Trying to understand the Lotus Eletre.
Even I have come to accept that sports car marques can barely survive, and certainly not thrive, without having an SUV or crossover in their portfolio. Indeed, it seems that even developing a saloon car is not worth the R&D these days, given the news that Mazda will not be replacing the Mazda6, although its new FR platform, RWD, straight-sixes and all, looks tailor made for that job.
Not that I am trying to claim that production of the MX-5 makes the Hiroshima-based firm a sports car marque. No, the brand I have in mind is Lotus.
Amid much brouhaha, Lotus unveiled the Eletre at the end of March. Previously known by its model code, Type 132, this is the much-anticipated SUV from the fabled ex-Formula 1 brand, which is enjoying a(nother) renaissance, this time care of its majority-shareholding ownership by Geely. The clever thing that Lotus has achieved here is that, whilst the Eletre is a competitor to the likes of the Cayenne, or even the Bentayga, DBX, Urus, and forthcoming Purosangue, it is (as its name suggests) only available as a full BEV.
The Eletre will be built in Wuhan, China, which is about as far away from Hethel as the design and engineering of this SUV is from that of the new Emira sports car. I think the truth is that it’s a Geely car and the majority shareholder is simply using the Lotus badge to be able to sell it at a premium. Fair dues, they invest £millions in new facilities, new models, new everything for Lotus, so they get to decide to use the badge on a thumping great new BEV SUV. Right?
Let’s have a closer look at the new Eletre. It is 5,105mm long, 2,131mm wide and 1,630mm tall, with a long wheelbase. It uses a ‘skateboard’ format, part of what Lotus calls its Electric Premium Architecture which can be scaled up and down to underpin a range of BEV vehicles. This is a full-matrix approach, with different battery and motor types, as well as other components available to Lotus to create a diverse range of offerings. Lotus admits the Eletre is of a scale to help it to appeal to Chinese and US markets, but it still expects strong sales in Europe, with starting prices below £100k. This is far less than a Urus, which it matches or betters in so many ways.
The Eletre will come with a battery capacity of more than 100kWh and power upwards of 592bhp. Maximum range is either 348 or 370 miles, depending on where you source your information (to be accurate, the original claim was 348, but, on realising that the BMW iX can better that, Lotus said it was aiming for in excess of 370 miles). A full recharge will be possible in 18 minutes from a 350kW charger (if you can find one). Claimed performance is suitably mental, with the somewhat puerile aim being to hit 60mph in 3 seconds or less, on the way to a 162mph top speed. I think that will make it the fastest accelerating Lotus ever, but a Tesla Model X Plaid (if they do such a thing) will be faster still. So, so what?
Air suspension, active aerodynamics and active ride height will be standard, while options will include active dampers, active rear-axle steering and torque vectoring via an electronic limited-slip differential. So much for simple. Lotus is said to be targeting a weight of 2 metric tonnes, which is not bad for a large electric SUV, but is not exactly lightweight. Hence, I am not sure whether I agree with those motoring journal editorials claiming that ACBC would approve.
Styling-wise, I had really hoped for something elegant and clever. And, in some ways, it is clever, but will surely never be described as elegant. The exterior is peppered with proper functioning ducts, splitters and subtle spoilers to smooth the flow of air around the body, create downforce and cool various components. These create some commonality with the other post-Geely new models, the abovementioned Emira and the Evija BEV hypercar, but there the aesthetic thread breaks.
Design spokesperson for the Eletre at the press launch was studio director Ben Payne. He claims that the SUV references Lotus’s mid-engined heritage, despite being a different kind of product. He says that this helps one subconsciously understand the car. Hmm. I’ll concur with what he uses as a valedictory statement, that being that it does not share the long bonnet of Aston’s DBX, but I still don’t think ‘Esprit’ when I look at it, not even in the darkest depth of my subconsciousness.
So, what do I see? From the side, I see a shallower version of Lexus RX L’s DLO sat atop what could easily be the bodywork of the Urus, especially when painted yellow. The vehicle (I struggle with anything with this much visual heft being called merely a car) appears poorly proportioned from that elevation, with the bulk of the rear overwhelming the form at the front. I’d have thought that over-the-shoulder vision will be awful, courtesy of that rear pillar set up, but few seem to care about that anymore.
