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Lotus Turbo Esprit SE

Esprit Turbo SE

Years: 1989-1993
Names: Turbo SE / Type 85
Units: 1,608
Engine: 2,174 cc inline 4 turbo
Power: 264 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 261 lb/ft @ 3,900 rpm
0-60 mph: 4.7 seconds

The SE had a 2.2 liter turbo “charcooled” engine (first fuel injection water cooled model). The Lotus Esprit Turbo SE produced 264 hp and hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and hit 160 mph top speed. The “Highwing” was as the SE, but with a large rear mounted wing. 

The charge-cooled SE Esprit derivative was the most powerful variant with the most accelerative power and the fastest-selling Esprit to date, with 264bhp and 0-6mph in under 5 seconds. From its formal unveiling on 10 May 1989 to the close of its debut year, the 160mph Lotus Esprit Turbo SE recorded production of 563 units. This figure handsomely exceeds the production level of any previous Esprit, save that of the S1 in 1977, and then there were no alternative Esprit models to distract customers.

Naturally, this was the most expensive Esprit to date. The SE was launched in May 1989 at £42,500 (£46,300 some eighteen months later), which was then a bold thrust that took them closer to the ‘starter’ Porsche 911s than for many years. The SE did embrace a number of standard items of proven showroom appeal. These included a walnut burr fascia; leather trim; lift-out/tilt glass sunroof, and air conditioning. Do not despair if a red dashboard light comes on in chilly conditions, an LED ice alert was including in the SE fascia from the start. In-car entertainment was provided only in ‘a radio fitting kit’ initially and it is worth emphasizing that anti-lock brakes did not become available, optionally or otherwise, until the autumn of 1990.

The SE was replaced by the S4 in 1994 with over 1,600 rolling out of the factory gates. Updated in 1992 to the High wing it gained a new wing and lost the glass back. Very few of these were produced before the switch to the re-bodied S4. No engine mods were made in the SE’s short history (1989-1993) and even ran the length of the S4 production.

The Body

Styled by the Lotus Design studio, the bodyshell is manufactured by the Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection process and includes Kevlar reinforcement of the roof structure. Removable glass sunroof. Front and rear bumpers manufactured from RRIM offering protection against minor impact damage. Aerodynamic rear wing mounted on tailgate. Engine air intake located behind the rear right-hand quarter light complemented by further ducting in the lower body sills for cooling. Warm air exits via cooling slats above engine bay.

Esprit Turbo SE HWing

ESPRIT SE For 1992, the charge cooled 264 bhp lotus Esprit SE has a bigger, more comfortable interior, wider opening doors and a new rear wing, improving rear visibility as well as top speed. Capable of achieving 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and able to reach 165 mph, where conditions and regulations allow, the Esprit SE maintains the world leading standards of handling and ride for which Lotus has become famous over the last 40 years. The SE is the most luxurious Lotus ever and in keeping with the times is equipped with a catalytic convertor and runs only on unleaded fuel.


Related: Esprit Ultimate Guide / Current Lineup / Lotus Models / Lotus News


Model 1987 Lotus Esprit Turbo HC
Engine Lotus 910 2174 cc four-cylinder in-line, 16-valve DOHC, two Dellorto DHLA 45 sidedraught carburettors
Bore & Stroke 95.3 mm x 76.2 mm
Compression 8.0:1
Block & Head Aluminium alloy, Nikasil coated wet liners, Block is Aluminum alloy
Turbocharger Garrett T3 Turbocharger running at 9.5psi
Dry Sump Via Toothed-belt oil pump, driven at 0.69, of crankshaft rpm; two scavenge pumps
Power 264 bhp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 261 lb ft @ 3,900 rpm
Body/Chassis Glassfibre-reinforced plastic body with galvanised steel backbone chassis. Passenger compartment encapsulated in a ‘safety-cell structure’
Transmission Five-speed manual unit. Rear-wheel drive.
Clutch 9.5 in diaphragm spring, hydraulically operated.
Brakes Front – 259 mm dia ventilated discs, Rear – 274 mm dia outboard discs
Steering Rack-and-pinion
Suspension (Front) Independent, double wishbone. coil springs, telescopic dampers, and-roll bar.
Suspension (Rear) Independent, upper and lower transverse link with radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Wheels & Tyres Front 7J x 15 in, 215/50 ZR 15. Rear 8.5J x 16 in, 245/50 ZR 16
Weight 2,877 lb (1,305 kg)


