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Lotus SUV likely as Geely ramps up R&D

Sports Utility Vehicle: Lightweight sportscar-specialist Lotus could bring to market an SUV now that parent-company Geely has taken over.

End of Proton ownership signals end of strangled Lotus budgets

Lotus logo5 Mar 2018

By DANIEL DeGASPERI

LOTUS research and development budgets will be ramped up under Chinese car-maker Geely, according to the boss of the Australian distributorship – and an SUV and electric sportscar are now on the cards.

In an interview with GoAuto last week, Lotus Cars Australia chief operating officer Richard Gibbs admitted that the British brand had been affected by restricted R&D budgets over two decades of Proton ownership.

However, under Geely, which acquired a 51 per cent stake in Lotus (and 49.9 per cent of Proton) from Malaysian conglomerate DRB-Hicom last year, there are now strong indications of greater investment, Mr Gibbs said.

“We are really, really excited about the Geely takeover, I mean you look at their track record with Volvo and London Cabs and you have got to give them two big ticks for what they have done there,” he said.

“They seem, from the outside, to be an organisation that injects enough in terms of cash, and influence and expertise into an organization … but doesn’t rob that organisation of their DNA and what makes them tick.

“If they make available to Lotus some of the resources that were previously unavailable, and hence they can drive the R&D, then all we can see is a positive upside.

“In terms of large-scale R&D and new models, you could argue if you look at our competitors and what they have done in the last, say, seven-year period, they have obviously got more to talk about in terms of advancement and changes in engine technology and additional features and models in their line-up, and we have really worked along a variant refinement strategy.

“(Now) maybe there will be something more significant that can come down the track. You have to assume that what they (Geely) have done is looked at Lotus and … they see the latent capacity and capability that is sitting within Lotus and that just needs to be unleashed. You don’t do that sort of stuff (purchase) unless you plan to do something with it and grow and benefit from it.”

Failed attempts to reboot Lotus were still relatively fresh, however. Former Lotus CEO Dany Bahar revealed at the 2010 Paris motor show an ambitious plan to develop five new models and rapidly expand the British car-maker’s production volume, just one year into the role.

He was dismissed in 2012 and current Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales has been in the role since May 2014, with only evolutions of the early-2000s Elise, Exige and Evora having come to fruition.

Mr Gibbs said there was intel that it was all about to change, though.

“(The current) insight says that R&D money is going to be made available for the purposes of building new models,” he continued.

“We are confident, based on the communications that are coming to us, that we are going to see some new product in the coming years (and) we are thinking it’s probably a couple of years away.

“That would be for any kind of new model and it may be even a bit longer than that, because it does take some time to get new models up and running with all the compliance work that has to go with it.”

In an interview with UK motoring publication Autocar late last year, Mr Gales said that Lotus was “working” on a new-generation line-up and “the new board needs to pass it, but the future is very bright.” “We have clear targets and are owned by an automotive specialist (Geely), I don’t think anything better could have happened to us,” he told Autocar.

“We’re going to increase the engineering team here, we’ll be hiring more people, and fast. The amount of work over the next three years will be massive.

We’ve shown what we can do on limited budgets – imagine what we can do with a shareholder that wants to invest in an iconic brand.”

He also said that a Lotus SUV could “absolutely” work, adding to Autocar that “there is a niche within that for a Lotus crossover that is light and aerodynamic and handles like nothing else.”

The Lotus Cars Australia COO revealed that buyers had been asking about the mooted SUV and that “it should do well” in the local market “if they get it fit-for-purpose, definition-correct.”“You would have to assume they were going to go for lightweight sports handling and put a greater emphasis on road and towing sports use than offroad,” Mr Gibbs said.

“I think if they do that, it will be right on tune. There are a lot of Lotus owners at the moment towing their cars around on trailers behind other brands’ SUVs and I’m sure if they feel the Lotus is a viable option, they are quite happy to tow behind a Lotus.

“There is certainly a high degree of interest within the existing community. As to the market, whether the market can cope with another SUV coming in, I guess we would just look to the broader market trends and statistics and attitudes at the moment, and at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any let-up at all in the appetite for SUVs.”

Mr Gibbs expected that the Elise, Exige and Evora would live on into a new generation, which was rumoured to be released by 2021 and underpinned by a new platform. Mr Gales told Autocar that Lotus sportscars would continue to be built in the UK, but other models such as the SUV could be made elsewhere.

As global emissions standards become tighter, Mr Gibbs further acknowledged that a Lotus electric vehicle (EV) could also be in store, but he was adamant that buyers were now more accepting of a battery-powered sportscar “provided it doesn’t take Lotus away from core fundamental platform beliefs of light weight.”“So that may present a challenge with battery weight and so on,” he added.

“I think people are resigned to the fact that there will be some kind of hybrid car in the Lotus market, and maybe 10 years ago that would have been met with statements of heresy and the like, but that’s not the case now. I think the Lotus owners are beginning to realise that is called progression.

“I would like to think that maybe Lotus will retain some models in the range for some of these combustion engine purists, but again, there could be things that we can’t control when it comes to legislation. We may be forced to have to bring out platforms that are not totally reliant on the internal combustion engine.”

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