The frontal aspect is generic, aggressive SUV, and for some reason (it could be my subconscious) reminds me of the Lynk & Co 01. If anyone can see anything Lotus about that front-end I would be genuinely interested in hearing from them.
The view from the rear three-quarters is, I would argue, the most successful. One can better appreciate the sculpting and ducting down the flanks, as well as the relative cohesion of the way the rear light strip bisects the ducts which stem from the rear inner wheel-arches. This provides the clearest visual link with the Evija. It also has a novel spoiler above the rear window, like that on the Jaguar i-Pace, but without the central blade.
Inside, it looks like a cutting-edge hotel lounge, with a mix of tech hardware and environmentally friendly, fabric-clothed, soft furnishings – including pads on the top of the dash. I particularly like the way the fabric on the armrests of the front doors looks like it has been peeled away and up from the door-cards. However, the doors are so deep and the windows so shallow that an averagely sized person is likely to feel hemmed-in: maybe people like that sensation?.
There’s a narrow strip of an instrument panel in front of the driver, otherwise instrumentation is projected onto the inside of the windscreen. It is complemented by a now-customary, large, central infotainment screen and I read of analogue controls for the HVAC, as well as voice-recognition. The Eletre provides one nostalgic flashback to the early ’70s in the form of its quartic steering wheel. The Allegro as a 21st Century stylistic trailblazer, who knew?
Small screens at the edge of the dash, along with the external door-mounted cameras, replace the usual door mirrors. These screens are dimmed until another camera detects the driver’s eyes flicking in their direction, when the brightness level rises to 100%. That’s clever, and yet ultimately pointless. I am yet to hear any arguments as to how this arrangement provides any real advance on reflective glass: surely it only adds complexity and weight?
The boot’s capacity of 400 litres is surprisingly tight for such a large car (a trait is shares with the Citroën C6), not really offset by a ‘frunk’ which adds another 70 litres of storage space. The Eletre comes as either a four or five-seater, although rear space seems more compromised than one might expect.
Overall, on one hand it’s easy to be seduced by this vehicle. It’s dripping in the latest technology (there are even LiDaR cameras to facilitate Level 4 autonomous driving), has an impressively modish and comfortable looking interior and accelerates faster than a stabbed rat. We’ve never seen a Lotus blessed by so much investment before. On the other hand, I can’t shake off the feeling that the Eletre should have been so much more than it is. I have read it described as ‘A Lotus like no other’, which it clearly is but, at the same time, it’s too much a large SUV like many others, except for the fact that it’s a BEV.
I guess I had hoped that, somehow, Lotus would produce something different; a more intelligent interpretation of an SUV enabled by its BEV platform. Instead, I feel that my hopes and expectations have been reality-checked by the truth of the EPA-based cars being engineered by Geely and merely dressed by Lotus. The clues were long-time Lotus engineer Gavan Kershaw being cited as leading the chassis engineering team and Colin Chapman’s son featuring in an official teaser video put out on social media in the lead up to the launch event. Both smack of protesting just a little too much that the Eletre is, at heart, a real Lotus. Honest, guv…
As an aside, another rather depressing thought is that recent evidence suggests, if one wants to buy anything larger than a sub-compact BEV, it will have to come in an SUV or crossover format. Moreover, it is starting to look like the traditional ICE and/or BEV sub-compact hatch is being swallowed up by the compact crossover or SUV. (Witness the 2008, Mokka, Puma, Arona, Kamiq, Captur, T-Cross, Yaris Cross, DS3 Crossback, etc.)
As I wrote earlier, Lotus is not the first and nor will it be the last sportscar marque to follow this path. The recently renascent Alpine, with which Lotus is collaborating on a new BEV sports car ultimately to replace the A110 and Emira, is now expanding its reach via development of a BEV SUV/crossover.
And if it must, then Lotus could do worse than study Porsche, which has shown how it can be done rather well. I remember how few were convinced by Porsche’s first SUV effort, the Cayenne, and yet now the Macan and Taycan (in particular) are accepted as successful reinterpretations of the marque. So, maybe there is hope that the promise of special things from Lotus will yet come good.