Top Speed 165 mph
0-62 mph 4.7 seconds

Lotus Esprit Turbo HC Review

AutoCar  – What They Said

Lotus Esprit Turbo SE
Lotus Esprit Turbo SE Chargecooling and suspension revisions make the Esprit Turbo a still more credible alternative to the supercar greats

OPINIONS ABOUND AS TO WHAT makes a ‘supercar’ and who knows how many of them Lotus has listened to. ‘What is crystal clear, however, is that with the £42,500 Esprit Turbo SE, the Norfolk-based car maker has produced a driving machine with the pace, dynamic ability and visual presence to live with the established greats. This much was obvious when we drove the car last May. That Lotus achieves this improbable feat with a 14-year-old design powered by a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine that claims an even longer lineage, is something to wonder at.

But then the Esprit, particularly the Turbo, has always upset the applecart. In the past, it has sought to be both a senior league supercar and a bargain. In Italy and Germany, no such synthesis has ever existed, nor is it ever likely to. The Lotus is about to get a British rival, however, in the shape of the Panther Solo, born out of the same essentially minimalist concept that sired the Esprit, the simplicity and efficiency of which shines through: it does more with less.

Whether the SE does enough to justify its £8600 price premium over the regular Turbo is more questionable, though. With its longer list of standard equipment, re-tuned chassis, extra spoilers and greater grunt (achieved under the ‘green’ umbrella of a catalyst-equipped exhaust and unleaded fuel-only running), it has priced itself out of its original market and into an altogether tougher class. It is a sobering thought that, at £36,750, the Porsche 911 Club Sport is over £6000 cheaper and that you could buy a BMW 535i and a VW Corrado 16V for the same money.

The Turbo SE needs to be very special indeed. The ‘green’ engine is just that. If the regular Turbo’s 215bhp and 2201b ft of torque from just 2174cc look impressive, they pale by comparison with the SE’s 264bhp and 2571b ft. Heavy duty fuel and ignition management and a compact and highly efficient water-cooled intercooler — which Lotus likes to call a ‘chargecooler’ — are mostly responsible for the four-cylinder 16-valver’s dramatic hike in specific output. In fact, the chargecooler is so good that if the ambient temperature drops to 20 degrees C, the engine can deliver up to 280bhp for short periods.

It is little wonder Lotus feels confident in claiming a top speed of 163mph and 0-60mph in 4.7secs. On a blisteringly hot afternoon at Millbrook — with the ambient temperature well into the 30 degrees C — we couldn’t quite make Lotus’s day but we got very close, recording a mean maximum of 159mph and a best two-way 0-60mph time of 4.9secs.

The ton comes up in a sizzling 12.4secs. In round figures, it means that the SE can trade acceleration statistics with the five-speed Porsche 911 Turbo — no longer made but still regarded as a reference for serious supercar performance — and emerge from the encounter unscathed. Both cars have tremendous traction off the line and hit 30mph in 1 .9secs. At 60mph, they’re still locked together (4.9secs), though by 100mph, the 911 has pulled out a small lead (12.1 against 12.4secs). By 110mph the Esprit is back on terms (15.2secs each) and, even at 130mph, there’s nothing between them, the Porsche just one-tenth in front, at 22.7secs. Eventually, however, it’s the British car that gets the upper hand, going on to its maximum of 159mph, some 3mph faster than the 911.

