The Lotus eaters

In this issue, Andrew examines that British institution Lotus, and muses on where it might go from here

Published:  16 May, 2022

Lotus is currently a niche market player with luxury brand pricing. This reflects the inability of a relatively poorly funded small-scale manufacturer to match the quality or durability of bigger automotive companies. Despite this, the essential traits of excellent road handling combined with a compliant ride, Lotus hallmarks, remain.

The company is a long, long way from where it could be, and the hope is Geely will one day give Lotus a special place within its operations. Outwardly this has not happened, yet, inwardly there is a lot of serious competition from other members such as Volvo and Polestar, let alone other Geely operations.

Lotus is not the only brand to be afflicted by this conundrum. Even Bugatti, in a far more expensive area of the market, is presently struggling. The best niche players at the most expensive end of the market, such as Koenigsegg and Rimac, use limited tooling budgets very effectively, knowing a build line of 20 units or less might be the total potential for any single edition of their product.
Lotus needs to stop thinking only about volume, or, if that’s what it really wants, to return to developing special versions of mass production vehicles. Lotus Omega is a good example of this, and was profitable for Lotus too. However, within Geely, Polestar sits in this place with Volvo as well being as a stand-alone brand. Lynk & Co is effectively a China-only brand. LCEV is an unlikely target, being taxis and vans, while Proton continues to do next to nothing. Awkward.

Vauxhall VX220: A shot in the dark?
It worked elsewhere, in another life. The Opel Speedster, otherwise known as the Vauxhall VX220 in some markets, was a re-engineered Lotus Elise that enabled GM Europe to produce a ‘halo’ sports car with minimal investment. The contract was for a fixed number of vehicles powered by a GM Europe powertrain, and the only extension saw the addition of the turbocharged engine edition.
This was the second such programme, after the aforementioned Opel Lotus Omega/Vauxhall Lotus Carlton, which was closer to existing GM Europe products. Lotus sought to create more niche vehicles, but GM and GM Europe were not willing to repeat the experiment.

The main challenge is this: A low tooling investment programme with relatively low production numbers is going to struggle to match the panel gapping, durability and functionality of the mainstream mass market model programme. So, it’s harder to sell a vehicle which is a Lotus to either Vauxhall or Opel customers who expect lots of mundane things to be present, when they were not. Stellar ride and handling were not enough.

The quality demands made for the GM Europe vehicles were much more stringent than for Lotus, which means enthusiasts know the better buy is a Speedster or VX220. Vauxhall/Opel then did not follow up with anything, so allowed this project to stand alone. If GM Europe had been more serious, they would have repeated the project at least twice more, and made a fortune with the third generation. Nothing like the Speedster/VX220 existed in the range, so this was in effect building a new market segment for GM Europe.

However, GM Europe was on the ropes, not selling enough mainstream models, had excess production capacity and needed to cut costs. So, once the Lotus contract was complete, it was not renewed - even though the money saved was insignificant in terms of the overall GM Europe operation costs.

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