From 641 cars to 150k in 5 years: Lotus, assemble!
An almighty fire has been lit under Group Lotus. Its new commercial boss reminds us why ambition is a good thing
By Mike Duff / Thursday, 20 April 2023 / Loading comments
Normally the arrival of a new boss requires the departure of an old one. That’s not what is happening at Lotus. Both the Group CEO Feng Qingfeng and Lotus Cars Managing Director Matt Windle are still in place. But the planned expansion of the brand has seen the arrival of a new leader in the form of Group Lotus’ Vice-President, Commercial Mike Johnstone, the guy who is essentially going to be responsible for delivering what should be an unprecedented sales renaissance. He’s also going to effectively become the public face of the brand outside China. He started the job in January, but PH’s first chance to meet him came at this week’s Shanghai Motor Show.
Let’s start with the journalistic basics. Johnstone is a 48-year-old Brit who previously worked for Volvo in Sweden and the UK, and before that did a stint with Harley Davidson. He will be based at Lotus’s new commercial HQ in Clerkenwell, London, with most of his work involving what will be the rapidly growing range of fully electric models, most of which will be built in China.
The first of these will be the heavily previewed Eletre, although this will be rapidly followed by the Type 133, an electric saloon sitting on the same EPA platform, then the Type 134 – a smaller Macan-sized crossover – and then the Type 135, Lotus’s first electric two-seater which will sit on the lightweight LEVA architecture. The latter will also be the basis of the next-generation Alpine from Renault.
Putting some numbers against these future plans is where the scale of the transformation becomes obvious. Prior to now, Lotus has never sold more than 5,000 cars in any calendar year – it has produced more vehicles, but the numbers included the Vauxhall VX220 and Opel Speedster under contract for GM. But the ability of the newly-opened Wuhan factory to make up to 150,000 cars a year means that volumes will quickly dwarf those totals, with the plan being for the three Chinese-made ‘lifestyle’ vehicles to rise to that total by 2028, with the figures for the Type 135 sports car and any other Hethel-built variants on top of that.
If all that gets delivered, five years from now Lotus will have produced considerably more EVs than the combined total of everything else it has made in the 75 years prior to this point; something under 125,000 cars. You certainly can’t fault the brand for a lack of ambition.
As we reported before, the new structure is going to create a corporate split. Lotus Cars in Hethel will continue to be responsible for engineering and building the sports cars, while Lotus Technology – which should be listed on the NASDAQ later this year – will do the lifestyle EVs. Johnstone’s role sits above both of these, with the plan being that customers won’t notice any difference regardless of which side of the business the cars come from.
“The relationship is effectively that Lotus cars is a manufacturer and supplier of sports vehicles, while the Wuhan factory creates lifestyle cars,” he says, “but we’re one brand. I’m passionate that within the organisation we just talk about and think about one brand. Lotus is global, it won’t matter where the product comes from or which market we’re in, we have to be one Lotus.”
Getting cars to customers will be done in different ways in different parts of the world, with Europe – including the UK – set to shift to a direct sales model, although one that will also include physical dealerships. That means there will be flagship stores in cities including London, Oslo and Paris, while in China there will be no fewer than 100 retailers. But it will be possible to spec and order a new car with no physical interaction with a dealership.
The relationship with the rest of Geely’s growing automotive empire will obviously be a close one, but Lotus is going to sit right at the top of the hierarchy. So although that means that a fair amount will be shared with brands including Polestar, Volvo and the newly-launched upmarket Chinese brand Zeekr, Lotus will still get to go its own way in key areas.
“The SPA platform [of the lifestyle models] has a lot of shared components and engineering,” Johnstone says, “on basic stuff it is obviously better for us to come together and share our resources – but on the other side there will be technology that we lead and which our own engineering team will focus on.”
One of these will be higher-level autonomy, which Lotus’s Robotics division is spearheading. We’re told that prototype Eletres are already able to operate for up to 200km between requirements for driver intervention, even in heavy rain. The plan is to move that to 1,000km – reckoned to be broadly equivalent to ‘level 3’ autonomy – and then ultimately all the way to 100,000km. That’s why the Eletre and its siblings are bristling with sensors.
