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The Lotus Esprit Is the Last Affordable Exotic Car

Most of you will be shocked by something I did recently. This notoriously compulsive buyer was offered a nice 1990 Lotus Esprit SE Turbo, at a price that would have made it the cheapest running Esprit in the U.S. — and I passed on it. I felt that I had too many cars, and too many projects, which shows that I actually have some shred of sanity and self-restraint. Instead, I talked one of my good friends into buying it. He was kind enough to loan it to me over the weekend to make a video — and after gazing upon it in my garage these last 48 hours, I realized that I made a horrible mistake not buying it. See the Lotus Esprit models for sale near you

This 1990 SE Turbo was part of the fourth update of the Esprit; there were five major updates spanning its lengthy production run from 1976 to 2004. The SE model had many exterior styling upgrades, and it was the first Esprit to go from zero to 60 in under 5 seconds. Despite having a small 4-cylinder turbocharged engine, performance statistics put it somewhere between the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa. While those 1980s exotics currently command 6-figure prices, this Lotus changed hands for only $13,000.

Now, that price is exceptionally cheap for a Lotus Esprit SE — but this car does need some work. It had an easily repairable exhaust leak upon purchase, but it still needs the suspension sorted out, along with plenty of cosmetic issues that could use some attention. Still, nice examples can be had for reasonable money, with a handful of Esprit models currently for sale on Autotrader for under $30,000.

Of course, a new Esprit was more affordable than a Testarossa or Countach back in 1990, but the Lotus stayed cheap. It has never been on the radar for wealthy automotive "investors" — the likes of whom set prices of most vintage exotic cars to levels unattainable for most of us. With that said, I suspect the lack of wild price speculation isn’t the only reason Esprit prices haven’t gone up. The Lotus brand, despite its impressive racing pedigree, has a much smaller enthusiast’s community than Ferrari or Lamborghini. Also, Lotus isn’t a brand non-car people easily recognize, let alone aspire to own, and the Esprit has been forgotten by many.

The same argument could be made for the Acura NSX, but those models have appreciated in price dramatically in recent years. This is likely due to its fantastic reliability, parts support and build quality — all of which are things the Esprit struggles with. With this vintage of Lotus, you get the Italian level of maintenance headaches, only with less parts support — and expensive repairs are difficult to digest on a lower value car.

My Esprit owner friend has easily been able to find all the bits needed to restore the interior of this Esprit — but finding common wear items, like suspension struts, are proving a challenge. I’m told by another Esprit enthusiast that an engine rebuild on the 4-cylinder turbo costs $20,000, mostly because so many parts (like piston rings) are no longer available, so they have to be custom machined.

So there are some drawbacks. But for a true car enthusiast on a budget who’s looking for a gorgeous 1980s poster car, the Lotus Esprit is it. I found it to be very easy to drive, and it had just enough quirks to be charming — without being annoying. I go over many of them in my video, but my two favorites are the removable roof panel and the dual fuel nozzles (and tanks) on both sides of the car.

While the refinement level doesn’t come close to an Acura NSX, which is credited with killing sales of the Esprit, the Lotus shines where it really matters: The angular body is stunning to gaze upon from every angle, and driving the car is plenty of fun, with the sharp handling and funny noises coming from turbo. This whole package gives off very nostalgic vibes — which is why you buy an old, exotic car in the first place. I now think I’m a total idiot for not buying this Esprit when I had the chance. Find a Lotus Esprit for sale

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