“If you’re good at sweeping floors,” Danger Girl likes to say, “you’ll be promoted to something better. But if you’re really good at sweeping floors… you get to sweep the floor forever.” The saying dates back to an inexplicable period in her life in which she found herself the owner of five ice-cream stores at the tender age of twenty-four or so. Think of it as an even more depressing corollary to the Peter Principle.
Let’s say, for a moment, that Porsche and Lamborghini have been pretty good at making sporting cars over the past thirty years. Some of their products have been exceptional, a few have been dismal. In general, however, both of them have maintained just enough brand equity for those brands to be extensible. The Porsche Cayenne and Macan have succeeded because people want to have the Porsche brand on their VW-platform SUV. Putting the Stuttgart crest on a Touareg makes it more desirable. The same is true for the Lamborghini bull.
At the same time, however, their brands are not so pure and exalted that the market rebels against that extension. Porsche has cheerfully chased cash in the past, whether we are talking about the “VoPo” 914 or the secret shame of the 912 outselling the 911 in some years. Lamborghini has applied four-wheel-drive and soft-touch interiors across the board. I have no idea what a “purist’s Lamborghini” would even be.
Lotus, on the other hand… While the famed ACBC badge has been lent out to a few, ahem, interesting collaborations (Isuzu Impulse, anyone?) the closest Lotus has come to a deviation from purpose since its founding was probably the front-wheel-drive Elan—and even that was a remarkably pure statement of enthusiast intent, about as far away from the 914 in execution as one could imagine.
Lotus has always offered the lightest and most driver-connected vehicle in the segment, whether that was affordable runabout (the Seven) or ersatz supercar (the four-cylinder Esprit variants). The current lineup of Elise, Exige, and Evora adheres to that brief and as a result arguably constitutes the finest selection of semi-kinda-sorta-affordable sporting cars in history. The Evora 410 Sport, in particular, is so much better to drive at the limit than any modern “supercar” that it renders the whole notion of a 600-horsepower, mid-mounted vehicle a bit ridiculous.
In other words, Lotus is really, really good at sweeping—or perhaps, mopping—the floor with its sports-car lineup. As a consequence, it’s attracted a coterie of customers who have proven willing to bankroll ever-more-extreme variants of their extruded-aluminum modular vehicles—but those customers are also absolutely adamant that Lotus stick to its proverbial knitting. When former Lotus CEO Dany Bahar suggested an “expanded lineup” of vehicles that could include a crossover or SUV, he was roundly pilloried for having the gall to suggest that Lotus dirty its hands with such a thing. Bahar didn’t last long in that gig; his replacement, the urbane and imaginative Jean-Marc Gales, picked up the broom and started sweeping the floor again.
Thanks to a Chinese cash infusion, Lotus is now developing its Evija hypercar. It’s a bit of a brand extension, being both an all-electric vehicle and a return to the rarefied relative-performance air from which the marque has been absent since the Esprit V8, but it’s also a two-seater with claims of lowest weight in class. In other words, it’s just another Lotus. A rare car for rare buyers. We need something more than that. Something… bigger.
Hear me out for a minute: Everybody knows that the prestige-SUV space is where manufacturers make their big bucks nowadays. Escalade, Cayenne, Cullinan, and a dozen others. What would happen if Lotus decided to stop sweeping the proverbial fast-food floor of sports-car manufacturing and demand promotion to assistant manager, where the big bucks start rolling in?
“That’s horrible!” you’re no doubt thinking. “A Lotus SUV would destroy the brand!” You have a bit of a point. Right now, Lotus owners are in the enviable position of not having to qualify what they drive...
“What kind of car do you have?”
“I have a Porrrr-sha.”
“Like the one my mom drives to spin class? A Mac-whatever?”
“No…” sputters angrily “...A 911GT3RS Weissach! In PTS Viagra Blue!”
An Elise or Evora driver never has to have the second half of that conversation. There’s some real pleasure in that. The man or woman in the street may not know precisely what a Lotus looks like, or they may imagine the ski-rack-equipped Esprit Turbo driven by Roger Moore thirty-some years ago, but they know it looks nothing like a Lexus RX300.
Nor would I be willing to accept the idea of a Lotus SUV on financial grounds alone. That’s how people used to justify the Cayenne, conveniently forgetting that Porsche was an entirely solvent and independent automaker before it embarked on the Cayenne adventure and a subsequent attempt to swallow Volkswagen that ended with Porsche becoming part of the ahem, Volkswagen family of brands. I’m not interested in a future where Lotus “ensures its survival” by becoming an SUV-centric brand. That’s like burning the village in order to save it.
With all of that said, the SUV/crossover space is in desperate need of a vehicle that does more with less, which is the traditional Lotus mission statement. Today’s crossovers are hideously bloated. The Honda CR-V is only about 200 pounds lighter than a 1979 Chevrolet Caprice Classic; the Hyundai Santa Fe is actually heavier than the heavy Chevy. The Porsche Macan weighs two tons before you add a single option.
If Lotus could deliver a 2,999-pound five-seat crossover, it would shake the prestige-SUV industry to its foundations. The dynamic benefits of losing a half-ton or more of weight can be felt even by novice drivers. And every pound you save in one place leads to weight savings somewhere else. Can you imagine an SUV with four-bolt wheels, for example? It’s possible, if you just add a little lightness.
There’s another benefit conferred by cutting weight: efficiency, which in turn leads to that all-important “green” credibility. Lotus could advertise their SUV as both the enthusiast’s choice and the eco-friendly choice.
“If it’s so easy to make a light SUV,” you might ask, “why doesn’t anyone else do it?” I think the reasons are largely due to customer preference. Today’s buyers want that bank-vault solidity and they are willing to pay to get it, both in the showroom and at the pump. There is, however, a small subset of people who would accept the noise and flimsy feeling of, say, a carbon-fiber inner door skin, as long as they felt there was a payoff. Happily for Lotus, many of those people already know where to find a Lotus dealer.
A properly lightweight and properly driver-focused Lotus SUV would be a genuine revolution in the industry. It would offer a genuine alternative to the vast universe of Volkswagen-platform “performance SUVs” out there and it would confer some nontrivial credibility on anyone savvy enough to own one. Most importantly, it might help steer the rest of the automakers back towards sanity. If enough customers express preference for SUVs without OxyContin steering and enough mass to pull Chevettes into low orbit then maybe someone else would hop on the bandwagon. Anything’s possible.
Of course, this is just a pipe dream on my part. If and when Lotus enters the SUV space, they will likely do it with just another Audi Q5 clone, one more two-ton ground-pounder staggering under the weight of Dynamat and massaging seats. Their owners won’t accept any other course of action. Changing the SUV game might be hugely rewarding, but it’s also hugely risky. Not everyone enjoys risk. Some of us are content to do the minimum. To follow the crowd. If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a broom, sweeping a floor—forever.