It’s the ’90s all over again so prepare to drool at the original MSRP of the Esprit S4

The Lotus Esprit is a landmark car in Lotus’ history for more reason than one. From its Hollywood movie star status as James Bond’s wheels to the fact that it remained in production a scarcely believable 28 years, the Esprit is regarded by many as an automotive cult classic of the 20th century. But that doesn’t mean all Esprits were good and, arguably, it wasn’t until this, the S4, that the model was bestowed with some sort of user-friendliness.

The Esprit Remains The Most British Of Wedges

Throwback: 1994 Lotus Esprit S4 Video Review
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In the ’70s, a supercar could only be recognized as such if it borrowed enough acute angles and steep slopes from your average middle schooler’s geometry textbook to start its very own course on triangles. The fashion was kickstarted by Lamborghini that needed something to replace the Miura with and, once more, Giugiaro’s Marcello Gandini rose to the occasion and delivered a game-changer.

Inspired by 1969's Alfa Romeo Carabo, the Countach was the poster boy of its own class for years and everyone tried to copy it.

Sure, both Ferrari and Maserati already had mid-engined supercars in their lineup that looked reasonably pointy (the Merak and the Bora in the Trident’s corner and the 512 BB flying the flag for Maranello respectively) by the time the Countach dropped in 1974, but all seemed too smooth, to friendly-looking when Lambo’s foul-mouthed bomb dropped.

Throwback: 1994 Lotus Esprit S4 Video Review
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Meanwhile, Lotus, a company that was far from playing with the big boys on the street - but was very much at the forefront in Formula 1 - sought to replace its somewhat awkward Europa with another mid-engined proposition to sit alongside the Elite, a two-door shooting brake that would end up borrowing much of the rear fascia of the Rover SD1 by the end of its production cycle. The new car had to be pointy like the Elite but also feature a rear-mid-mounted engine like the Europa and, of course, pop-up headlights.

To make sure styling wasn’t going to be an issue, Giugiaro was tasked with the design and thus the Esprit was born in 1976. It arrived four years after Italdesign unveiled an unnamed prototype underpinned by a Lotus chassis at the Turin Auto Show to test the crowds amid Colin Chapman’s dissatisfaction with the car’s rather high drag coefficient. Chapman was eventually persuaded to greenlight the car by the crowd’s reaction to the prototype.

The original Esprit, however, wasn't perfect.

From the build quality, the seating position, the practicality, and even the fact that Lotus had cut numerous corners in production to the point that the door handles came off a Morris Marina, the first Esprit was way ’leakier’ than Roger Moore’s Bond made it seem in that famous submarine sequence. Sure, in pure Lotus fashion, even the early Esprits transformed when you traveled at a (barely) legal rate of speed on a road that mercifully included some bends but it would take years before the Esprit (french for ’lively’) became an all-rounder.

That step was made in earnest with 1993’s S4. At the time, Lotus had just been saved by Italian Romano Artioli who was also the man behind Bugatti’s rebirth in Campogalliano where the EB110 would be assembled.

Throwback: 1994 Lotus Esprit S4 Video Review
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With the much-needed funds secured, Lotus had designer Julian Thomson once again update the design which he did by effectively adding more curves to the already less bold exterior as designed by Peter Stevens in the late '80s.

The front and rear bumpers were changed and a new, pillar-connected spoiler was added as well as bigger, 17-inch rims hugged by special Goodyear GSA rubber.

Moreover, the rear panels were new as were the side skirts. In short, this was the biggest makeover the Esprit will ever go through and it was more than just skin-deep. The S4 was the first Esprit to be offered with standard power steering and, with a more lavishly appointed cabin that also offered slightly more passenger room, this Esprit was nicer to sit in than any other. The dated British Leyland switchgear was dumped in favor of sleeker, GM-sourced knobs and buttons and the fake wood trim of the S2 and S3 was also gone in favor of carbon-fiber-lookalike surrounds.

Throwback: 1994 Lotus Esprit S4 Video Review
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The power steering wasn’t simply introduced to help the driver in slow, rush hour traffic as it had high-speed implications too. As Roger Becker, then-Chief of Vehicle Engineer at Lotus, explained, the Esprit had always been set up to feel a bit more understeer-y for safety reasons but "we overstepped the mark." As such, the S4 gained a more neutral if not slightly oversteer-y behavior towards the limit by virtue of fiddling with the suspension and chassis balance. The geometry in the front no longer allowed for diving under heavy braking and more negative camber, as well as caster, was added. The spring rates were altered and the front anti-roll bar was thinned while the camber was changed at the back too where 44% stiffer springs were fitted.

Powering the S4 between 1994 and 1996 was the same 2.2-liter twin-cam turbo unit as before.
Throwback: 1994 Lotus Esprit S4 Video Review
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264 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque weren’t going to crack the sky but, then again, Lotus was working at the time on the (now highly sought-after) Sport 300 that would be rated at 300 horsepower which meant undermining the Sport 300 by delivering a more powerful S4 was out of the question. The gearbox, too, was the same, albeit with a new linkage resulting in a snappier and shorter throw between gears.

MotorWeek tested an S4 at Pocono Raceway’s then-new oval and was quite impressed with the way it handled - enough to forgive the AE86-sourced taillights and also the semi-concealed Vauxhall door handles that replaced the Marina ones. In MotorWeek’s hands, a US-spec S4 went from naught to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds en route to a quarter-mile time of 13.5 seconds at 102 mph.

Lotus Esprit S4 specifications
Engine 2.2-liter twin-cam turbo
Horsepower 264 HP
Torque 261 LB-FT
60 mph 4.8 seconds
quarter-mile time 13.5 seconds
quarter-mile speed 102 mph
Throwback: 1994 Lotus Esprit S4 Video Review
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In spite of all of the upgrades and a reasonable $69,995 MSRP, less than 630 S4s were sold before the S4S was introduced for the 1997 model year. The added ’S’ meant a not-so-meek body kit further aided by a set of shiny OZ wheels. To complement the visual changes, tweaks to the ECU were made that resulted in a 16 horsepower surge - enough before the arrival of the V-8.

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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