While the Eletre comes to Europe this year, it won’t be going to the U.S. until 2024, with Lotus still having to complete the hugely expensive process of gaining Federal type approval. As a Chinese-made car it will also be hit with a substantial 27.5 per cent import tariff. With Lotus planning for up to a third of its production to reach the States, and Volvo and Polester already committed to building cars there to lower this burden, could Lotus follow suit?
“At the moment our plan is based on exporting from China to the U.S., but we will definitely look at other ways in which we can do it,” Johnstone says, “and not just in the U.S. to be honest with you – there are other markets you could manufacture in that would help from a tariff point of view.”
The Emira’s fate is also not decided. Johnstone said that Lotus’s current plans were for it to have minimal overlap with the Type 135 that arrives in 2026, potentially being axed before the company reaches its 80th anniversary in 2028. Given the delays in getting it into production – and the fact the AMG-powered four-cylinder version hasn’t arrived yet – that would represent a very short lifespan for a new model. But he later admitted that the EU’s change to allow sales of new cars powered by so-called e-fuel to survive the combustion engine ban may provide an extension.
“I wouldn’t rule anything out, and that is definitely something that the engineering team is aware of,” he said, “one issue is always going to be different standards in different parts of the world, which is always bad for any lower-volume model, but our product plan is flexible enough to change based on legislation and customer demand. So I wouldn’t rule it out, but at the same time we expect to go fully electric beyond the [80th anniversary].”
Bringing us to the Evija. It’s two years since PH went to Hethel to drive a prototype version of the 2,000hp EV hypercar, and customer deliveries have now started. But previous conversations with senior Lotus executives have always hedged around the question of how many of the proposed run of 130 have actually been sold.
“At the moment all I can say is that we’re tracking against the production output for this year,” Johnstone says – which sounds pretty hedgy – “there have been numbers thrown around in the past but I’ve very much of the view that we need to fulfil customer demand and deliver the right amount of cars. So no, I won’t give you a number.”
He did however say that he anticipates the delivery of early cars, plus some forthcoming media events, potentially increasing interest – and also that there may ultimately be another variant. Intriguingly, he also said that there has been interest from at least one other manufacturer with a view to using the Evija as the basis for their own halo product, although he admitted Lotus and Geely are unlikely to share their crown jewels.
But further down the hierarchy, the LEVA electric sports car platform may well find other uses outside the group beyond the Alpine A110 replacement. “We have to be open-minded. I don’t think there is active exploration at the moment, but if there is a business opportunity there and the team thinks it’s something we could fulfil then it could make sense, yes.”
Sadly there is no exciting news on motorsport yet. Lotus has previously said that it has to concentrate on getting the road cars launched to secure its future, which is a fair point – but the lack of factory racing activities remain a huge contrast with the famed era of Colin Chapman. An era that was being celebrated extensively on the Shanghai show stand with numerous pictures of Formula 1 glory and even a fully liveried Honda-engined Lotus 99T. Doesn’t Lotus need to get back to something closer to elite motorsport to justify the heritage connection?
“It’s not part of our plan at the moment, but we know it is an incredibly powerful part of our history,” Johnstone says, “if we find ourselves halfway into the plan and we’re delivering or exceeding it then I’m sure we’ll start looking at how we can escalate the brand to the right level.”
Company insiders did admit that Aston Martin’s foray into Formula 1 is being keenly watched by Lotus and Geely leadership, and that if that is seen to be successful then the temptation to follow would be considerable.
“What we need to concentrate on is the fact we’re trying to take a brand that sold 641 cars last year to a brand selling more than 150,000 cars in five years’ time,” Johnstone said, “we have to deliver on that first.” Interestingly, during a brief chat with journalists in Shanghai, Lotus CEO Feng Qingfeng gave an enigmatically nuanced answer to the same question, albeit through a translator: “we have not yet the plan for Formula 1.”
- 2022 Lotus Evija prototype | PH Review
- 2022 Lotus Emira | PH Review
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