Every gearhead wants to drive something unique. We yearn for the thrill of g-sled acceleration, the feel of cornering as though on rails, and styling that makes you the envy of everyone at Cars and Coffee. This usually means an exotic or nearly exotic car. The thrill of being shoved back in your seat, hearing the wail of a high performance engine, as the scenery outside your window blurs, as you watch the speedometer tell you you’re approaching warp speed, it’s an experience few others eclipse. The problem, for most of us, is that exotic car experience is usually accompanied by a hefty price tag, and that job working at Uncle Plucky’s House of Chicken hasn’t impressed your loan officer enough to finance a new Aventador. So, how do the true car geeks among us scratch that itch to go fast, corner hard, and look cool without selling off our first born? Look for those rare-but-attainable affordable exotics.As the average price for a new car is just over $33,500, I have tried to find exotics with an entry price around $40,000. Compared with the sticker of the 2018 Ford GT (around $450,000), Porsche 911 Turbo ($159,200 base), Ferrari 488 ($245,400), and the Lamborghini Aventador ($399,500), $40k begins to look like an absolute bargain.
Lotus Esprit V-8 1996-2004- From the Esprit’s introduction as a concept at the 1972 Turin Motor Show until it’s scheduled demise with the 1995 model year, it was a four-cylinder, mid-engine sports coupe. The cancellation of an intended front-engined Lotus project left Lotus with a 3.5 liter V-8, and no car in which to put it. The engine, an aluminum twin turbo capable of producing 500 horsepower, had been developed in-house at Lotus. Even with significant reinforcement and engineering, the Renault-sourced UN-1 transmission that fit the Esprit could not handle this output. The 3.5 was detuned to 350hp, and the Esprit V-8 went into production. Despite having been reduced in output, the Esprit managed to streak from 0-60 in just 4.3 seconds, and go on to crush the quarter mile in 12.6 seconds. With an updated interior, exterior styling improvements, and recalibrated suspension, the Esprit was every bit a qualified contender among other exotics of the time.
Pros: It is indeed difficult to find another mid-engined exotic with this level of performance at this price. Sleek wedge styling is typical of this type of drivetrain. Low-slung, slippery, bedecked with a giant boy-racer wing, and an interior fully wrapped in sumptuous leather, the Esprit is everything you want in an exotic, without the terrifying price. The 3.5 twin turbo pulls like madman from a dead stop to a top speed north of 175mph. 100 mph arrives in under 10 seconds. Performance, comfort, and style can all be had here for a bargain basement price.
Cons: The Achilles heel for the Esprit V-8 will always be the Renault UN-1 transmission. It simply wasn’t designed to take the power the engine puts out. You can have the transmission beefed up, either by sending it to a specialty shop or doing the work yourself (parts are can be sourced through the Lotus Owners Forum). Without reinforcing the transmission, hard launches in first or second gear are capable of doing damage. When looking out the rear-view mirror, most of your view is the of wing. Some have complained of rather cheap switchgear, as Lotus was owned by GM at the time of the Esprit V-8’s introduction, and many of the parts came from the GM bin.
Verdict: They may have a weak transmission, but that is fixable. Once that is done, the engine is able to be modified without a great deal of difficulty, achieving much higher output. The styling is classic exotic, and you just don’t see very many of them. The entire 28-year production run yielded fewer than 11,000 units. If you fear the transmission, and you can do with a little less power, the previous iteration Esprit S4 produced 264 horsepower, and the S4S put out 300. Both of these cars hit 0-60 in under five seconds and had top speeds in excess of 160mph. The Esprit V-8 is excellent, so much so it is on the short list of cars I hope to buy for myself. Further, the earlier generations of Esprit have begun to appreciate in value, so long term the Esprit V-8 should be a solid investment.