehicle would not be built there but at company factories in England.

But having come through a sporadic sales history in North America and an ownership change in 2017 to the privately held Chinese automotive giant Geely, Lotus executives said the new electric vehicle marked a turning point for the 71-year-old brand. If all goes as planned, the million-dollar Type 130 will serve as the halo car for a new generation of Lotus motor cars.

“It’s a statement of intent: Electric is part of the strategy going forward,” said Phil Popham, chief executive officer (CEO) of Lotus. “For Lotus, it has to be all about the driving experience — and electric will drive the value of every car we make.”

Despite releasing scant details of the new car, and only a vague rendering at the Chinese show, Lotus said the Type 130 was in “advanced stages of development”. A physical representation of the car would be revealed along with full specifications later this year in London, Popham said. Production numbers are expected to be very low, though the CEO said he had already received letters of intent from several eager buyers.

The news of the Type 130 came with the additional announcement of the Lotus Evora GT4 Concept, a track-only racer with a lightweight carbon body, a 450-horsepower V6 engine, and a top speed of 170mph (273.6kph). Both cars are examples of a renewed push at Lotus — after a roughly £1.5 billion (RM8.1 billion) investment from Geely — to gain relevance in the key US and Chinese automotive markets.

“Awareness is high for us in the US, but familiarity is low,” Popham said. “We consider ourselves a 71-year-old start-up.”

Last year, Lotus sold just 1,630 vehicles globally; 228 of those were in the US. But there is indeed plenty of history to leverage. During the 1970s and 1980s, the brand was known for its racing success and association with the jet set — not the least of whom was James Bond himself. In 1978, Mario Andretti won America’s last Formula One World Championship as the driver for Lotus. Lotus cars such as the Esprit were beloved for their supercool style — élan strong enough to make owners overlook their famously quirky mechanics, tight interiors, and sometimes lacklustre build quality.

As relatively fresh blood at Lotus — he joined in October last year — Popham seems to realise the potential to capitalise on the considerable brand heritage. He talked auspiciously about the millions of dollars Geely, which also owns Volvo and Polestar, had invested in the group, allowing it to begin work on a 2.3-mile track and experience centre at company headquarters, a public restaurant, and a company museum. Lotus employs 1,100 people; between 300 and 500 additional hires will be added before the next five years at offices in China, the UK, and Detroit, he said.

In time, there would also be a Lotus sport utility vehicle and other sports cars built on new platforms, he said.

Popham also mentioned Lotus would consider opening a classics department where versions of fan favourites — Eclat, Esprit, and Europa, say — could be restored with dead stock or modern components. Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Land Rover have successful programmes doing the same.

When asked if Lotus would ever bring back the 1970s cool wedge-shaped Esprit in particular — this was the one that became a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me — Popham eagerly if non-committally nodded: “At some point, we’d love to have a car called Esprit again.” — Bloomberg