Sports car maestros’ final combustion model gains an AMG four. It’s an unexpected marriage, but an inspired one?

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Lotus was founded by a man so preoccupied by lightness that even rivet spacing represented a battleground between him and his design engineers. AMG, on the other hand, is celebrated for contract-killer saloons with nicknames like 'Hammer'.

These firms aren’t kindred spirits, but thanks to Chinese car-making giant Geely their paths have crossed and an interesting, potentially excellent little sports car has sprung from the collision. 

Anybody coming around from a decade-long coma may wonder just how we got here. It warrants explanation. Having relieved Ford of Volvo in 2010, Geely seven years later took a major stake in Malaysia’s Proton and, as part of that deal, control of Lotus. It’s now turning Lotus into an EV-only brand, and the Wuhan-built Eletre SUV is its first tilt at success. Meanwhile, the Hethel-built Emira is seeing out Lotus’s combustion-engine era and comes not only with the familiar Toyota V6 but also – buckle up – one of the most powerful four-cylinder units in production.

Here we start to appreciate just how busy Geely has been behind the scenes. In 2018, it bought a stake of roughly 10% in Mercedes-Benz, mainly because it was interested in the Germans’ electromobility vision. At around the same time, AMG was deep into the development of an engine known as M139. This was about as highly strung as mass-market 2.0-litre units get, so much so that it was always intended (and has in fact now begun) to supplant even the fabled V8s.

So when Lotus needed an engine to create an entry point to the Emira range, the compact but exotic and reasonably future-proofed M139 was at the top of its shopping list. CEO Matt Windle headed to Stuttgart to do a deal and, following support from Geely, crates stamped ‘AMG’ now make their way to Norfolk.

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Not that there’s much to give away the junior Emira’s Swabian heart, at least superficially. In the V6 car, you can see the top of the supercharger through the glass, while this I4 has plastic cladding, like its chief rivals, the Alpine A110 and Porsche 718 Cayman S. Elsewhere, even the deliciously big-bore tailpipes are the same on both strains of Emira. But then if I had something so pretty on my hands, I wouldn’t tinker either. In the flesh, this valedictory combustion-engine Lotus has the look of a Ferrari 488-Lancia Stratos cross. It’s stunning. The scalloped sides are particularly breathtaking – pun fully intended. 

Once you’re inside, I4 hallmarks show. There are two quite beautiful aluminium paddles mounted to the steering wheel. They control the Mercedes eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and while their action is a tad short and unsatisfying, they are in perceived-quality terms emblematic of the cabin as a whole. Airy but intimate, the cockpit has a maturity beyond that of the dark, plasticky A110 and a warmth that the Cayman has always struggled to muster. It’s only let down by the seats, which are a bit unsupportive and short, with jutting headrests. Otherwise, it’s lovely. Slick tech, too. 

Foot on the conspicuously centred brake pedal, drag the artful, leather-on-metal gear selector into drive, hit the start button and your first taste of Lotus-featuring-AMG is… docile and understated. Pull off the mark and the motor burbles and thrums gently, and you really have to sharpen your ears to appreciate the waspish tension that hints at its outrageous, more-than-200bhp-per-litre output potential. Admittedly, here the M139 isn’t wound up as bombastically as in the Mercedes-AMG A45 S. In the super-hatch it makes 416bhp at 6750rpm, while in the Emira it’s pegged to 360bhp, delivered at 6600rpm. Even better-endowed versions will surely follow, but for now the I4 Emira is deferential to the 400bhp V6 one that made its debut last year. 

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The relationship between the two derivatives is murky, mind you. The fully loaded, £81,495 First Edition tested here costs only £4500 less than a V6 in equivalent spec, so choosing is a question not of affordability but of personality. Use case, too, if you’re thinking of proper touring, where the I4’s long eighth ratio comes in play. Performance is also a close match, with the I4 hitting 62mph in 4.4sec to the V6 manual’s 4.3sec. The contact patch is the same, as are the AP Racing brakes. Even the I4’s weight advantage is disappointingly slender, at just 11kg. Blame the DCT.

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This state of mutual effective seniority is underlined by the fact that the free-revving (and also the higher-revving) four is actually a more rarefied bit of kit than the V6, fabulous as Lotus has now got the bigger motor sounding once its exhaust valves open at 3000rpm, when it positively howls. 

