Few modern classics offer more performance and visual bang than a Lotus Esprit Turbo SE. Somehow, this softened version — the less-aggressive, non-origami, original shape — has aged gracefully over the past 20 or so years.

Peter Stevens gets credit for this design, with honorable mention to Julian Thompson for the refreshing in 1994.

I’m going to focus on the Esprit SE seen in “Pretty Woman” and ”Basic Instinct” instead of the Roger Moore/James Bond Esprits for a number of reasons, but most involve saving you money to throw into the best high yield savings accounts you can find, preventing hair loss and not worrying about dying by fire along the roadside.

Julia Roberts’ swagger — with street-walking cred, coupled with her 60-second diatribe on why a Lotus handles like it’s on rails — in “Pretty Woman” did for Lotus what “Goldfinger” and Sean Connery’s DB5 did for Aston Martin.

Say all you want about the importance of Formula One and the credibility it can give street cars, but one beautiful woman in a miniskirt on the big screen can get you 10 times the brand recognition with one huge smile and some clever stunt driving. Sharon Stone’s efforts in “Basic Instinct” shortly thereafter didn’t hurt the brand either. Hollywood did what it does best —it stuck with a winner and used the Esprit often.

A better engine and better styling

I’m also a believer in the philosophy that the 4-banger was a better lump than the next-generation, 8-cylinder ride that was introduced in 1997. There is something to be said for the simplicity, growl and performance characteristics of the original 2.2-liter engine. If properly maintained — there’s the caveat in the fine print — these engines will go forever. If abused and neglected, fewer things will grenade themselves faster.

Much has been written about the S1/S2 and early Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Turbos that were built from 1976 until 1987. The true early cars are — at best — fragile and troublesome. I can feel the hate mail coming from the true Church of Colin Chapman, but please save your energy. The later cars are simply more reliable rides that were designed and built by less-drunken volunteers. (I mean the best Hethel engineers.)

Aside from the dated wedge shape on the early Esprits (combined with their decals, stripes and BBS wheels that really say “Disco, baby!”), these whips were enormously compromised by their always-torn, cotton-stitched leather seats, troublesome Citroën gearboxes, engines prone to overheating, the often-cracked, quasi-plastic bumpers and the frequently “I refuse to go up or down” window regulators.

Lots to love in the later cars

Now the good news about the 1989–95 Esprits:

First and foremost, you can obtain a great Esprit Turbo for the price of a new econo-box, hybrid-electric, egg-shaped sedan. Just about $20k gets you well into the ballpark for a stonking good 1989–91 car, and if you spend $35,000, you will have one of the best Lotus Esprit S4s in the country.

Or you could treat yourself to a race car disguised as a street vehicle and find one of the 20 1991 X180Rs that originally sold for over $130,000! Expect to pay $75k for one, and you’ll never sell it.

In 1989, when the Turbo Esprit SE was launched, it produced 264 horsepower and was the most efficient engine per-liter offered to the public. The car could also get you 0–60 mph in 4.7 seconds. You had to spend quite a few more bucks to go just a tad quicker — think Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa.

Little changed through the next few years on this limited production car; an airbag and ABS were added in 1990–91.

In 1993, the rear spoiler and deck lid (glass deleted) were changed. 1993½ gave us an all-new interior that was from the upcoming S4 — along with doors now engineered to actually let a normal-size adult in. Still, pity the woman in a short skirt who is trying to be a lady while getting in and out of one of these things!

The 1994 S4 was restyled on the outside to give a smoother, more modern feel, and it now came equipped with power steering, improved shifter and smaller rear wing.

The 1995 S4s is the needle in the haystack to search for. Horsepower was bumped to a whopping 300, and you could really wring all of it out to a very pleasurable and thrilling level.

All of these cars are built on a galvanized backbone frame, with a two-piece carbon fiber/fiberglass tub. They are enormously strong, and they have proven to be very safe cars, even if they’re crashed at a high rate of speed. The engines are reliable, and the Renault transmissions are fairly robust. The brakes, suspension and steering components are all well engineered.

Well, they’re not perfect

There are some negatives.

Because of the limited production and normal attrition, it may take a while to find a really clean, documented and well-serviced example.

The airbag-equipped — from a Pontiac Trans Am — steering wheel is not pretty, radiators clog easily and the charge cool impellers need servicing (which rarely happens).

The belts need religious changing, and some parts are now difficult to find. Leather dashboards shrink, and a poorly maintained Connolly leather interior will turn into parchment paper.

Never, ever, ever, buy a car with a modified engine (rear exhaust modification is OK), and never buy a crash-damaged, repaired car. The frames are NOT meant to be straightened once damaged. Buyer beware to the fool looking for the deal on the salvage-titled auction special.

Lotus has a great club with a rabid enthusiast base. Get to know who has a nice example, wrangle a ride, and go fall in love with your first affordable exotic car. Buy one in Norfolk Mustard, British Racing Green or Palacio (deep purple).

Find the right car, and it will feel like a Hollywood movie.

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