THE NEWS 5.17.99

A two-seater we'll get Lotus plans a big splash in the United States of its own in 2001 with an all-new V6-powered rear-mid-engined sports car designed to outperform-and outpose-the Porsche Boxster.

Flushed with the success in Europe of its Elise roadster, England's Lotus wants a slice of the lucrative U.S. sports car market currently sewn up by German rivals Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Its weapon is codenamed Emas ("gold" in the language of the company's Malaysian owner Proton). It is a $55,000 convertible-hardtop coupe based on a larger, more advanced version of the Elise's pioneering bonded aluminum chassis, topped by a modem composite body.

With a 220-hp, Lotus-built V6, top speed will be limited to 155 mph. Lotus has targeted a weight of 2090 pounds, to ensure its chassis development team can deliver supercar acceleration and handling. The bare-bones Elise weighs just 1540 pounds, but the Emas will be 10.6 inches longer at 157.4 inches overall. It will also carry two more cylinders and will have a sprinkling of the luxuries U.S. buyers expect, like power windows, airbags and carpets.

Penned by Lotus design chief Russel Carr, the new sports car shares obvious design cues with the retro Elise and more radical 340R show car. Carr says he has steered clear of traditional supercar cues, instead opting for elements that stress "litheness and agility," hallmarks of Lotus machinery since Colin Chapman's earliest race cars.

Meeting U.S. regulations will not be a problem for the Emas because the car is a clean-sheet design.

"Like all our future products, the new car will be federalized from day one. We have big plans for the U.S.," says Lotus managing director Chris Knight. "I strongly believe our car will have U.S. appeal and will make the Boxster appear very mainstream."

Cautious plans call for an annual production run of 3500 cars, but sources indicate up to 1000 a year could be earmarked for the United States. Such a move would lengthen European waiting lists, but Lotus has a wider agenda centered on raising its profile in the U.S. auto industry.

"Lotus engineering has just spent millions of pounds installing 42 new engine test cells and now has the biggest independent facility in Europe. We want more development contracts from Detroit, which is why the new car has got to make an impact in the U.S.," a factory insider told us.