Developed on a budget, the Lotus Esprit X180 was the result of Lotus’s failing fortunes in the early 1980s. Having been involved in the DeLorean project and with money looking toward more prestigious brands, Lotus was unable to productionise its Etna concept or its planned new Elan. The only option was to rejuvenate the Esprit for the 1980s and 1990s. Peter Stevens, who later styled the McLaren F1, was issued the brief. His task was to make the new car look appealing at the lowest possible cost.
By rounding off the sharp edges, Stevens made the Lotus Esprit X180 look wholly different. A redesigned rear end improved visibility and engine access, while rounder lines improved aerodynamics.
New money courtesy of a General Motors takeover also meant the X180 could be ready for production quickly, and Lotus introduced it in 1987. The available engines continued unchanged, as did the excellent chassis. The public and press took the new car to their hearts, and Lotus set to developing uprated versions.
The Sport 200 model was derived from the American X180R – a model produced to commemorate the Esprit’s success in the IMSA Bridgestone Supercar Championship. With 300bhp and various racing appointments, these are now the most sought-after of all X180 Esprits.
The Lotus Esprit X180 retained the previous S3’s Type 910 2.2-liter slant four, which can trace its roots back to the mid 1970s. This is coupled to a five-speed manual gearbox, mounted as part of a transaxle. The turbocharged derivative was continued unchanged too, producing 215bhp at launch. The later SE Esprit derivative produced 265bhp courtesy of a new fuel injection system and a charge-cooling intercooler.
Unsurprisingly, the Lotus Esprit X180 drives very well. The interior is a tight space for taller drivers, but those who fit will have tons of fun. The 2.2-litre engine is brisk even in naturally aspirated form and just plain fast when fitted with a turbo. Weight distribution and balance are fantastic.
Build quality is generally better than earlier Esprits, and mechanically they are manageable as long as owners adhere to the 24,000-mile belt service intervals. Fans can also fail, which leads to overheating, head gasket failure and sunken liners. A recent clutch is a useful bill to find, as changing one can take 11 hours since it requires the removal of the transaxle. As with all supercars, the service history should be full and comprehensive for any Esprit.
Steering racks can also wear rapidly, a combination of a small rack and wide wheels. Exhaust manifolds can crack, as can the paint – GRP flexes while the paint doesn’t. Fortunately, the chassis is fully galvanized.
The most desirable regular production Lotus Esprit X180 is the SE Turbo, as it is the most powerful iteration and the plushest-trimmed, but even naturally aspirated Esprits are rewarding cars.