The SE is just as effective when it comes to fourth and fifth gear flexibility and this time leaves the Porsche struggling. Its fourth gear 30-50mph time of 6.1secs, for example, easily beats the Porsche’s 7.6secs. Compare the Esprit’s scintillating 4.0secs fourth gear 60-80mph time with the Porsche’s 4.3secs. In fifth, the Lotus is even mare dominant, recording 50-70mph in 6.3secs, 60-80mph in 5.8secs and 70-90mph in 6.0secs (8.6, 7.0, 6.3secs for the 91 1).

Although occasionally prey to some management/induction hiccups, the engine revs with remarkable freedom and smoothness, turbo boost building swiftly and solidly to deliver stunning mid-range acceleration for overtaking. But the high-tech twin-cam doesn’t sound like a supercar engine. It clatters worryingly from cold and rasps rudely on full throttle.

The gear ratios are generally well spaced and stack third, fourth and fifth gears quite close together. While this obviously stretches the gap between first, second and third, the SE nevertheless storms past 60mph in second on its way to 67 mph at 7000 rpm,and third is good for just on 100mph. The power flows with tidal energy, the only ripples being provided by the gear change with its rather indistinct action and a tendency to graunch if shifts are rushed.

The clutch is fine, though, its action being neither as weighty nor as sharp as some Italian rivals. Reasonably refined by supercar standards, the SE can count good suppression of mechanical noise among its strengths. Even when wrung out to the red line, the hardworking ‘four’ does not sound strained or harsh; nor does it get unduly loud. Wind rush is present but not a problem, even when travelling at three-figure speeds — mostly thanks to efficient double door seals. Tyre roar isn’t too bad either.

There’s no denying Lotus’s claims that the SE’s engine isn’t only potent but is also very efficient, when you look at an overall consumption of 23.5mpg. Compare that with the 911 Turbo’s 16.6mpg. Even with the proviso that the Esprit’s figure was calculated from a longer-than-usual mileage, the difference is too great to ignore. The projected touring consumption of 27 mpg allows a maximum range of over 450 miles on a 17.3-gallon tankful.

Some elements of the face-lifted Esprit’s handling did not meet with wholehearted approval and Lotus has sought to address the criticisms — especially the over-heavy steering — at the same time acknowledging the extra power with modifications for the SE’s chassis. Thus there are geometry, spring rate and damper stiffness revisions and a fractional increase in ride height to improve both comfort and stability.

More obviously directed at the extra power of the SE are the beefed-up brakes with harder pad material and extra cooling. Tyres are ZR-rated Goodyear Eagles, specially developed for the Esprit and the Excel — 215/50s at the front and 245/50s at the rear. The Esprit’s cornering power is largely unchanged by all this and remains chillingly good. This side of an F40 or 959, we doubt that there’s another road-going chassis that can generate quite as much grip.

Tyre slip angles are very small and body roll virtually nonexistent. In normal brisk driving, terms such as ‘understeer’ and ‘oversteer’ have no context. Push hard into a tight or tightening bend and the nose will run a little wide but this can be cancelled or turned into mild oversteer with judicious application of power. This is an essentially forgiving chassis with a feeling of imperturbable stability. That said, it is still not quite right. True, at speed, the Lotus can feel wonderfully fluid and pointed, negotiating a series of S-bends with considerable finesse and relatively little effort. Yet it all seems strangely uninvolving. The steering’s weighting is both lighter and more linear than before but the delightful turn-in crispness and front-end bite that characterised the Esprit has gone. There’s precision, yes, but not that delicious feeling of intimacy that makes the difference between huge competence and greatness. A pity.

The Turbo SE’s ride, on the other hand, is almost beyond reproach. It has all the hallmarks of great control, combining this with exceptional suppleness. At low speeds, small bumps and ripples can promote some jiggling but on the whole the Lotus feels comfortable and composed. If any criticism is to be levelled at the brakes it’s that they are slightly overservoed, which makes delicate application harder than it should be.

