As much as we hate to see petrol engines trudging towards their grave, reality is that the automobile world of tomorrow belongs to the up and coming crop of electric vehicles. Although the industry is still very much driven by fossil fuels, the onslaught of electrification has gained unprecedented momentum over the past couple of years. Electric cars still make up just a small percentage of the global vehicle market but the fact that almost all mainstream automotive brands have jumped on the EV bandwagon shows us that we have come a long way from when it was just a small arena with Tesla and Nissan playing it out.
Lotus Cars is the latest to branch out into the burgeoning sustainable mobility segment, and is undergoing one of the biggest transformation in the brand’s history. Known for its ultra-light sportscars and peppy petrol engines, the Hethel, UK-based brand recently took the wraps off its first electric SUV, the Eletre. A two-tonne, electric SUV is incongruous to the fundamental ideas that drove the brand all these years, but under new owners Geely, profitability is a priority. To learn more about this transformation, we catch up with Matt Windle, global Managing Director of Lotus Cars, while he was in Dubai recently on an official visit.
Before assuming this role you've been head of engineering. So obviously, petrol would have been very close to your heart. How did you come to terms with electrification of the Lotus range?
It's not a problem for me. I've worked with Tesla as well. So I've had years of working experience with it. In the Lotus context, I think the way I look at it is we needed something that was going to make Lotus innovators, potentially front of the pack as well. And it's also linked to our strategy around growing the business. We have our own bespoke electric architectures now, and it gives us an opportunity through Lotus Engineering to commercialise those platforms and we are seeing a lot of interest from other OEMs that are also looking to get into electrified fleets. So whilst it's moving us into a new era, as far as Lotus is concerned, it's also allowing us to commercialise.
The idea of a 2,000-tonne-plus, electric SUV is contradictory to everything that Lotus has stood for. Apart from the financial aspect of the Eletre launch, are you convinced about an SUV?
I am. I personally think it's the right product at the right time. The data tells us that in the UK and Europe, the two fastest growing segments at the moment are E-segment SUVs and electric vehicles. We're combining them both so we feel that is the right way to go. You know, we built 1,500 cars last year. That's kind of a hobby rather than a business! I'm not ashamed to say that we need to increase our volume. We need to increase our market share as well. And we see this through the SUVs but what that's going to allow us to do is really invest in new products for sports cars as well. And sports cars will always stay at the heart of the brand as our DNA.
The shift is sure to bring in new customers to the Lotus fold, but do you fear that this will alienate traditional fans of the brand?
I'm sure we'll lose some. I've got no doubt about that. Or we won't lose them and they will just want to stay in their Exiges or Elises, or Evoras. However, the last couple of weeks when we met an estimated 500 to 600 customers, a lot of them are saying that they need an SUV or they need a large vehicle in their life. And they want it to be a Lotus. It's full of innovation, it's different, and they're very excited about what that offers.
And you didn't want to keep internal combustion at all?
Well, we came up with a strategy back in 2018, which we call Vision 80. It was a 10 year plan, and we sat down for a long time and played around with what we could do with models, and where we would go with it. And at the time, I suppose the decision was driven more by our expectations around legislation. ICE [internal combustion engine] would become a thing of the past through legislation and in the UK alone, it's been proved because they've now brought that forward to 2030 which is not that far away. But the thing that surprises us since making that decision is the customer demand is coming to us quicker than the legislation is. Particularly in the UK in Europe, you cannot buy a secondhand battery electric vehicle at the moment because they’re so in demand. So, it's a move away from what Lotus has done in the past, but then Lotus hasn't made any money for a long time either.
How important is the UAE market for you?
Very important. We see it as a huge part of the strategy really, and having been out here for a few days, I can see it's a car mad country. Adamas [the UAE dealer] is our biggest retailer here. Sales are up, in fact tripled this year. And with the introduction of Emira and Evija later this year, they'll grow from there. So yeah, it's a really important market for us.
How is the Emira doing in terms of sales?
A lot better than we expected! We have over 8,000 orders, probably closer to 9,000. So the order book is very strong. The demand very early on made us reassess what we were going to do production numbers wise. This year, we were planning to do 3,000 but we're now doing 4,000. Next year we plan to do 5,000. We're trying to get the cars to customers as soon as we possibly can. But we will make sure they're right before they go out as well. In Hethel, we've put in a fully automated paint shop, semi-automated production, and a new quality track. Literally everything is new, and the quality of the product that you're going to see is better than anything that has come from us before. We want to be at the premium end of quality products.
How has the demand been from the Middle East for the Eletre SUV?
Really strong. I mean, there's a good number of orders. There's a lot of people who have shown interest in driving the car. We think we'll have a prototype out here next year sometime. And we're looking at probably early 2024 for introduction to market.
Tell us a bit more about the Vision 80 strategy. Where do you see lotus in 2028 in the automotive world?
When Geely invested in the business, we needed a strategy. We came up with this 10 year strategy, where the overriding elements were to take us to 100,000 cars a year, and that they will be fully battery electric vehicles as well. We wanted to be an employer of choice, and update our culture and facilities and things like that. And more importantly to deliver to our shareholders and our customers on everything we promised to do. So we broke that strategy down into three main pillars. To revolutionise the product range, to revolutionise the business as well, and to deliver results year on year. So you'll see the Emira and the Evija coming from us this year. This should be followed by the Eletre next year. We've already launched the portfolio of what the next three cars will be to take us to 2027. The results for 2021 show that we're a year ahead of where we planned to be as far as profitability is concerned. So Lotus is in a position where we've got a full order book and it gives us the confidence to go forward with the products we're doing. If you look at it as one, it feels like a huge task, but as soon as you just break it down into annual quarterly targets, we're on track and that’s what gives me a lot of confidence.