TG sits down with Lotus boss to discuss a bright future for the sports car brand
Here we go again. New owners at Lotus. Bright future promised. Talk of expansion, transformation, general sense of reaching for the sunlit uplands.
It’s happened too many times before. Talk of expansion, followed by a reality of retrenchment. Most notoriously when Lotus’s Malaysian owners promised huge investments and brought in high-profile managers, designers and engineers from successful European sports car companies. Aka the Dany Bahar era. Little concrete came of it.
But this time let’s look on the bright side. The new owner is Geely, a vast Chinese company of which you might not have heard. But you will know some of the things they’ve done.
Like buying Volvo for £1.5bn, and letting Volvo get on with the job. Volvo has developed its own very Volvo-ish range of cars. At the same time it has done the XC40 by co-developing a platform with Geely’s best Chinese brand, Lynk & Co. It fuses Volvo’s expertise with new Chinese thinking in connectivity. And we’ve just seen the birth of Polestar as a sports EV maker.
Four years ago Geely bought the old London Taxis International. Now it’s on the point of revolutionising the London cab landscape with its electrified all-new TX taxi, built at a £300m all-new factory in the Midlands.
In other words, Geely doesn’t mess around with its acquisitions. It lets them flourish in their own way.
So a couple of weeks after Geely formally took a majority stake in Lotus, Top Gear is back in Lotus CEO Jean-Mac Gales’s office at the factory in Hethel. We’ve also come to drive the new Evora GT430. Gales airily claims it’s the ‘best car Lotus has ever made’. Sounds immodest. An hour later I drive it down the road and decide he might just be right.
Anyway Gales can afford a bit of verbal swagger. The new board has confirmed his tenure as CEO, and he points out that this makes him the longest-serving boss since Colin Chapman. In his time there the company has moved from terrifying loss to small profit.
His measures weren’t dramatic, just meticulous. The cars have become faster and lighter and he’s streamlined how they’re made. Importantly, quality is up, and warranty claims are now just a third as expensive as they were in 2014. Gales added new dealers in places where sports-car buyers live. Sales steadily rose.
“We did all we could and we did well to get profitable,” he said. “But we’re tiny. Now we will grow very very fast. Geely has bought the brand to develop it.” he says. “I’m the same CEO but I now have many more levers to pull. It was a ten-piece jigsaw, now it’s 2000 pieces. We have a new parts bin, new technologies, marketing synergies too.
“It will be a new chapter, composed of exciting gorgeous sports cars. Plus other body styles that fit our brand values. Look, the sports car market hasn’t been growing for ages. So we’ll do an SUV.”
Woah. We know every sports-car company wants to do an SUV. It’s just the law these days. But what of the sports cars? Last time I was in this room, less than a half-year ago, Gales said Lotus didn’t need fresh investment or ownership to do an all-new Elise. It was going to do it from internal funds, he had said, for launch in 2020.
He was quite detailed about it. “The new Elise will be faithful to the current one, but taking it to the 21st century. You will recognise it from 100m away as an Elise. It won’t go above a tonne. But it will be slightly bigger because it will comply with US regulations. The handling will be a benchmark. The structure will still be aluminium.”
So I ask him now if that plan still holds. “We’re now reviewing the whole model plan. A new plan will be ready early next spring.” At which point, a nervous cough from the PR. We all know ‘review’ is usually corporate-speak for ‘slash’.
“The Elise isn’t cancelled. Certainly not. But now we will be able to do something different, improved. It might not be called Elise. Everything is up for discussion. Not one new sports car, a few. Whatever we planned to do will become better.
“The team here needs to think bigger, on a new global perspective. Geely says ‘What can we do? Where can we go?’ Imagine what we can do with Volvo’s 48V mild hybrid, for torque and lightness. Imagine an electric turbo and three-cylinder engine. It lightens the car, so we might change the whole chassis.”
From which it sounds likely the current Elise will live longer than 2020 while the new one is re-thought from the ground up. Lotus traditionalists will rejoice at that.
Gales is very much the sports-car nut, steeped in Lotus history, obsessed with every engineering change to lighten and improve the cars, talking in encyclopaedic detail about Hethel lap times.
But, like every sports-car boss with dollar signs in his eyes, his talk soon swings back to an SUV.
“The SUV must take account of our brand, and take account of the technology in the group. And crucially take account of what customers want. They don’t want an SUV with fixed carbon seats or huge downforce.
“Still, what an Evora is to a 911 our SUV needs to be to a Cayenne.”
Lotus designers have worked on crossovers before, including a now moribund project to do one with another Chinese outfit, Goldstar. But this one is all-new and work hasn’t begun in earnest.
He mentions the Aston Martin DBX. I google a photo of the Giugiaro Parcour concept. We kick around the idea of something smaller and lighter than that.
“This is an opportunity to create a new visual identity for Lotus. Not what we had in the past, or the one Donato Coco did [for the five unborn Bahar-era cars]. It will be for the global SUV segment but owned by Lotus.”
Ah yes, another tangential mention of Lotus’s previous abandoned expansion plan. Surely Gales can see why Top Gear readers might say history has taught them to be skeptical when Lotus talks big talk?
“This isn’t about just cash and a few high-profile engineers coming to Hethel. It’s about global high-tech synergies. We now have an automotive giant on our side.” It will be a two-way street too: Gales insists Lotus has much to contribute to the group in light weight, aerodynamics and handing.
But we won’t see much for a while. He says there won’t be a rash of concept cars. He wants Lotus to reveal the new stuff one by one, when it’s good and ready.