Lotus Breaks out with New Eletre Electric SUV

Combining its vehicle-dynamics and driver-HMI expertise with fresh design and China production, Lotus aims to shed its boutique sportscar-maker image.

The Lotus Eletre’s flexible architecture includes a rear-wheel steering package. (Lotus Cars)

Lotus Cars recently revealed its first SUV, which is itself a radical step for the purist British sportscar icon. But the new battery-electric Eletre also breaks ground in being Lotus’s first five-door production vehicle and is likely to be the company’s first product to sell in significant volume. The Eletre will be built at a new production facility in Wuhan, China, and features an aluminum body.

Lotus designers created the Eletre’s cockpit and HMI to retain its purist-sportscar customer base while attracting a new demographic. (Lotus Cars)

Known internally as the Type 132, Eletre will use Lotus’s new Electric Premium Architecture (EPA), which has been designed to be easily adapted to accommodate batteries and powertrain components for a range of vehicle sizes from C+ to E+, as well as intelligent driving technologies. The Eletre is the first of these models and will be joined by two others built at the Wuhan plant. One of these is expected to be a smaller electric SUV. Lotus expects to sell around 100,000 Eletres per year with principal markets in China, Japan, Europe and the U.S. Still headquartered in Hethel, England, since 2017 Lotus Cars has been majority-owned by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

Eletre will be powered by two electric motors, one driving the front wheels and the other driving the rears. Each motor is integrated with a controller and reducer, designed to make the unit lighter and smaller. Power output will start from 600hp (447 kW), powered by a 100-plus kWh battery pack housed in the vehicle floor. Maximum range on the WLTP driving cycles is expected to be 373 miles (600 km). The car will be equipped with rear-wheel steering.

As a high-performance EV, Eletre earns another Lotus milestone: It will be the company’s heaviest vehicle everand by a long shot. Target curb weight, at 4400 lb. (1995 kg), is roughly 1400 lb. (635 kg.) heavier than the Esprit V8 of 2004. But Lotus’s engineers expect it to be significantly lighter than other EV performance cars.

“The big thing, at the very start, was that it was a completely new platform to us,” Gavan Kershaw, Lotus’s Director, Attributes and Product Integrity, told SAE Media. “We knew it was going to be fully electric. It was going to have a lot of power, and we wanted it to be dynamically engaging. It didn’t have to be aggressive and frantic, but it had to be everything you wanted from it.”

Those basic performance metrics, set nearly four years ago, established the Eletre’s chassis hardware set: electric all-wheel drive with torque vectoring; active independent rear-wheel steer; double-wishbone front suspension; multi-link rear; air suspension with twin-chamber CDC dampers; active roll control, and de-coupled brake systems.

“We were thinking, ‘We may not know what the end product looks like at the moment, but we‘re definitely going to put all the building blocks in place that will allow that platform to live for a long time, with multiple styles of vehicles from it,” Kershaw recalled. The development team settled on an SUV-style vehicle with a low center of gravity with the chassis set noted above. Baked into the design was flexibility to offer simplified variants without rear steer and passive anti-roll bars, for example.

“It’s a big decision when you put rear-steer on a car,” he noted. “You have to open up the wheelhouses, you’re losing package space and things like this as well.” Establishing the other major aspects of Eletre’s design then focused on overall vehicle dimensions and occupant/passenger HMI, followed by aerodynamics and contemporary details that Lotus founder Colin Chapman would never have dreamed of, including “how big the screens were going to be.”

Eletre shares the same “carved by air” design thinking in common with the Evija electric hyper car and Emira, both two-seater sports designs for which Lotus is best known. Air is channeled through parts of the bodywork to improve cooling and aerodynamic performance.

Lotus’s ‘carved by air’ body design aids Eletre’s cabin, chassis and powertrain thermal management. (Lotus Cars)

Moving away from Lotus’s traditional market brings new challenges, including retaining the incumbent customer base and balancing its expectations, according to Ben Payne, Head of Studio at the Lotus Tech Creative Centre (LTCC) in Coventry. He said Eletre’s mission includes giving those enthusiasts “something they can really buy into, as we move to an E-segment SUV, which is a huge stretch for the brand.”

At the same time, Lotus must ensure that is “progressive enough in our approach to really engage with youthful consumers of premium products around the world,” Payne explained. He said Lotus has been moving towards being more of a premium performance manufacturer, rather than the hand-built sportscar maker.

Peter Horbury, whose five decades in automotive design includes noteworthy periods at Ford and Volvo, is Lotus’s senior VP and executive advisor, Design. He explained the challenges and opportunities of creating the new Eletre. “We’re dealing with a global market and cultures and things are so different, still to this day, that we might be talking about an age group in America of 45, 50, 55 years of age. In China, we might be talking about 25,” Horbury said. “If you design a car not to upset anybody, you’ll never excite anybody. But we have to think about that [customer demographic] span.”

Added Payne: “There are certain aspects of the car that haven’t been explained in full detail today and it’s really about how you interact with the product. So the interior of that car is very much around digital immersion, which is focused largely on youth, I would say. But at the same time, we’ve left proper analogue switches for the primary functions inside the car.” That gives Eletre owners a preference “to reach out and touch a proper toggle to adjust the HVAC, or simply turn some settings up or down in the car,” or to opt for the touchscreen or the voice interaction, which is very strong.”

Aerodynamics are an important part of Eletre’s design and Lotus’s aero execution is intentionally different than many others in the crowded E-segment market, Payne asserted. “They all treat aerodynamics in a very similar way,” he said. “The big bluff front is kind of a brute of an animal, and they just push the air out of the way. We wanted to give that product a real ‘Lotus take on things’ and give people a reason to say, ‘I understand why you want to place a Lotus badge on that. So it’s about applying those principles.”

The strategy is to balance design and technology, using its 75 years of learnings in vehicle dynamics and racing, and apply those principles “to something totally different, but still have a meaningful effect out there,” Payne said. Going forward, Lotus vehicle design will be purposeful, not frivolous, he promised, with “real rationale behind it” as the founder would have it.