Lotus 340R

Spyder from Mars

Yes the lotus 340R looks like something fromk another plaet. But there's a very good reason for that: to make it the ultimate track weapon.

Story: Allan Muir. Photography: Anton Watts.

TEARS ARE STREAMING DOWN MY FACE, my eyes are screwed up against the biting wind that's whipping around my head, and I'm being peppered with road grit as the Lotus 340R hammers down the back straight at Hethel into a wall of fog. The angry bellow of a highly tuned fourcylinder engine under hard acceleration fills the cockpit and seems to reverberate off the white walls of the cocoon that surrounds the radical black and grey sports car and follows it down the road. Belatedly it occurs to me that a crash helmet might have been a good idea.

Somewhere up ahead are three staggered rows of cones that block the straight to form a makeshift chicane, but I'd need night-vision glasses to see them. By now I've got the confidence to stay hard on the gas, still accelerating furiously in fourth gear, until the 1 00-metre braking board looms out of the mist. Wait for a count of two and then hit the big cross-drilled brakes. Down to third and back on the throttle; the car is settled and ready to attack the fast right-left almost before I am. Flick, flick, accelerate. Lots of grip. Easy. Must try harder next time.

This is the first time anyone outside Lotus has driven the 340R flat out; even the Lotus test driver who's on hand is curious to know what it's capable of Despite the fact that the suspension geometry hasn't been finalised, Lotus's radical new sports car feels astonishingly well sorted.

Actually, it feels like an Elise with more power, more grip and even more lightning-quick responses. No surprise there, given that the 340R shares its revolutionary aluminium chassis, suspension layout and powertrain with Lotus's wonderful little roadster. The 1.8-litre, non-VVC Rover K-series engine - putting out 177bhp in road-legal form and 190bhp in track spec - is the same as the one we've seen previously in the rare (single vehicle type approval only) Elise Sport.

But the 340R goes much further than any of the uprated Elises we've seen from Lotus so far. It's hardcore - the ultimate plaything for track days and Sunday afternoon blasts.

To achieve the desired power-to-weight ratio of 340bhp per tonne in track spec, the 340R needs to weigh just 560kg. The final weight of the road version is expected to be around 600kg - still over 100kg less than the standard Elise. That's a large part of the reason why the 340R wears such skeletal bodywork, with no doors, no roof Oust a tonneau), open wheels and an even more strippedout cockpit than the Elise. With no side windows and a cut-down windscreen, there's more buffeting in the cabin compared with the remarkably calm Elise. That won't present a problem to helmet-clad track day users, but it might ruffle a few careffilly coiffured hairs among the pop star types who have placed orders for 340Rs.

A YEAR AGO THE 340R WAS JUST A concept. Now, on the eve of the new millennium, the first customer cars are about to be delivered. That's one of the quickest gestation periods ever for a new model, according to Lotus. Of course, the development team had a damned fine base from which to work. On the other hand, so much is new or has been tweaked in some way that you'd have to be a little cynical to argue that the 340R is simply a rebodied Elise. The Elise, which has itself benefited from modifications to its suspension settings in the past year, is just the starting point for the most extreme Lotus yet.

The production 340R is also different from the 1998 show car in several ways, the changes being made to get it through the European type approval process. But it was never in any danger of turning out much different from the concept; Lotus was acutely aware of the fact that customers who had slapped down deposits based on the stunning 1998 show car would be less than impressed if it were diluted in any way. So it hasn't been. If anything, the tweakery has made the 340R look more radical than ever.

The most obvious modifications are to the car's aerodynamics. At the front, the original bib spoiler has sprouted into a full bi-plane wing. At the rear, the carbonfibre wing is bigger and fixed at a revised angle to give more downforce and improve high-speed stability. Engine cooling, too, has come in for further attention, with the front grille opening and the air intakes on the nose cone and sides all being enlarged.

Sadly, the need to comply with drive-by noise regulations means the previously exposed engine is now shrouded in black cladding, removing the joy of being able to see the car's mechanicals in all their glory. Not a problem: it comes off, for use on tracks where noise isn't an issue, The exhaust system has also been redesigned, the huge silencer being wrapped in a heat-suppressing blanket and perched just behind the engine.

