Lotus thinks the future of the sports car is software


What makes a Lotus, a Lotus? Anyone familiar with automotive history would likely say it’s the coy “simplify, then add lightness” philosophy that defined Colin Chapman’s scrappy sports car manufacturer and UK Formula One legend. But last year, the company began shipping its all-new electric SUV, the Eletre. It weighs 2600 kilograms. It’s built in China. It has more settings than a high-end washing machine. It’s… an SUV. Absolutely nothing about this car says “Lotus” — aside from the many Lotus logos on it.

Yesterday, I sat down with two of Lotus’ leaders, Chief Commercial Officer Mike Johnstone and VP of Design Ben Payne. Their story is one of a historically agile company doing what it’s always done: Breaking rules and bucking expectations. Now, I draw the line at building a super luxury SUV being “rebellious” (which Lotus claims the Eletre is, given the aforementioned heritage) — that’s like calling a Rolex a counterculture statement. Taking a step back from a blatant case of chasing the market with the Eletre, the strategy of the “new” Lotus does break sharply from the expectations anyone who knows the company would have had even five years ago. The end goal? Securing Lotus’ financial future so it can build an EV sports car that’s actually fun and engaging to drive. That’s easier said than done, but it’s a real plan. 

Evolve or die

In a future where many boutique sports cars are likely to be as culturally relevant as grandfather clocks and polo horses, stubbornly adhering to analogy idolatry and internal combustion romanticism is a “business strategy” like smoking five packs a day is a “retirement plan.” Many sports car enthusiasts believe that the gas sports car will hold on for decades, a niche market offering for those of us who demand a mechanical connection to our vehicles. I don’t know that Lotus would go so far as I would, but I consider this viewpoint borderline delusional. It betrays a fundamental ignorance of supply chains, product development cycles, and product-market fit. The demand for new ICE sports cars is headed for a cliff. I predict we won’t see new platforms of this type after 2030, perhaps barring bespoke hypercars and specialty track-only toys — I’m ready to sign the category’s death warrant now (signed: previous owner of two Mazda Miatas, a Veloster N, a VW GTI, and a Mercedes SL55 AMG). 

The Emeya is Lotus’ forthcoming super-GT sedan. It shares a platform with the Eletre SUV.

As the concurrent cascades of supplier, R&D, advertising, and market demographic shifts to the EV come tumbling down on the industry like a lithium-ion Niagra, you’d have to be clinically unhinged to pour billions of dollars into a new ICE sports car platform intended to be on sale past the early 2030s. I suspect most sports car makers know this, but few are ready to say it out loud for fear of alienating their very emotionally invested (and very profitable) customers. Lotus understands that we’re headed for a historic market disruption event, one which has no precedent. The brand plans to be fully electric by the end of 2027, meaning the current Emira will be Lotus’ last gas engine product, full stop. The Emira is easily the best-reviewed and most in-demand car the company has ever built. And it’s still declaring ICE dead. 

When talking to Ben and Mike, I heard two themes consistently: Lotus needs to quickly expand its portfolio if it’s going to make a credible EV sports car, and the new killer feature of that sports car experience will be software. Hearing this would make the hairs stand up on the necks of many Evora or Emira owners, even if Lotus says it wants to respect the brand’s faithful community as it enters this new era. Frankly, I get the sense that while Lotus may respect that community, it is refusing to be defined by it, and is moving full steam ahead at a deeply opportune moment — to dramatically and pivotally transform the business.

In many ways, Lotus’s playbook is incredibly familiar. Lotus won’t even announce its EV sports car, internally dubbed the Type 135, until 2025, and sales won’t start until 2027. In the meantime, it will build a portfolio of three much more mainstream vehicles — the now on-sale Eletre, the GT super-sedan Emeya (on sale this year), and the unannounced Type 134 crossover (think Macan EV competitor).

The Emeya’s luxurious interior is as pleasant as it is surprising from a brand like Lotus.

The Eletre represents what will likely be the most profitable category of vehicle to build on a per-unit basis for any OEM right now: a big luxury SUV. They’re popular globally, and high-earning buyers are likelier to pick them over a traditional sedan layout. While I think the luxubarge SUV segment is headed for a decline in the mid-term, there’s likely room for new players to get established here — especially if the execution of the product is strong. I haven’t driven an Eletre, but after spending a good amount of time playing with the in-vehicle software, I’m impressed. It feels far closer to a modern smartphone or tablet than any legacy OEM vehicle, and the performance of the software in the Eletre is excellent. I can also confirm what many reviews have stated: The interior of the Eletre is exceptional. Forget everything you know about Lotus or Chinese EVs — this looks and feels like a $100,000 product. Before I sat in it, I was skeptical of the praise. I’m not anymore. Even the secondary touchscreen in the back feels well-executed. With rear seat heating, ventilation, massage, and media controls, it’s an experience that feels like something out of a Maybach limo. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is a bafflingly lovely car. Not just for a Lotus, but in general.

