RISING SON

As Lotus dusts itself off after a farcical period in its history, its focus has returned to doing what it does best: creating great sports cars. The latest is the £82,500, 410bhp 3-Eleven

by RICHARD MEADEN
PHOTOGRAPHY by DEAN SMITH

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here are some obvious downsides to holding the exclusive first test of your quickest and most powerful car – a car that just so happens to be roofless, doorless and windscreenless – in Norfolk in early February. Things such as sleet and chilblains, to name but two. But if said first drive happens to be the Lotus 3-Eleven and the venue is Hethel, then the upsides easily win out.

For starters you get to meet the boss for a meaningful chat. You also get to chew the fat with the engineers and check-in with people you’ve known half your life. Better still, you get to hang out in the Hethel test track’s clubhouse – a converted World War II control tower – where legends such as Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna kicked their heels between F1 shakedowns. Most importantly, you get to thrash the wheels off the car you’ve come to drive. All day. On prime and option tyres. For lap after lap and tank after tank of fuel. And then, just before the sun sets, you get a quick go on the road, too. In first drives as in life, the simple things matter most.

It’s been nearly two years since I last visited Hethel. I’m pleased – and relieved – to report that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The conceived-to-seduce-investors business plan that promised the world but succeeded only in robbing the company of its dignity is long gone, flushed round history’s U-bend, where it belongs. In the disquieting period of stasis that followed, the Malaysian parent company took stock, stemmed the flow of cash and, crucially, kept the lights on. Since then a new boss, Jean-Marc Gales, has been appointed. Since his arrival the ship has been steadied, an interim plan implemented and a rapid succession of revised Elise, Exige and Evora models introduced. New dealerships are being opened, cars are being built, cars are being sold and crucially cash is now flowing in rather than out. The patient is off life-support and breathing on its own.

The 3-Eleven is the latest and boldest product of the brave new Gales era. It’s an easy win in product terms, but there’s no shame in the smart use of available hardware blended with the innate engineering talent and inexhaustible passion that remains indigenous to Potash Lane. The result is an incendiary machine born for the track but ready for the road. Limited to just 311 units (you can guess why), it’s not The One so far as Lotus’s long-term future is concerned, but with the order book already half full – equating to a year of the proposed two-year build cycle – it has clearly hit the spot. That those who have put their name down for the £82,500 road car or £116,500 race version include past, present and conquest customers suggests the 3-Eleven’s appeal is universal.

That’s hardly surprising when you glance down the spec sheet. In both road and race trim, the bald figures are stonking. The road car boasts 410bhp, 302lb ft, a 0-60mph time of 3.3sec and a top speed of 174mph. The race car adds 50bhp and 85lb ft to the supercharged 3.5-litre V6’s outputs and drops 35kg in weight (from 925kg to 890kg) to pump the power-to-weight ratio from 450bhp per ton to 525. This, combined with a swap from the road car’s six-speed H-pattern manual to a six-speed Xtrac pneumatic paddleshift transmission, helps it romp to 60mph in 2.9sec, 100mph in 6.0sec and on to a top speed of 180mph. It’s also expected to achieve a hypercar-chasing sub-seven-minute lap of the Nürburgring. Gulp.

Built around a bespoke version of Lotus’s familiar bonded aluminium tub and using the best bits from the Evora 400 (namely its reworked motor and some of its structural underpinnings) and other performance-enhancing hardware from the Exige Cup and Cup R, the 3-Eleven is the Optimus Prime of the Lotus range. And yes, before you say it, the origins of that tub are positively Neolithic, but there’s still nothing to touch it for lightness, rigidity, adaptability and cost-effectiveness. Bluntly, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Dressed in a carbonfibre ‘step-in’ body that generates meaningful downforce in road and race trim, it really does look the business. We’re driving the road-spec car today, but to be honest it looks like you could slap some numbers on the flanks and go win some silverware. To get in, you swing your legs up and over the side, step on the seat and lower yourself into position. The steering wheel is detachable, so this is all easier than it sounds. Once you’ve made yourself comfortable and clipped yourself into the four-point harness, you feel like the final component of the car.

Twist the key, wait for the bright and super-clear TFT display panel to illuminate, then press the starter button and the 3-Eleven bursts into life, V6 firing with a fruity bark. Unsurprisingly the view ahead is panoramic, but rearward visibility is restricted to the two oblong side mirrors. Not that you’ll need to worry too much about what’s behind you.

The steering is unassisted, but unlike the Exige V6’s, which has real physicality, thanks to geometry changes and a repositioned rack the 3-Eleven’s steering is free and light. The clutch is soft and progressive, the gearshift – complete with its lighter and infinitely cooler exposed linkage – is less stringy and has a slightly shorter throw. Considering this Lotus looks like a race car, the mild manners and easy control weights come as a welcome surprise.

As is the norm for Norfolk in mid-winter, it’s perishingly cold. Overnight rain has left the test track treacherously slippery, glistening tarmac dappled with dry patches for added mid-corner uncertainty. We take the decision to run on the road car’s standard Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres with the hope of swapping to the optional Michelin Pilot Cup 2s in the afternoon, weather permitting. The conditions are about as unforgiving as possible, but the adjustable traction control offers something trustworthy to lean on for the first few sighting laps.

