Life in the Fast Lane - The X180R

Chapman Report - Sept 1991
By Kiyoshi Hamai

It was becoming obvious that this particular car was not your everyday commuter... Firstly, it was a bit too low for seeing over traffic... Second, being able to go from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds is not necessarily needed to creep along in bumper to bumper traffic...Third, there was the matter of not being able to see much out of the rear window (backlight) due to the big wing blocking the view... Fourth, there was this system of tubes that wrapped around the perimeter of the cockpit... No, this was not an everyday commuter. Fifth, the air dam on the front was only a couple of inches off the tarmac making speed bumps and driveways impossibility. In fact this car didn't come into its own until the speedo was pointed at the three figure mark and then there was still some 80 plus MPH left to go!!! Then there was the fact that this car would and could negotiate at freeway cloverleaf on-ramp at 60 plus MPH without chirping a tire!!! No, this was not a commuter car, it was however a Lotus... A new '91 in fact, but not an Elan nor was it an Esprit Turbo SE even if it outwardly looked like one... There were only 19 others besides this example made and the Hethel has assured all that no more would be made for years to come... Yes, we are talking about an X180R...

Some background... The X180R is a special project of Doc Bundy. Only 20 were built and are "replicas" of the winning World Challenge cars of the 1990 season. These cars began life on the standard production line but somewhere along the way they got lost and ended up in Lotus Engineering. There the cars were completely torn down and rebuilt getting revised suspension with 40% stiffer springs up front and 13% stiffer in the rear and re-valved shocks. The front wishbones have been made stronger and allow for adjustment for camber and caster, the anti-sway bar is stock, but mounted in solid bushings. With car lowered the steering rack is raised to modify the bump steer curve. The rear suspension uses an adjustable upper link for camber change, re-valved shocks, stiffer bushings and anti-sway bar. Brakes are replaced with the big AP four piston Lotus Omega/Carlton brakes with ventilated discs and using Ferodo 3432 pads (Doc claims the car is capable of pulling 1.3 G under braking and will spin the tires on the wheels!). Wheels are wider and bigger 16" Revolution wheels, mounted with wider Goodyear Gatorback tires, the standard spare tire is missing and replaced with two cans of 'Flat Fix'. The stout roll cage bolts in and is tied to both the front and rear shock towers, strengthening and stiffening the chassis. The engine is balanced, blueprinted and ported, with a baffled sump. The turbocharger has a stronger housing. The transaxle has a stronger housing with double pinned selector forks, hardened gears, and limited slip differential. The rear wing is relocated rearward and raised 1". The interior is charcoal cloth with tight hip hugging racing seats. The mild mannered Esprit becomes a street legal racer!

So, today at this writing nearly all of these special 20 cars are in the hands of would be racers, but an all too short span of time one of these gems was available for these impressions...

Firstly, let me start out by saying the 'standard' Esprit Turbo SE' is one damn good car. The recent improvements to the car; improved wiring harness, Lotus modified Delco Rochester electronic engine management system, Renault gearbox with cable activated shifting, out board rear brakes, ABS brakes and stiffer chassis/body, have only made a good car even better. Along the way, since the 1977 Series 1, the Esprit has picked up all leather interior, air conditioning, up graded stereo, wool carpeting, larger wheels, more sound deadening, auto-retracting aerial, power door locks, ice sensor, ABS brakes, beefier suspension, bigger brakes, more horsepower, larger oil coolers, and generally more creature comforts which all add up to more weight (some 400 pounds). Obviously, this extra weight has been more than overcome by the gross addition of horsepower derived from the Turbo and most recently Chargecooler.

So, what's this mean for a dyed in the wool Seven owner who is satisfied with lean and mean, bare bones cars; a guy that likes the no frills kinda, to-the-point cars? Well, I can appreciate the Esprit, it's fun, it's really comfortable and would probably be one of the first cars I'd choose if I needed to make a quick trip to LA, but when I first sat behind the wheel of the X180R I KNEW this was going to be a car that I could fall in love with... This car was ALL business and was built with just one reason in mind... To get around a closed circuit in the shortest possible time, PERIOD!