The SE’s all-leather cabin has more of a ‘quality’ ambience than the regular Turbo’s, an impression helped along by the large slab of burr elm surrounding the instruments and switches in the expansive ‘boomerang pod’ binnacle. Mind you, it doesn’t make the instruments any easier to read. Some of the smaller dials are partly or wholly obscured by the edge of the 14ins, leather-rimmed steering wheel. It’s a cosy and comfortable driving environment, though, with well-shaped and supportive seats and convenient controls.

Standard equipment includes the full-leather trim, a removable glass sunroof, air conditioning, central locking and a radio pre-fit kit. An ice-warning light is also standard on the SE. But equipment isn’t really the issue here.

With the Turbo SE, Lotus has made a break for the big time and has succeeded admirably in all the most obvious respects. To many eyes, the Esprit always looked the part and now those looks are matched — even surpassed — indeed. The SE is fabulously rapid and enormously capable; it must now be counted among the few cars that can dispose of miles along demanding roads with an altogether greater degree of authority and efficiency than even the fastest fast hatchback.

And yet there is something missing — the small things that make their impact on a subliminal level; an engine that’s worth listening to; steering that communicates with fine resolution. Call it the seduction factor. For all its towering ability, it’s something the Lotus doesn’t have.

So what does make a supercar? Perhaps the answer isn’t as obvious as it first seems.

AutoCar 10th May 1989 – What They Said


Don’t be deceived by the softer lines of the redesigned Esprit.
In the latest SE form it packs more of a punch than ever.
by David Vivian, pictures by Stan Papior

Back in 1984, a Lotus Esprit Turbo competed in the ‘World’s Fastest Production Car’ trial and came last. It was going to come last even before it broke. It broke with the strain of trying to look convincing against much faster and vastly more expensive exoticars that had been carefully prepared, as the organisers put it, ‘to go exactly as fast as their makers intended them to’. In the event, this turned out to be considerably faster than anyone had managed to make them go before. But that’s another story.

That the Esprit’s presence was required at all at North Weald Aerodrome to arbitrarily slug it out over the standing kilometre with a Lamborghini Countach LP500, an Aston Martin Vantage and a Porsche 911 Turbo – a contest it could never seriously hope to win – was remarkable in itself. For all its efficiency, clever engineering and dynamic ability, the plastic flyer from Hethel had never, in this writer’s estimation, quite earned first team selection, despite its terrific performance-per-£ value and unquestioned dynamic finesse.

The real point, however, is that nobody laughed at the Lotus. To punters in the paddock, it didn’t seem to matter that it had just four cylinders and 2.2 litres to the Lambo’s 12 cylinders and 5 litres. They breezed over its Austin 1100 door latches to dwell on the provocatively kicked-up tail lip, the sexy air ducts and, best of all, the little black and gold ‘styled by Giugiaro’ plate in front of each door. They didn’t see a plastic shoestring supercar built in Norfolk by a one-time kit car maker but a glorious mid-engined wedge that was low, wide and hard to peer into.

Fast is, the Lotus won the beauty contest hands down. It wasn’t cowed by the outlandish Countach yet it dazzled the 911 and the Vantage clean out of the frame. It may not have been the fastest or the flashiest but is was the most handsome.

Much has happened to the Esprit Turbo since then, of course. For one thing, it doesn’t look the same. Restyled in-house towards the end of 1987, the paper-edge sharpness and dramatic angularity of the Giugiaro original have given way to a more fluid shape with softer sweeps, rounder edges and no acute angles to challenge the eye. Much of the audacious drama has ebbed away, yet since is was the very forcefulness of the styling that had started to date the Esprit, that’s no bad thing. The evolved shape is all elegance, lightness-of touch and subtlety by comparison, verging on – dare it be said – oriental blandness around the nose. It doesn’t flick your eyelids open the way the old design did but it is exceptionally well proportioned and beautifully clean.