Software will eat the world, and the sports car

One thing I found in the Eletre that made me legitimately excited? A detailed software changelog. Every notable change or fix introduced as part of the v1.3 OTA update the Eletre received was described in a way that felt straight out of a modern smartphone. This is pretty standard fare for owners of brands like Tesla, Lucid, and Rivian — but most carmakers remain woefully opaque in this regard. Better yet? There were actual changes. The most recent update added a driver entry mode function that automatically adjusts the seat for more room when you climb in, automatic memory for the tilt position of the camera mirrors when the car is placed in reverse, and more. That is to say, Lotus is making the car better with updates. Again, this isn’t revolutionary if you’ve ever owned a Tesla. But for a traditionally low-volume sports car maker? This is cutting-edge stuff.

Beauty is more than seat setting-deep, however. While highly readable menus and logically laid out software navigation are great, they have little bearing on a sports car. Or do they? Speaking with Ben and Mike, this modern approach to software is part of a radical rethink of how Lotus develops the vehicle experience, as an ongoing effort to enhance and refine the product for the customer. Some people may cynically claim this is just a way to “beta test” on customers, but I don’t count myself in this camp. I would much rather buy a new product that can be evolved and iterated based on customer feedback than one that feels frozen in time. Tesla has built a huge part of its brand reputation on this reaction-and-response software agility, and for a good reason — cars should get better with time if they can.

The Evija is a handmade EV hypercar that makes nearly 2000 horsepower. Lotus will begin delivering them later this year. Only 130 will be built.

Claim as commenters on the internet may that their E36 BMW M3 or 997 Porsche 911 was designed perfectly from the factory and never “needed” to be improved, that sentiment derives from well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful nostalgia. Statistically, no buyer of any new mass-produced car wants an “old car” experience — sports car or not. This is like demanding an IBM PC XT in 2024. Is there a “market” for such a thing? Sure, if you want to produce in handmade quantities and demand handmade prices. But no serious car business can be built on the back of such a boutique market, apart from those that cater to the ultra-rich, like Pagani, ICON, or Singer. If you intend to sell thousands of cars a year, let alone tens of thousands, you must build a product that retains a semblance of economic accessibility and practical appeal. I believe such a balance requires electrification and a commitment to a software-defined vehicle — and so does Lotus. 

But even if I accept the actuary-driven reality of running a car business, I’m not totally ignorant of physics. I’ve owned two Mazda Miatas, a car that weighs just a hair over 1000 kilograms. Cars that put a smile on your face just going to the grocery store! To recreate that feeling in something that weighs 1500 kilograms — remember, that’s 50% heavier! — already feels impossible. And there are fewer and fewer ICE sports cars on sale today under 1.5 Miata Standard Units. For example, a new Porsche 911 S comes in slightly over that 1500 kg mark. Now imagine dumping the ICE powertrain and stuffing it full of batteries. Keeping it under 1750 kg would be a big challenge on its own. Historically, lightness is next to godliness for a company like Lotus. I sincerely hope they show the world that lightweighting an EV isn’t just a sneering euphemism tossed around by engineers at the bar. I mean, the first Tesla Roadster weighed about 1250 kg — and that was based on a Lotus! It’s possible, it’s just a question of whether it’s possible while also building something that buyers will actually put down cold, hard cash to purchase. And that’s where software enters the picture.

To Lotus, the Eletre and Emeya — and the forthcoming Type 134 crossover — are where the company will cut its teeth using software to create a more engaging, more fun driver experience. As someone who’s driven a few EVs, “fun” is not how I’d describe the driving experience of any of them. Occasionally amusing? Sure. Calming? Absolutely. Precise? Sure! Gut-wrenching (in the case of high-power EVs)? Unquestionably. But fun? Pardon my Clarksonian wistfulness, but there’s simply no drama to driving an electric car. Lotus wants to change that (as I’m sure do Porsche, Maserati, Lamborghini, and many other brands with plans to electrify sports cars).