GETTING INTO THE 340R BRINGS BACK not entirely happy memories of school sports days - specifically my feeble efforts to clear the bar in the high jump by the good old scissors technique (clearly the school had never heard of Dick Fosbury). It could also be compared to stepping into one of those enormous free-standing cast iron baths. Without the benefit of a door to ease access, my novice technique is to throw my left leg over the side of the thigh-high bodywork, plant it in the middle of the driver's seat (the base of which flips up so you don't soil it) and then swing my right leg over before sliding down into the footwell. All highly elegant. The accepted method is to sit on the bodywork and swing both legs over together; the composite bodywork is tough enough to take it. Either way, getting in and out involves quite a lot of standing on seats and lifting legs higher off the ground than God ever intended.

Next to the 340R, the Elise seems positively lavish in its appointments. A cut-down facia now features a separate horizontal bar that arcs across from in front of the passenger and acts as a mount for the new, individual Stack instruments. The minimal switchgear for the lights has been moved to a thin alloy blade that drops down from under the dash, while an unmarked alloy button in the middle of the facia is what the driver has to prod in order to kick the engine into life. No flashy, 'look at me, I'm a racing car' red starter buttons here; it's pure function. There's no space for a stereo (heaven forbid) and no heater or ventilation system. The only concession to driver comfort on a cold day is a heated windscreen and a pipe that channels warm air from the engine bay into the foot well from under the dash.

From behind the wheel, the 340R seems narrower and more dart-like than the Elise, with its minimalist bodywork and open front wheels, covered only by black carbonfibre cycle guards. The high-sided, all-of-a-piece bodywork actually makes the cockpit feel more enclosed than that of a roof-off Elise, despite the perspex alongside the cockpit. These opaque panels - added after the original idea of an open-sided cockpit proved too draughty - are more for the benefit of outside observers than for the 340Ws occupants. Even if you put the shape to one side, it's a real pleasure to watch a 340R in action on a track, because you can see the driver twirling the wheel in the middle of those long oversteer moments. And i the on-track action is getting dull, you can have a lively debate about his taste in trouserwear.

Even with the road-legal exhaust and noise suppressing cladding in place, the engine makes a hell of a racket. On a light or steady throttle i rattles like a vigorously shaken tin of nuts and bolts - a raucous and, it has to be said, not terri bly pleasant sound that it shares with the standan Elise. The aural difference between this engini and that of the Elise is the induction noise yoi get when you accelerate with vigour. Not the tuneful howl of a Ferrari 360 Modena, but a hard raw, primal blare just inches from your head that leaves you in no doubt that it means business. You'd almost think it had carbs rather than fue injection, such is the fierce, deep-throated response you get when you massage the accelerator.

It's not a case of all mouth and no trousers either. Even in road form the 340R feels seriously quick, slamming from rest to 62mph in a claimed 4.4sec and to 100mph in 10.7sec. Mated to the close-ratio five-speed gearbox from the Elise 111S, the engine is super strong in the mid and upper reaches. Put it this way: you'd better get used to the flash of the little red change-up light in the revcounter face, triggered at 7600rpm.

Although the rim diameter is no bigger thar on the Elise, the specially developed Yokoham~ A038 tyres are wide enough (195/50 ZR15 front 225/45 ZR16 rear) to make the unassisted steering feel significantly meatier than that of the Elise. The extra weight and the dramatically improved grip combine with the helm's amazing feel and delicacy to give the driver even more reason to have confidence in the front end.

Although there's a lot of downforce from the huge rear wing, you can't afford to take liberties with that end of the car. Like the Elise, it can be hard to tell when the rear is about to let go, and when it happens you've got to have lightning reactions to bring it back. But the levels of grip in the dry are phenomenally high, and Lotus claims the Yokohamas' performance in the wet isn't all that bad for what amounts to grooved slicks.

Just 340 of these barmy cars will be built over the next 12 months or so. At 05,000 a pop, plus E3000 for the track pack, it's too expensive and too extreme to have the appeal of the Elise, But Lotus isn't complaining: it holds deposits for every car in the planned production run. Yes, it's an extravagant toy - but what a toy. Lotus has got the mother of all Christmas presents in store for those at the head of the queue.