[quote cite='Andy Jacobson (Deputy General Manager Nissan Design)']This straightforward expression of function and good performance conveys a correct clean feeling[/quote]

All of which poses something of a problem when you need instant aesthetic aggression to signify a boost in performance of not inconsequential proportion. Never a company to leave potential unexploited, however, Lotus has gone ahead to produce the extravagantly winged and be-spoilered Esprit Turbo SE – a head-down assault on the cosy Ferrari-Porsche domination at the edge of the supercar stratosphere.

Some thought that Lotus had taken the Esprit’s 2.2-litre, turbocharged twin-cam, 16-valve four as far as it dare in HC ‘high-compression’ tune with 215bhp and 220lb ft of torque. This engine saw service in the final version of the old shape Esprit Turbo and was slotted straight into the new one. Despite the modest claimed improvement in Cd (down from 0.35 to 0.34), the new shape was clearly a lot cleaner through the air and massaged the Lotus’s performance to good effect, hiking top speed from around 145 to 150mph and dropping its 0-60mph time to a couple of fractions over 6secs.

But Lotus tinkered with the engine again, this time adding a chargecooled turbo and semi-intelligent engine management system. The new 264bhp Esprit Turbo SE costs £42,500, has a claimed top speed of 163mph, is said to accelerate from rest to 60mph in 4.7 secs and to 100mph in a sizzling 11.5 secs. If these figures are confirmed – and my couple of laps round Millbrook at an average of 157.8mph suggests that over 160mph is on – the SE will find itself in elite company indeed. Sub-12 to 100 is beyond even the Porsche 911 Turbo and the number of production cars that can crack 5 secs to 60mph can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But none of them, to the best of my knowledge, runs on an exclusive diet of unleaded petrol and is fitted with a catalyst. What we have here is a ‘green’ engine with an almost unparalleled specific output of 121.5bhp per litre.

The combination of chargecooled turbo and high-tech engine management is responsible for reconciling such apparently disparate elements. Apart from the adoption of Mahle forged pistons with chrome plated crowns, there are no internal changes to the 16 valve, all-alloy 910S turbo engine. The boost in power and torque outputs – by 14 and 17 per cent respectively – are essentially the result of a fundamental rethink of the induction system and electronics.

Manufactured by Delco Electronics, the Electronic Control Module used in the SE is one of the most powerful automotive microprocessors available and, in conjunction with unique software algorithms developed for the chargecooled Esprit by Lotus, provides adaptive fuelling control which determines precise fuel flow for each individual engine to which it is fitted. It is an intelligent system inasmuch as it remembers and learns the acts on the basis of constantly updated information. Thus the adaption is an internally calculated modification to the basic programmed fuelling maps. The system does most of its ‘learning’ over the initial 15-20 miles of driving but will be making small adjustments throughout the car’s life.

At the business end of the fuel system is the electronic multi-point fuel injection which provides additional fuel flow at high engine loads via two secondary injectors positioned in the plenum nozzle. The key to the revised induction system, however, is the liquid-cooled charge air cooler, an alternative to the more common air-to-air intercooling with comparable thermodynamic efficiency but notably better packaging arrangements.

[quote cite='Andy Jacobson (Ford Design Director)' align='right']The Esprit has real road presence. Stevens managed to bring an already well-proportioned car into the ’80s’ [/quote]

The chargecooler is engine mounted and connects the Garrett TB03 turbocharger compressor directly to the plenum nozzle. Little bigger than a box of cream crackers, the unit contains a series of air and liquid passages with internal finning designed to maximise heat transfer with minimum pressure loss. The cooling system is self-contained and forms no part of the main engine cooling circuit due to the different temperature requirements.

Ambient temperature is critical, however, to the performance of the chargecooler. The 264bhp engine rating is, in fact, the lowest continuous steady state output the engine can achieve in a hot climate. The management system is designed to take advantage of lower chargecooler input temperatures to provide an instantaneous power boost of up to 280bhp available for 30 secs during acceleration.