Words are well and good, but right now, the evidence on the ground for this approach is… thin. The Eletre offers one concrete example of how Lotus wants to use software to “analogize” the EV driving experience: Throttle input progressively builds power instead of applying the “instant torque” curve we’re all so familiar with when piloting an EV. Interestingly, that throttle is something I’ve seen cited consistently as “weird” (maybe even undesirable) in reviews of the Eletre. I’d put that down to expectations of how an EV “should” deliver power versus it being an objectively good or bad thing, personally — as more companies try more approaches, our expectations will probably adjust to meet some of them. I’ve also yet to drive it myself, so I may well eat my words here; I recognize that. 

But I pick up get what Lotus is putting down here, and speaking to Ben and Mike, the possibilities of the software-led sports car come into vague relief in some exciting ways. Granted, “vague” and “possibilities” are operative words here. It’s easy to be optimistic about the future when you can also be largely noncommittal about it. But walk with me for a moment. Imagine using ADAS systems (radar, cameras, AI) to create driving modes that allow a sports car to drive well beyond a driver’s skill level. Lotus offered no specific examples, but given how Lotus owners tend to use their cars? My mind immediately goes to Lotus-developed AI track mappings that keep the car on the best line and even auto-brake as you enter the braking zone coming into a corner. Yes, like a video game. While the idea of a novice turning Randy Pobst times around Laguna Seca by tapping a touchscreen and mashing the right pedal would make any track rat’s blood pressure spike, I can already tell you: That would sell a sports car. Because that can give a driver an experience that only software can (absent years of rigorous practice and professional coaching).

Lotus’ infotainment interface already looks like a video game loading screen. Video game car settings seem a logical next step.

On the road, the possibilities for software to inject fun into the EV driving experience are a bit different. Some ICE OEMs have already played with modes that allow a car to lose enough traction to give a thrill around a corner still while remaining safe and controllable (a “drift mode,” if you will). Something similar for EVs sounds feasible. I’d love to see “heritage” driving modes, where adaptive air suspension, electric anti-roll, and drive-by-wire steering can recreate the input (steering and throttle) responses, ride quality, and perceived grip levels of reference cars. Imagine being able to put your car in “Lotus Esprit Twin Turbo” mode — with absurd intake noises coming through the rear speakers and all. Me likey. But that feels far more ambitious than teaching a car how to go around a track quickly or give a little extra wheelspin around a hairpin corner. More Sports Car 2037 than Sports Car 2027.

Lotus 2027

In 2027, Lotus intends to begin manufacturing and selling this Type 135 2-seater sports car, the first all-electric sports car in its history. I already suspect there’s a good chance this car could be pushed back if market conditions or technical advancements don’t line up precisely — Lotus was transparent that this is still a vehicle they’re in the process of defining. Given how green a field this segment is for any OEM (no EV sports cars meaningfully exist, after all), it will be essential to deliver a strong first showing. Lotus says that the Type 135 will be the “halo” vehicle for its brand, and that means it needs to be different enough, desirable enough, and critically lauded enough to move units for the rest of the portfolio (read: It needs to sell those profitable SUVs). That’s a tall order, and I remain unsure if Lotus will be ready to fill it by 2027. But that’s the plan, so I fully accept I may be wrong here. Lotus is the one building cars, after all, not me.

Eletre business today, sports car fun tomorrow.

With Geely’s engineering, financial, and manufacturing resources (the Geely factory Lotus has contracted in Wuhan can scale to 150,000 cars per year), it’s Lotus’ game to lose. While Porsche will likely start selling its EV Boxster and Cayman replacement before Lotus gets to market, the EV sports car space seems destined for a much more gradual ramp-up than the SUV/CUV and other mass market segments. Given the volumes these cars sell in, that’s not a particularly bold prediction — I suspect many OEMs will take a “wait and see” approach to the EV sports car before deciding if it makes sense to jump in. But that leaves an open door to build a brand, assuming the customers show up.

Many car enthusiasts believe that electrification will be the death of the sports car. That’s a bit melodramatic. But the sports car is about to enter the most challenging environment it has ever faced, and it won’t come out the other end as the sports car we know today. It’s going to be something different. As a car enthusiast, I’m heartened that companies like Lotus are trying to shepherd the sports car through this next stage of life — and still cognizant that there’s a real chance of failure. But I retain hope that someone will get it right, and Lotus is a name that’s earned its reputation for pluckiness. The Type 135 will see that reputation put fully to the test.

Articles You May Like

Oil prices hold firm, on pace for weekly gain, as inflation appears to ease in U.S.
Bitcoin miners at Donald Trump’s closed-door event say he thinks bitcoin can help win AI arms race