DETROIT — With China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group now owning a controlling stake in Lotus Cars and investing in the brand, the UK company's tiny but loyal global fan base has reason to cheer. Last year, Lotus recruited veteran Jaguar Land Rover executive Phil Popham as CEO. Since then, Popham, 53, has helped build a product plan that has at least one all-new sports car coming and several more vehicles rumored to be under development.
Popham says he will allow Lotus to break out of the sports car niche it has occupied since Colin Chapman founded the company 70 years ago. Popham says Lotus will deliver more mainstream vehicles — possibly an SUV or a sports sedan — on this condition: Any such new product must preserve Lotus' tradition of lightweight and exemplary handling. Popham spoke with Automotive News reporters and editors.
Q: What new products is Lotus working on?
A: We are a sports-car brand, and we are developing an all-new sports car, which you will see towards the end of next year. It won't be on sale, but you'll see it. It won't be an electric car. It will be a car that is within the price band that we have today in our range of products. And it will be a car that will appeal to a greater audience.
It's going to have all you'd expect of a Lotus in terms of its DNA, which is about performance. It's about on-road and on-track handling and dynamics.
We are investing in that car, and we are investing in facilities at Hethel [in Norfolk, England] to build that car.
What's planned beyond the new sports car?
We're investing in a new platform that will spawn multiple cars in the future. We are going through feasibility studies at the moment in terms of cost and technical feasibility. We are looking at various propulsion systems, including electric.
Will Lotus make an SUV?
We're a sports-car brand. The focus of the brand is around the driver and the driving experience. That's what the DNA of Lotus is.
However, we believe the brand has the potential to go beyond just sports cars. We will move into other segments over the course of time. We have a great opportunity to work within the Geely group with its engineering capabilities. We can walk into the group and look on the shelves and pay to use some of the resources and technology there. That would enable us to go beyond just sports cars in the future.
Would those platforms be shared with Volvo, Polestar, Lynk & CO or any of the other Geely brands?
We haven't determined what those platforms are yet, but as we do, we would never just take a platform or an architecture and stick a Lotus badge on it. It would have to be a collaboration that protects the requirements of Lotus driving dynamics and performance.
How does being part of Geely help Lotus design and develop cars?
The concept for design and the program management for Lotus cars, now and in the future, will remain in the UK, but we will utilize Geely's phenomenal engineering and technical competence. Geely is the fastest-growing automotive company in the world. They have tremendous resources we can tap into. Although Lotus is increasing quite rapidly our number of engineers — 150 came on board last year, and we'll probably take on the same number again this year — we are also subcontracting packages of work to Geely engineering teams.
When the integration with Geely is complete, will Lotus cars use some of the same components as the Geely brands, components under the hood and behind the dash the driver wouldn't normally see?
We will utilize the resources of the group. The purchasing power they've got and the leveraging of price and quality comes with volume. If we are able to look at some commonality of parts that were appropriate, we will do that. It will lead us, when we do that, to really focus on what differentiates a Lotus, what the customers expect and what makes our product different.
Will Lotus have its own engines, or will they continue to be brought in?
We are never going to be big enough to produce our own engines. Right now, we take Toyota engines that are heavily modified by us. But we are not constrained where we go to get engines. There are opportunities within the group, now and in the future.
Some of hottest collector cars, such as the Lotus Carlton and Lotus Cortina, are ones Lotus developed for other automakers. Would Lotus consider doing that again?
There is no doubt that helped actually build the credibility of Lotus engineering and the Lotus brand. But that's not our focus at the moment. I wouldn't rule it out in the future.
Will we see some autonomous driving features in Lotus sports cars?
Geely as a group is investing a lot of money on autonomy. And we have the opportunity to benefit from that. But we've got to understand what that means in the context of a car that is built for the driver and for the driving experience.