Lotus Cars is not for sale, but its future is uncertain

Lotus Exige driftingLotus, maker of lightweight British sports cars, is not going anywhere for now. It was rumored that parent company Proton would try to divest itself of the fabled British brand, after a change in leadership at the Malaysian car company. Proton is not interested in selling Lotus, but the sports car company’s future is still uncertain.

The Malaysian government recently sold its Proton shares to DRB-HICOM. While the shares were being transferred, Lotus entered a 60-day development freeze. The company has resumed building cars and, according to DRB-HICOM managing director Dato’ Sri Haji Mohd Khamil Bin Jamil, it will remain a division of Proton for the foreseeable future.

During a visit to Lotus’ Norfolk, England headquarters, Jamil told Lotus managers that the Malaysian company does not plan to sell, but that it is still trying to figure out what to do with its British possession. Jamil said he would “never say never” to a potential sale, but that right now getting rid of Lotus is not a priority.

Lotus has done reasonably well under Proton, which gave the British company the cash to develop the successful Elise and Exige (pictured) sports cars. However, Lotus seems to have lost its way recently. Lotus only sells one car in the United States, the Evora, because it did not have the money to develop multi-stage airbags for the Elise and Exige.

It’s plans for future models are also up in the air. Hoping to compete with more-mainstream carmakers like Porsche and Ferrari, Lotus unveiled five concept cars at the 2010 Paris Motor Show. The plan was to give Lotus a fuller range of cars, like its German and Italian competitors, to boost sales. The 2010 concepts included the Eterne, a sedan similar to the Porsche Panamera and Aston Martin Rapide, new version of the Esprit supercar, and the new Elise.

Lotus quickly figured out that it did not have the resources to build all of these cars. The new Elise, a car the company desperately needs to survive, is still a go, as is the Esprit. The current versions of the Elise and Exige (basically a hardtop Elise), as well as the Evora, are still in production at Norfolk.

The potential for corporate upheavals like the one at Proton may have been one reason for Lotus’ half-baked expansion plan. Since the 1990s, the company has relied on a larger parent to provide cash for developing new models and keeping the factory open. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in, which why most other sports car makers have parent companies: Porsche has Volkswagen, Ferrari has Fiat, etc.

Lotus sells fewer cars than its rivals, because it caters to a more specific audience. While other companies have focused on making their sports cars more luxurious and easier to drive, Lotus has focused on making them better to drive. Company founder Colin Chapman famously said that the best way to build a fast car is to “add lightness.” A Lotus is a minimal machine, with no distractions for the driver, and no electronics to temper his or her skill. For that reason, Lotuses are very unique, and it would be a shame to see the company go away.