Lotus Europa SE
As we recently reported (see W*116), Lotus is branching out from its traditional role as purveyor of pure driving experience into the sports tourer market.
Best known for sports cars that gave you a rather intimate connection with the road thanks to their ultra-direct steering, low-slung driving position and utterly predictable handling, the forthcoming 2+2 Evora (due mid 2009) will hopefully place the company on equal footing with Porsche for the first time in decades.
But if you really can't wait for one of the most eagerly anticipated cars of the year, we have a highly recommended alternative, the new Europa SE.
See more images of the new Lotus SE Europa
The original Europa dialled down the more extreme qualities of Lotus's other products - bare floors, thin seats, manual windows and rudimentary heating - to create a two-seater with flair and refinement. The Europa was for those who wanted touring, not torque, and the ability to travel a couple of hundred miles at a time. Underpinning the Europa was the chassis and drivetrain from every enthusiast's favourite, the Elise, ensuring that when the road turned twisty, the car was still more than capable of placing the driver first.
The new SE model features a number of enhancements over the standard model, including more power and more comfort. Rest assured, though, that it is still defiantly different from its rivals. Sitting low within the heart of the car, with a compact 2.0 litre engine positioned just behind the seats, the Europa SE focuses you on the road. That low ride height means that even modest speeds feel brisk, and the impeccably crisp and direct steering binds you to the road surface, just a few inches below the seat.
Like all Lotus's, the Europa SE can handle corners at far faster speeds than all but the most confident drivers can attain, whereas the ultra-light weight brings great performance without high emissions or wallet-gouging fuel economy. It takes a bit of time to readjust to such surroundings, and while leather trim, air conditioning and electric windows are deemed heretical to Lotus diehards, they're hardly excessive fripperies, merely another layer of well-engineered functionality. The stripped down, hand-tooled Lotus is a perhaps better representation of the modernist aesthetic than any number of bulky German autobahn cruisers.
Although most experts expect the upcoming Evora to further eclipse this little runabout in terms of refinement and everyday ease of use, the Europa is a fine demonstration of the essential rightness of the company's engineering platform. Right now, the future looks bright for Lotus. Currently heavily involved in assembling the acclaimed electric Telsa Roadster - a car that shares plenty of parts with Lotus's finest - there's growing speculation that this most agile of manufacturers will soon enter the burgeoning EV market under its own name. With a wealth of technical experience to call upon - expertise that's much in demand amongst far larger manufacturers - the prospect of a bold, British all-electric runabout is something to savour.