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Why Lotus wants you to take it seriously again

By Ash Westerman, 26 Sep 2019 Features

Lotus Evija

With cashed-up Geely at the helm, there are reasons to hope the tide has turned for the troubled marque

1. The Dany Bahar fiasco is now well and truly in the company’s rear-view mirror

And senior Lotus staff would quite like to consider that turbulent chapter closed for good. No-one will estimate how much damage it did to the brand’s credibility, but suffice to say it was a period of almost comical optimism.

At the 2010 Paris motor show, Lotus unveiled five new cars in a bid to move away from its low-margin model and move upmarket to rival Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche. The world called a collective bullshit.

Evija interior

The controversial chief executive was dismissed from the Norfolk-based company in June 2012 and filed a £6.7 million (A$12.3 million) lawsuit against Lotus owners DRB-Hicom, claiming the sacking also left him out of pocket after DRB-Hicom bought Lotus parent Proton from the Malaysian government in 2012. Then, in 2014, Bahar settled a claim for unfair dismissal with the sports car company’s Malaysian owners a month before his lawsuit was due to be heard in a London court.

Lotus is currently run by Phil Popham, who took over after former CEO (and Bahar successor) Jean-Marc Gales left in 2018. Popham was previously global operations director for Jaguar and Land Rover, but left four years ago to take control of luxury boat builder Sunseeker.

2. The company is no longer on the bones of its financial backside

No-one is saying how much Chinese parent company Geely, who bought Lotus in 2017 (adding it to a portfolio which includes Volvo, Lynk & Co, and Proton) is investing into the business, but the figure of US$1.5 billion (A$2.2 billion) has been estimated in media reports. Our well-placed source reckons the product plan is well advanced, and the funding required for it over the next 10 years is allocated.

Read also: Lotus set to receive A$2.6bn cash injection

“I’ve been here for 16 years, and never seen anything like the changes currently being undertaken, says Louis Kerr, Lotus’s head ‘vehicle architect’. “The upgrades and expansion of the facilities, the investment in technology and people, is all huge. It’s an incredibly exciting time at the company.”

 3. Recruitment and infrastructure investment have been in overdrive

Lotus has been hiring like it’s draft week in the AFL. CEO Phil Popham says his decision to take the Lotus role was only made after several meetings with Geely's senior management, including chairman Li Shufu, after being persuaded how seriously the Chinese company takes its new subsidiary. Director of sales and aftersales Geoff Dowding brings a wealth of experience from his time at Bentley.

Seated, from left: Lotus designer Barney Hatt, sales director Geoff Downing,
vehicle architect Louis Kerr, head of VIP sales Ian Gorsuch

Also with a Bentley background is Uday Senapati, who was recruited in August 2018 as executive director of corporate strategy. Head of VIP sales is Ian Gorsuch, who has worked at McLaren and Aston. The vehicles dynamics team has also been strengthened with a raft of new arrivals, including Wayne Doyle who was most recently at Apple.

Elise 250 Cup

Further to all this has been the establishing of a new advanced engineering department, not at Hethel company headquarters but in the English midlands. The strategy is to be better located near the cream of the UK’s automotive technology firms, and to create greater opportunities to hire the 200 or so new recruits who may seek a more centrally located workplace.

 4. Its EV hypercar, the Evija, is doing its job

That is, initially at least, to get the Lotus brand back on the automotive map, to showcase the technical capability of the company, and make a statement of intent in terms of future powertrain strategy.

The EV hypercar is claimed by Lotus to be the most powerful (1471kW and 1700Nm), have outrageous performance (0-100km/h in under 3sec, top speed of 320km/h ) and have the most energy-dense battery and the most powerful motors. It’s also light for this category - 1680kg, with 640kg of that being the battery, located behind the driver and comprising modules stacked in a flat-topped pyramid configuration.

Read next: Lotus Evija is the world’s lightest EV hypercar

The collaboration with Williams Advanced Engineering is no doubt costing a bundle, but at £1.7 million (A$3 million, plus taxes and charges) for each of the 130 cars it will build, Lotus is confident it will turn a profit. Provided, of course, it can sell that full complement.

5. Evija is no smoke-and-mirrors concept

Okay, the one-off display car currently doing the rounds of the globe is not fitted with the production-spec powertrain, but it’s otherwise identical to what customers will receive. The carbon tub, composite upper structure and body panels - all supplied by CPC, Italy’s most advanced composites company - is exactly to production spec, as is the stunning, minimalist interior. The section of the factory at Hethel that will handle assembly is being prepared for a build program commencing in May/June 2020, with the first customer cars delivered late next year. 

6. The Geely ambition runs deep, as do its pockets

Geely boss An Conghui said he was keen to emphasise how important his new subsidiary is. “We are making plans. We want to bring back the heritage of Lotus to be one of the top performers in the luxury sports car segment,” he said. “Lotus used to be ranked alongside Ferrari and Porsche, so we need to come back in that rank again.”

7. There’s an SUV on the way

The only real question is, which segment will Lotus target? Some media is speculating that Lotus wants a slice of where the Cayenne and X6 sit. Our intel suggests it will be sized more towards Jaguar F-Pace / Alfa Stelvio, and aiming to undercut the performance variants of those models for weight, and have their measure for dynamics and driver satisfaction.

The Lotus SUV was confirmed in the last interview previous CEO Jean-Marc Gales gave just before he quit in 2018. Lotus's new boss, Phil Popham, also nodded to Hethel building a new SUV.” The brand has the potential to go beyond sports cars – and that includes an SUV,” he told automotive media in June 2019, “but we have to make sure it’s true to the brand. We are not going to stick a Lotus badge on someone else’s product. We have access to a lot of technology, resources and platforms as part of Geely. An SUV could be on a group-derived platform but engineered for Lotus.”

Exige 410 Sport

”It would still be lowest in its class, maybe the widest in its class to hold the road well, certainly the lightest, certainly the best on track. It needs to feel, drive and look like a Lotus.”

Read also: Chinese-built Lotus SUVs: is this the beginning of the end?

While the existing HQ will remain the base of operations for its performance cars, the crossover is likely to be built in Geely’s new plant in Wuhan, China, which will be outfitted to build internal combustion, hybrid and electric vehicles across Geely’s portfolio.

8. China and the USA will underpin sales growth 

Due to the costs and complexity of emissions legislation and CARB compliance, only the Evora is currently sold in the USA, via a dealer network of 40. Likewise, in China, only the Evora is offered. But all future models will be built to be compliant in these two huge markets.

Evora GT410 Sport

The company made just 1632 cars in 2018 and expects to top 1700 this year. Given Hethel’s production capacity stretches to 5000, there’s still headroom for a supercar, but industrial logic may propel the more practical Lotus SUV out of Norfolk and into the Volvo production network. After all, the cars will share components, though they won’t be spun wholesale off Volvo’s SPA platform underpinning the 60 and 90 vehicle ranges.

“I wouldn’t talk about a platform: that’s nothing more than a set of components, perhaps 30 to 80 main modules,” former CEO Gales told CAR magazine. “These are components Lotus can share; it can be an engine, an autonomous radar system, a wiring harness which can be adapted to the cars.”