First impressions are hugely encouraging. The 3-Eleven is a real event to be in, its bare cockpit somehow emphasising the purity of the experience to come. Because the controls are so straightforward, you don’t really have to think about driving it. Everything operates and responds intuitively, so in basic terms the most powerful Lotus ever is no trickier or more intimidating to drive than a regular Elise.

As you begin to find your feet, your pace naturally increases and the 3-Eleven finds a smooth flow. Given this development car probably knows its own way round here, that’s to be expected, but it’s easy to forget just how potent a car you’re driving, for it always feels on your side. Thanks to increased camber, caster and toe-in settings, the steering is quick, but not overly so, and the balance neutral. Even in these conditions the limit of mechanical grip is reached and exceeded progressively and communicated with clarity. With the traction control relaxed to around halfway, it lets the car slide enough to require positive steering correction – the 3-Eleven will drive out of corners with useful wheelspin – yet it’ll provide a guiding hand if you’re really ham-fisted.

Fast direction changes highlight the 3-Eleven’s blend of agility and stability, very mild settling understeer switching to a helpful slip of oversteer if you momentarily blend out of the throttle at the transition point between the curves. Into Windsock – the ballsiest of Hethel’s corners – you want absolute confidence in both ends of the car. The 3-Eleven feels beautifully planted, just picking up the faintest nudge of steadying understeer as you try to carry as much speed as possible onto the straight.

The brakes are equally inspiring. Supplied by AP Racing, the grooved and vented 332mm discs are gripped by four-piston calipers. They have ABS, so you’ve got an ultimate level of reassurance, but unless you hit an especially slippery patch of track, you never sense any interruption in the hard slam of stopping power whenever you hit the pedal. You really can brake ridiculously late. So late, in fact, that I have to block-shift from fifth to second into the chicane as I don’t have time to blip-blip through fourth and third. By the end of the day, all the braking areas are smeared with perfect Cup 2 imprints – evidence of just how close the brakes can work to the point of lock-up.

With the sun and temperature dropping, there’s just time to head out for a quick blast on some of the local roads. It always feels slightly naughty driving track-bred cars on the public highway, especially if you’re wearing a helmet. The strange thing is that the 3-Eleven feels completely at home. There’s suppleness to the ride – courtesy of optional Öhlins TLX two-way adjustable dampers, though the standard one-way adjustable Öhlins DFVs should offer similar pliancy – and the steering resists being pushed and pulled by cambers and white lines. It’s uncannily civilised. You really have to watch your speed, though, for even when consciously taking it easy the 3-Eleven can carry arcade-game pace on country roads.

It takes a certain mindset to commit to a journey in a car with no roof or windows, but so long as I had a decent coat, a helmet, gloves and some earphones for music or earplugs for quiet, I’d have no concerns about driving a 3-Eleven to and from a trackday, whether it happened to be at Snetterton or Spa. And you know there’d be little to touch it when you started lapping. It’s a pity our Track Car of the Year shoot (see page 116) took place before the 3-Eleven was ready for us to drive. Still, there’s always next year…

Amidst all the ups and downs of the last few years, it’s easy to forget that, throughout it all, Lotus has continued to build fine drivers’ cars. Yes, it’s frustrating that the company is having to trade its way out of trouble rather than having a revitalising injection of capital to fast-track through what will otherwise be several years of slow progress. Then again, after all the chaos, perhaps a measured period of organic growth is the cathartic process Lotus needs, enabling it to refocus on those core qualities that have always made the brand unique.

The 3-Eleven isn’t a surprising car. Neither is it groundbreaking. It certainly isn’t the all-new Elise replacement we’d love to see. But it is a fantastically exciting car and a very good Lotus. If it helps Jean-Marc Gales in his quest to build a sound business then that all-new-generation car will come. If you love Lotus, the 3-Eleven is cause to keep the faith.

Lotus 3-Eleven (Road version)
Engine V6, 3456cc, supercharger  Power 410bhp @ 7000rpm
Torque 302lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti‑roll bar
Brakes Ventilated and grooved discs, 332mm front and rear, ABS
Wheels 18in front, 19in rear
Tyres 225/40 ZR18 front, 275/35 ZR19 rear Weight (dry) 925kg   Power-to-weight (dry) 450bhp/ton  0-60mph 3.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 174mph (claimed)  Basic price £82,500

evo rating: ★★★★

FAMILY TREE

340R
Built and sold in 2000, this wild-looking millennial moon-buggy remains the most out-there iteration of the Elise there has ever been. With the snorty, 190bhp VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) Rover K-series motor and a close-ratio gearbox, and weighing just 658kg, 0-60mph took 4.5sec and 0-100mph 12.5sec. Those figures may not look that quick in 2016, but they felt pretty special back then. The 340R traded a little of the Elise’s tactility for grip and immediacy, but the overall driving experience was uniquely bonkers. Always a rare sight when new, most have now disappeared through hedges or into private collections.

2-Eleven
Immediate predecessor to the 3-Eleven, the 2-Eleven (2007-11) was a more conventional machine than the 340R, but steadier looks concealed quicker wits and sweeter handling. A match for the 340R in naturally aspirated spec (189bhp), supercharged and GT4 models (252 and 266bhp respectively) were infinitely quicker and more intense. Toyota power was less characterful but more robust than the Rover K-series, while adjustable traction control brought a useful and subtle safety net without getting in the way. Less of a handful than the equivalent Ariel Atom and less of a hooligan than the equivalent Seven, the 2-Eleven was super-quick without being scary. It made a much better road car than you might imagine, too.