The first impression is made while crawling over the roll cage... This cage is not cosmetic! This cage is serious roll over protection and is tied directly to the chassis and obviously designed to add extra stiffness to the tub. The interior is covered completely in a short knap dark gray fireproofed cloth, with leather inserts in the door panels and on the center console. The Cobra seats do offer rake adjustment, but are deep hip hugging racing buckets. They offer far less padding and you sit lower in the car. In the pedal box the throttle and brake are moved closer together and there is a large dead pedal to the left of the clutch. Below the pedals bolted to the floorboard is an aluminum sheet to eliminate your foot hanging up in the carpeting, which by the way is a light nylon fabric laminated directly to the body (no sound deadening). For my preference I would like to see a heel stop added atop the metal floor plate. The pedals are positioned for easy Heel and Toeing and the clutch is firm but not overly heavy. The brake pedal is light is requires little throw and is easy to modulate. The steering wheel is a bit bulky due to the mandatory air bag, but it is mounted at an ideal height. The shift lever is an easy reach from the wheel, but at first the throws seem long, but with more familiarity the throws become wrist movements. As with any Esprit the nose dives out of sight beyond the hood line and top of the dash. But, one learns to judge the corners fairly quickly. The view out of the rear is 50% blocked by the rear wing, which means the headlights of traffic is obscured and can not reflect off the interior rearview mirror into your eyes. Thankfully the outside mirrors are power adjustable and are placed for an excellent view of those things you just passed.

The engine ignites flawlessly, thanks to the Delco ECM and turns over effortlessly. You note the flat black instrument panel in sharp contrast to the standard car's burled elm. The standard car's electronic clock is gone to allow room for the larger diameter speedo and tach (which is twisted around to place 7000 straight up). Depressing the clutch first gear is easily found and as you let out the clutch the car begins to gently roll. You think, "This is all too easy... like driving any ol' econo-box..." As you run up the revs with just very slight depression of the throttle you note how easy this car gathers speed... Then you grab second and with more confidence crack the throttle a goodly amount, say 25% or so... And instantly the X180R responds. Through the open passenger window you hear a rush of air as the boost needle points upward at 0.5 bar and now the car is beginning to show you what just a few of 300 HP can do. In mere seconds the tach is pointing at 6000 and the speedo is indicating 60 mph! Whoa... this is serious! So lacking of drama, smooth, quiet, just this very firm pressing into the seats. Backing off a bit and selecting third, the boost drops to zero and then stabbing the throttle the boost needle jumps past 0.5 bar and steadily climbs to 0.9 bar and as if someone hit the Afterburners the nose of this missile rises slightly, the rear squats purposefully and you're hurtled up and then in excess of 100 in mere seconds! This is rather addicting...

Rapidly looming ever closer is a freeway off-ramp... Edging over I exit and drop back into 3rd, tap the brakes and slow to about 55 and turn in... Again absolutely no drama, the car is well balanced, completely neutral with perhaps an ever so slight bit of pushing (understeer) at the nose. I'm not even close to the limits for they are so far up there that it would take the likes of Doc Bundy to get them correct. I then head for a favorite piece of twisty stuff and again this car shows that it is a Lotus. Transitions are quick, smooth and the chassis is extremely well behaved... the car just tracks! The steering is direct, the brakes solid and the throttle oh so responsive. The car is constantly saying to the driver... "Come on let's GOOOOO!!!!"

The X180R is rock steady; you simply think bend and the car responds. The road just unwinds, with smooth lightening blasts between the corners. Normal traffic seems to traveling at a turtle pace and the scenery in the windscreen is accelerated to video game pace.

And the sounds... The roll cage ties the entire chassis together passing from the front suspension through the cockpit to the rear. This combined with the total lack of sound deadening allows all sorts of interesting sounds to be transmitted by the cage to the cockpit. One can hear the subtle sounds of the suspension working, the tires working, the turbo winding up and the wastegate fluttering. This car is REALLY fun and will put a BIG grin across your face.

The other thing you notice is that the X180R is not a stealth car... It does attract attention... Being a sparkling white with that hunkered down glued to the ground look only accentuates the affect. To say the car gets stares is putting it mildly.