For one thing, it’s a pure high-performance engine. Its chill-cased block will never appear in something akin to a 15-year-old Toyota Camry, which lurks in the V6’s sizeable closet. For maximum bombproofing, it’s also a closed-deck design. And although this hardly needs saying, mid-mounting it wasn’t the work of a moment. As in the A45 S (but unlike in the new plug-in hybrid C63), it’s oriented transversely rather than longitudinally, but Lotus has still had to develop new intake and exhaust systems (as well as getting the driveline calibrated). And there have been other modifications to get this engine to sit low in Lotus’s not-entirely-new aluminium chassis, where it’s cradled by an I4-specific aluminium subframe 12kg lighter than its steel counterpart in the V6. 

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In the driver’s seat, you have a constant accompaniment of valvetrain clatter in your right ear and turbo-based breathiness in your left. This injects life into proceedings, which is useful, as the M139 isn’t an innately soulful thing and under medium loads can feel a touch baggy and indistinct. Broader concerns begin to mount about this particular Anglo-German relationship, and the complication isn’t AMG’s hardware per se but the setting in which it finds itself. 

The Emira may be heavier than we would like, but soft suspension springing marshalled by resolute damping still gives it a deliciously supple gait on the road (note our car is on the Touring suspension). Craters and crests are mollified as they disappear beneath the wheels, yet really fling this chassis down a B-road and it’s amazing how little bump-stop action there is. Cornering photos show quite dramatic levels of roll and squat, but this doesn’t tally with what you feel in the cockpit. The Emira moves in a bubble of composure, and while not quite Evora-graceful, it’s a more versatile, lavish car, so it’s understandable that it doesn’t have the same reflexes. 

By the standards of genuinely usable sports cars in 2023, it also still feels deliciously compact on country roads. I would like a touch more spine in the steering (less assistance, perhaps a smaller front tyre), but the dynamic personality could only be Lotus. The driveline is also impressive. Not only is it amazingly linear for its type, but it also seems to think it’s one of Honda’s VTEC zingers for that final, fizzing stretch to the high-set, 7200rpm redline. 

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The brake-based e-differential function for the rear is surprisingly effective, too. Despite 295-section rear tyres (yes, vast), the I4 is no slave to traction. Through corners, the front hooks up well, the notably rear-biased weight distribution then comes into play and neat little slides are there for the taking. This car inspires confidence as it treads the line between security and antics with genuine sensitivity. 

Straight-line speed? Strong, if a bit matter-of-fact. An Alpine A110 S might just escape you; a Porsche Cayman S absolutely wouldn’t.

So why the reservations? It stems from the fact that this powertrain isn’t quite equal to the chassis in terms of precision and outright responsiveness. The best Lotuses are always at one with themselves, but in this instance we have an excellent chassis and a stonking powertrain that don’t quite match. 

Even a twin-scroll turbo and trick plumbing don’t give the M139 the desired throttle response. At the same time, while upshifts are rapid, a slight delay between paddle being pulled and the shift enacting undermines the fidelity of the car. A Cayman’s PDK doesn’t do this.  

I realise I’m holding Lotus to a high standard here, but these things grate in a small sports car of instinctive poise and response. You can cover ground at an obscene rate in the I4 Emira, but it’s hard to get on the same wavelength as the powertrain as you can with the chassis. And as for laid-back touring, this engine is a stronger proposition but lacks romance.

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There are further frustrations. In Sport driving mode (between Tour and Track), automated upshifts are theatrically robust, an approach that I just don’t think works for a graceful, tippy-toed operator. At least manual mode is legitimate, happily leaving you to headbutt the limiter if you’re slow on the draw.

The gearbox can also be reluctant to engage a lower cog, and this isn’t about engine preservation, because the delay persists even when the powertrain is fully on song and you’ve then attempted to downshift manually. Odd. Then again, Mercedes has previous with this.

Pricing? It has leapt since the I4 was announced and I can’t see even even the base model costing much less than £70k when it arrives in 2024. That said, this car is essentially a baby Ferrari, and nicely wrought. Equally, a Cayman GTS mit 4.0-litre flat-six and PDK gearbox starts at less than £78k. Hmm.   

I want to love this Lotus, and in many ways do. The idea of dropping a state-of-the-art I4 engine into an attractive, compact, modern-feeling Lotus with proper GT credentials is an enchanting one. But if the I4 Emira can be scintillating company when you light it up, it’s also true that this Lotus-AMG union doesn’t fully convince. At least not yet. 

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Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat.