Lotus Emira prototype | PH Review

Lotus is facing up to a very different future, but PH's first experience of the Emira is reassuringly familiar. As you likely know, it is set to be the last time the company launches a new combustion engined model, with even more radical change coming in the form of the company's first SUV - which we'll be seeing later this month. But that's still to come: the combination of a new Lotus sports car, the track at Hethel and the genial presence of Gavan Kershaw to talk me around the new car is as traditional as the fact it's raining.

It's a mild shock to realise that it is 23 years since I first visited Norfolk to experience the same combination. That was for the original Lotus Exige, when Kershaw was a junior hotshoe chassis engineer and the rain was, from memory, a gentle shower. Now Gav has risen to be Director of Attributes, responsible for making sure every car drives like a Lotus should, while the weather is far angrier - I drive the Emira on the same day Storm Eunice hit the UK, meaning the precipitation is being blown pretty much sideways by the gale-force crosswinds.

Before taking to the track there's the chance to have look the car over next to the sleek new showroom that sits at one end of the original office building. Initial impressions are that this Emira looks too nice. I was expecting a beaten-up development hack wearing an interior redolent of engineer's armpits, but - apart from some very subtle door graphics - this one looks finished. But it's not. "We're not going to stick graphics on a finished car and call it a prototype," Kershaw says, "it's close, but it's not there yet."

VP007 is a VP2 level prototype borrowed from the pool of cars being used to test driver assistance systems ahead of the Emira's launch. It was chosen for media use both because of its visual niceness, but also because it is in what Kershaw reckons is the ideal spec to meet the Emira for the first time. So it uses the familiar supercharged Toyota V6 engine from the Evora - the four-cylinder AMG-powered Emira launches slightly later - but it also sits on the softer Tour suspension, rides on Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres rather than the track-spec Cup 2s that will be offered as an option, and has both a manual gearbox and a mechanical limited slip differential. It doesn't get more traditional than that.

Clues to the prototype's unfinished status are limited. Some of the interior plastics don't have the grained finish the production version will gain, and there are a pair of emergency isolation switches on the console between the steering wheel and the door. I'm also told that the Track dynamic mode doesn't work yet - although Tour and Sport are fully operational. Chassis settings also aren't finalised, but I can tell, before driving the car, that Kershaw is hugely proud of what his team has managed.

When Lotus's ex-CEO Phil Popham promised the Evora's replacement would offer Porsche-rivalling practicality and comfort there were many loudly expressed doubts. Justifiably so, given one of his predecessor's promise that the Evora 400 would be a radical and substantially new car. (It wasn't.) While Popham has departed, his pledge has been delivered: the Emira does feel like a completely different car to the Evora. Getting in is far easier thanks to a bigger door aperture and narrower sills. Once in the driver's seat the cabin features impressively high quality materials on every touchable surface. Yes, the Geely parentage has provided some parts bin components - the column stalks are obviously Volvo - yet nothing feels cheap or incongruous with the price tag.

The digital instrument pack and central touchscreen are crisply rendered and nice to look at, although Lotus has sensibly retained conventional heating controls plus a selector for the switchable drive modes. Ergonomics feel immediately good, with a decent range of driving position adjustment, reasonable headroom and a view forward that includes the visual reference of seeing the tops of the front wings. (One difference is double wipers: "we wanted people to be able to see properly in the rain," noted Kershaw.) The most obvious difference in terms of packaging is the loss of the Evora's option of plus 2 seating. There is still a reasonable amount of luggage seat back there for squashier items, but the rear bulkhead is definitely closer.

Storm-driven rain and an increasingly wet track surface is hardly a friendly environment for driving a new 400hp sports car for the first time, but the Emira soon proves to be more than happy in the slippery conditions.

Lotus Emira prototype | PH Review

While the prospect of the AMG-built four-cylinder engine in the entry-level Emira is intriguing, the supercharged Toyota V6 feels immediately like an old friend. Its aural character has changed from the Evora, it is much quieter at low revs and in the Tour setting that keeps the switchable exhaust valve shut when trundling. But the sense of effortless muscle and lag-free throttle responses are as I remember them from the Evora, and the engine finds its voice at higher revs and bigger throttle openings. (There's also the fascinating, but slightly distracting view of the supercharger's bypass valve opening and closing - visible in the rear view mirror that looks over the top of the engine.)

The V6 remains more effective than operatic, the redline set at a relatively lowly 7,000rpm, and although it feels more than muscular enough to make Hethel interesting, we live in the mad world where a 280hp/ tonne power-to-weight ratio no longer qualifies as particularly spiky. Interestingly, Kershaw says Lotus is expecting a significant amount of Emira custom from those trading out of junior supercars having been frustrated by their inability to fully exploit them on road.

The prototype Emira's gearchange is improved over the Evora's loose-feeling shift, but it sometimes snagged when being shifted across its planes, especially between second and third - the only detail that really felt pre-build. Everything else was pretty much spot-on, the steering combining Lotus's familiar combination of gentle, proportional responses - none of the dartiness many performance car engineers use to shorthand enthusiasm. The V6 continues to use purely hydraulic power assistance, with a pump driven by the engine, although the AMG version will need to use an electric pump to charge its hydraulic system. Before I've left the pitlane for the first time it's obvious that proper feedback gets to the rim.

The entirely passive suspension feels similarly well judged. Hethel's 2.2-mile circuit is short on rough edges since it was resurfaced a few years ago, but the Emira's pliancy was still immediately obvious - to the extent I was soon taking aggressive amounts of kerb to give the dampers more of a challenge. Sitting on a wider track than the Evora has allowed for relatively soft spring rates and some roll - this being useful to help drivers orientate themselves to rising loads according to Kershaw - though it never felt excessive. Despite being on the softest springs and most road-friendly tyres the dashboard display was still reporting peaks of over 1G lateral acceleration; this on a wet track. With Sport suspension and Cup R tyres it will be on another level, and that's before the inevitable harder-cored versions follow later.

While grip is strong, it's the margins that surround the Emira's transition into losing adhesion that really stand out. Tour mode maintains order in the slippery conditions, fighting the understeer that's easily picked up on the greasy Rindt hairpin at the north end, while also preventing any obvious rear-end slip on the equally tight Andretti corner that marks the southernmost part of the track.

Sport mode is more liberal, allowing modest amounts of low speed power oversteer. But it is turning the stability control fully off that delivers the big revelation - the Emira feels friendlier with no electronic help than many sharp-end performance cars do when using their driver-flattering active modes. The combination of the engine's linear torque, sympathetic suspension geometry and the sliding grip characteristics of the tyres make for what, in terms of driftability, is pretty much a mid-engined C63 AMG.

While Emira drivers are unlikely to be regularly engendering substantial yaw angles on the road, they will be experiencing the less intense handling magic on an everyday basis. Lotus has long been masterful at taming the weight distribution of an engine behind the passenger compartment, the prototype using the mass to help it settle into a corner and to make it easy to adjust its line through weight transfer. But the negative traits that often come from having an engine in the middle are also missing: even when I make mistakes the Emira never feels snappy, and it proved impressive tolerant of what should be daring overlaps of braking and steering inputs.

There's no great surprise that the Emira handles so well; given the company's long-held mastery of chassis engineering the bigger shock would come if it didn't. It's the other stuff that feels like the more substantial change: the ease of use, the plushness of the cabin trim, even the novelty of dealing with a touchscreen interface. These are all sensible, obvious changes to broaden the Emira's appeal and it would be hard to be offended by any of them, although some will doubtless see them as evidence that the car's priorities have fundamentally shifted.

They haven't. This is still a Lotus, just an exceptionally handsome and well-finished one. There are still plenty of questions that will need to wait for a road drive in a production car to be answered, but first impressions are overwhelmingly positive.

Specification | Lotus Emira V6 prototype

Engine: 3456cc V6, superchargedTransmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drivePower (hp): 400bhp @ 6800rpmTorque (lb ft): 309b-ft @ 3500rpm0-60mph: 4.1secTop speed: 186mphWeight: 1430kgMPG: 29.1CO2: 225Price: £75,995 (V6 First Edition)

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