I've written about the Lotus Elan before, but not this one. It's an altogether different beast, with a couple of unexpected postscripts which lead, indirectly, to one of the most surprising new cars on sale today.
Throughout the 1980s, Lotus dropped tantalising hints about its plan to make a compact, open two-seater sports car in the spirit of the original Elan. Lotus, however, has never been a company prone to a backward glance – it left the original-Elan tribute to Mazda and its MX-5 – and purity of engineering always trumped notions of deliberate and lovable imperfection. Non-deliberate imperfections were standard Lotus features back then, of course, but that's not the story here.
Lotus's intention was to make a car which would not only corner faster than almost anything else but which would be so friendly and faithful that, as the design brief went, '90 per cent of people could drove it at 90 per cent of its capability for 90 per cent of the time.' The engineers went back to first principles and, controversially, came up with the first and so far only Lotus with front-wheel drive.
Chassis guru John Miles had an almost evangelical aversion to the 'rapid acceleration of yaw angle' – or propensity to lift-off oversteer or wayward behaviour in a slalom – that was thought to afflict cars such as the Peugeot 205 GTI, although good modern tyres make that car rather more benign and trustworthy than it was once popularly thought to be. Anyway, Lotus Project M100 – the new Elan – would have none of that nonsense.
So, how would it still be fun to drive, beyond its ability to generate large cornering g-forces? A further neutralisation of the forces that keep the driver in the picture came with the mounting of the the front suspension's upper and lower wishbone assemblies on 'rafts', rubber-mounted and able to move when torque-steer – the tendency of the nose to be tugged one way or the other under acceleration – threatened, upon which the raft-movement would cancel it out.
These rafts were the main reason why the M100 was unusually broad, unlike the original Elan. It was also heavy for a Lotus, but the 165bhp resulting from bolting a turbocharger to the 1.6-litre Isuzu engine made up for that. There was also a non-turbo version, but hardly anyone bought it. This Isuzu motor was just one of many General Motors components in the M100, GM owning a large chunk of Lotus at the time. The instruments and switchgear were among the most visible examples of this.
To drive, this Elan was simultaneously breathtaking and frustrating. I remember, on the press launch in 1990, its extraordinary grip at huge cornering speeds, the way it sat glued to the road however much of that turbocharged torque I metered out. But I also remember how aloof the steering felt, for all its accuracy; it was the first car the driving of which I – or indeed anyone – likened to a video game, a description used so often since that it has become a cliché.
If I tried really hard, I could get the cornering line to tighten when I lifted off in a fast corner, but it never threatened to spin. I would say the M100 Elan fulfilled its '90 per cent' brief, but it just wasn't that much fun to drive. Production stopped in 1992 then, curiously, restarted in 1994 with another 800 cars produced to use up surplus engine stock, these S2 versions slightly more interactive in their handling. And then it ended, again, as Lotus concentrated on the imminent, and extremely interactive, Elise which is still with us today.
Or did it end? What actually happened was that Lotus sold the rights to the Elan to a company then little known in Europe for anything beyond cheap superminis and curious 4x4s based on cast-off Mazda bits. That company was Kia, which put the Elan back into production minus all its GM bits. It was sold as, not surprisingly, the Kia Elan in South Korea, and also appeared in some other markets. One was brought over to the UK to test reactions, with a possible view to marketing it as, simply, the Kia Sports Car. The name would tie in neatly with the first version sold here of the Sportage 4x4.
I drove this Kia Sports car, its perfectly-cloned fibreglass bodywork painted bright yellow, its fit and finish actually better and more big-company than that of the Lotus had been, but aura rather strange in its mix of familiarity and aliennness. The switches and dials were all different, because the deal had been done on the basis that no GM parts would be used, and the car rode an inch or two higher than the Lotus to cope, we were told, with South Korea's rougher roads.
That damaged the dynamics considerably, and Kia's 1.8-litre, 151bhp, non-turbo engine lacked the fire of the Isuzu turbo. It was a reasonable sports car but that sense of elastic acceleration and of being sucked to the road had gone. Both could have been resuscitated for the European market, but in the end Kia decided there was no point in trying to launch here a car already perceived as obsolete.
Since then, the Kia company has progressed greatly and its products are considered the equal of anything designed in Europe. Its SUVs nibble at the market normally considered the property of the 'premium' German brands, and from Kia has now come something else to worry those companies. Kia's and Hyundai's design departments are headed by Peter Schreyer, once of Audi, while ex-BMW M-division boss Albert Biermann heads the Hyundai-Kia vehicle-testing and high-performance functions.
Their influence is obvious in the new Kia Stinger, a sleek and low four-door saloon with rear-wheel drive, a 370bhp twin-turbo V6 in its top GTS model and a mission to take on a BMW 3-series, a Mercedes-Benz C-class, an Audi A4 or a Jaguar XE at their own game.
It has the looks and the interior ambience to do just that, and of the new cars I've driven this year, it's by far the most impressive. It's quick, quiet except when roused into its racy snarl, it handles with precision and fluid finesse, it rides with disdain over pockmarked roads. And – the crucial part – it has a very strong personality all of its own
It seems that the disruptive little spirit that somehow, back in the 1990s, convinced Kia to make its own version of Lotus's Elan has resurfaced in full, confident bloom. A Jaguar-rivalling Kia with a 167mph top speed. Who would have thought it?