This is not a subtle effect. In the regular Turbo, boost pressure builds up swiftly and progressively to deliver clearly potent midrange acceleration. With the SE, though, there’s a real, physical slam as the turbo gets a grip. If it’s possible to sense anything with your neck muscles, the message here is almost painful: up to 100mph, the SE hauls as hard as anything this side of £100,000.

As you might expect, the engine revs with respectable smoothness and little obvious top end strain, but it never sounds like a supercar powerhouse. The clatter from cold is depressingly reminiscent of a Cortina with dodgy bearings and the engine rasps waspingly on full throttle, albeit in a muted and largely inoffensive fashion.

The gear ratios place third, fourth and fifth gears quite close together and consequently leave something of a gap between first, second the third. The SE nevertheless storms past 60mph in second on its way to 67mph at 7000rpm while third is good for 99mph. The power flows strongly, the only ripples being provided by a gearchange with a rather rubbery action and a tendency to graunch if shifts are rushed. The clutch is fine, though, its action being neither as weighty nor as abrupt as the arrangements of some Italian rivals.

Likewise, the SE adjusts its cornering balance more benignly than long-time sparring partner the Ferrari 328 GTB. Punch the throttle mid-bend and the chassis doesn’t pile on understeer or twitch its tail nervously. It merely shrugs away the slug of turbo energy with a small sideways shuffle. The SE feels perceptibly less edgy on the limit.

Those looking for extra front end bite with the new car, however, are likely to be disappointed. The SE feels just as precise as its predecessor and locks on to a cornering line with iron conviction. But along with some of the previous car’s steering weight – and, heaven knows, it was too heavy – a small degree of sharpness has been lost and, with it, that delicious sense of intimacy that was always an integral part of the Esprit’s make-up.

In a sense, Lotus has sanitised the Turbo’s responses for general comsumption. Given the chargecooled engine’s sledgehammer midrange delivery, it’s probably just as well, but a shade more resolution of the road surface at the helm would have been welcome. That said, the SE feels if anything even more stable and grippy than its less muscular forebears and while some of the credit for this must undoubtedly rest with the enhanced performance of the ZR-rated Goodyear Eagle tyres (215/50 ZR in front, 245/50 ZR 16 rear) specially developed for the SE, the crucial work has been Lotus’s. Not just in fitting stiffer front springs and gas-filled dampers but in eliminating the front suspension’s anti-dive characteristics to reduce pitching and improve ride. Best of all, is the reduction in steering castor angle. Parking is no longer like arm-wrestling with Sylvester Stallone.

The Turbo SE’s ride combines almost pampering pliancy with great control. The body motion could always feel a little jiggly over small bumps and ridges around town, but the SE simply feels supple and composed. The brakes are powerful and tireless but a little overservoed and, somewhat alarmingly if you’re not expecting it, tend to promote excessive camber sensitivity in the steering.

Little has changed on the inside. The low-slung facia is still dominated by its huge ‘boomerang pod’ instrument housing with a comprehensive array of clear and readable analogue dials sited in such a way that some of them are partly or wholly obscured by the rim of the 14ins, leather-rimmed steering wheel.

The push-push switchgear located on the pod’s flanks, however, remains fine and enhances an already comfortable driving environment where the seats are well-shaped and supportive and the major controls convenient. Visibility to the rear is tolerable but the glass canopy that covers the rear buttress not only distorts the view but reflects body colour.

As for the styling, it’s the same old story. Drastic plastic seldom, if ever, does anything to improve the aesthetic allure of a basically pure and graceful shape. Just look what happened to the Countach. You can still buy the ordinary Turbo, sans wings and spoiler but incorporating all the SE’s chassis mods for around £11,000 less. If you’re planning on entering any speed trials, however, you’d better opt for the SE. Its wing isn’t as big as the Countach’s but its kick is.