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Where Dany Bahar steered Lotus wrong, and the road back

June 15, 2012

It's always a crummy time to get fired, but if you're Dany Bahar, the recently ousted head of Lotus Cars, you might have found yourself breathing a sigh of relief last week when the parent company's new owners — DRB-Hicom Berhad— told you to pack your things. There's only so much adversity a single huckster can take, even if he is an inexhaustible former Red Bull executive and Ferrari marketing whiz, equipped with the requisite masters' degrees in total bullshit -- advanced and applied — that such postings demand. But all tap dances, no matter how good, must come to an end. So, too, all tap dancers.

For remember, following his 2010 appointment, the Swiss-born Bahar swiftly lit the fuse on his own demise, blowing everybody's mind in a bad way by announcing a boldly mad plan at the Paris Auto Show to grow and so rescue Lotus by recasting it entirely, a grandiose blueprint for world domination by the venerable but often rickety English sports car maker that was as ambitious as it was ludicrous.

Announced then were plans for five new higher-end models to be rolled out in short order, over the course of three, then five years, the biggest Lotus product assault in history. Not just big but big -- all of these future machines save one was going to tilt the scales at 3,500 lbs or more, Lotus revealed.  Blithely failing to observe the company's central animating principle - the brand-defining commitment to light weight at all costs that dates all the way back to its birth in humble circumstances sixty-four years ago — Lotus touched a third-rail article of its faithful's faith and Bahar's pillory could begin in earnest.

From the start, few believed his plans, like them or not, bore even the faintest connection to any reality that was ever going to happen. The cars outlined in his grand vision drew little from the existing parts bin at Lotus, which raised cost concerns, which, in turn, raised fundamental plausibility concerns. Among them was the strong risk that Lotus' wild expansion was headed for epic underfunding. Building sports cars and luxury coupes to compete with the best that Porsche, Ferrari and the sporting models other luxury makers can offer was not only going to take time. It was going to cost billions and the growing reticence of Lotus' former owner, the Malaysian government, (formerly the biggest stakeholder in Proton, since purchased by the conglomerate DRB-Hicom) to lose (or, if you prefer, invest) money was not encouraging. Neither entity has been known for its deep institutional commitment to extreme English sports cars.

Nor was the aid and assistance of the international banking community, hard on the heels of its recent near collapse, ever likely for Lotus.  Bankers might traffic recklessly in hard-to-understand derivatives and pointless indexes of imaginary unicorn futures but the concept of propping up struggling automotive enterprises, no matter how worthy or fabled, hasn't been their thing for a long, long time.

Slammed on the substance of his plan, Bahar soon found himself also under fire over questions of style, and, somewhat unreasonably, for his failure to successfully make the case for his plan. Isn't expecting someone you're already holding responsible for creating a bad plan to then be held responsible for hawking it successfully a form of double jeopardy?

Dany Bahar becomes an honorary Baldwin brother
Dany Bahar becomes an honorary Baldwin brother

The marketing effort was not well-executed, doomed even earlier than one might have expected by a tone-deaf foray into the world of creepy Hollywood parties and corporate celebrity worship, including one shindig that exhumed the person of Sharon Stone and dragged out and together all of the battling Baldwin brothers, capturing as if in a National Geographic documentary, classic B-, C- and D-list celebrities in their canapé-filled, native habitat with Bahar in the role of a heavily-accented Marlon Perkins. A glitzy, purportedly edgy Lotus-sponsored style magazine and other overtures to the fashion world did not move the needle much, either, scanning not hip as desired while, at least to this old Lotus hand, (I bought my first, a 1969 Elan roadster, in 1982,) an affront, and kind of weird.

While pissing off Lotus fans from Sacramento to Surrey to New South Wales, Bahar also managed in short order to alienate the company's scrappy team of engineers and designers back in Norfolk, England, threatening to take production out of the country, calling them off meaningful work to free them to instantly "design" his line of imaginary near-term future mobiles. Rounding things out, Bahar scrapped tendentiously with a normally sympathetic-to-Lotus motoring press, as I found out in a screamy, albeit refreshingly candid, exchange behind closed doors at the Los Angeles Auto Show a couple of years ago.

The only thing that has ever worked for Lotus is technical innovation

While appreciating the excellence of Lotus' aluminum hydro-formed chassises, and the concept behind them, I found his assertion that carbon fiber chassises were a marketing gimmick hard to credit, as will have anyone who's driven the new McLaren 12C-MP4, with its central tub -- ultra-rigid but weighing only 75 lbs.-- made of the stuff. Still, when Bahar told me that Chapman's desire, even more than keeping his cars' weight down, was making money and keeping the lights on, I believed him. When he said the company would surely go broke if it didn't find new markets for itself, I didn't doubt his sincerity. Bold thinking has helped Lotus back from the abyss many, many times in its tortuous life. It's incredible to think it has lasted as long as it has — more than half the years humanity has been making and selling himself cars. Time and again, just when things seemed darkest at Lotus, outside the box thinking has saved the company to fight another day.

I don't mind a little showmanship and bravado. I guess I just didn't much care for where  it was outside of the box that Bahar, a marketing man through and through, hoped to go. If history is any guide, the only thing that has ever worked for Lotus is technical innovation.

But, of course as is the way with these things, in spite of all he didn't have going for him, Bahar's goose was only really cooked when he ran afoul of the people who signed his checks. Officially, Lotus' new owners accused him of diddling his corporate expense reports to pay for personal household expenses. Shades of Ernst Lieb, then, the recently departed, and now litigating, head of Mercedes Benz North America, given the trap door for broadly similar, alleged but contested infractions, though one can't help wonder if the truth isn't closer to worries that European employment law makes it necessary for corporate overlords to allege this sort of impropriety when the boss' real failings — be it loud suits or stupid ideas for the future — aren't grounds enough for dismissal. We may never know.

What we do know is this: For all of Bahar's misguided scheming and dreaming, for all his alleged dishonesty, his greatest failure — and, in my book, the biggest grounds to sack him -- was this: He walked Lotus off the cliff when he arrived and signally failed to appreciate the cosmic brilliance and sales potential of the company's newest model, the Evora. Launched in 2009, the Evora, while imperfect, had many elements of greatness about it and, had it been given just a fraction of the care, attention and finance expended on Bahar's smoke and mirrors show, Lotus would be in a lot better shape right now.

How do I know this? I just drove the Evora. As serendipity would have it, I had arranged to borrow a red Evora S, the new supercharged version of Lotus' current most upmarket offering, on what turned out be Bahar's last day at the office. While the handsome young executive was clearing out his desk, yours truly was getting behind the wheel of what he was soon astonished to realize is perhaps the most underrated car of 2012, one of the great performance bargains of our time and what may be at the moment the most desirable modern car he can think of. Yet Bahar, as part of his bold plan for the future, publicly pooh-poohed the Evora and doubted its relevance. It was short-changed for development and it was short-changed for marketing. The car that might have kept the company's cash flow a little further out of the danger zone was given short shrift.

Having attended the initial launch of the first, naturally-aspirated Evora in Scotland in 2009, I'd come away impressed, not only by its handling — up to Lotus' legendary standard, despite almost 1,000 lbs. of extra weight compared to an Elise (one of which I own) -- and its incredibly-life-like steering feel (the rarest commodity in modern cars, it's too often a simulation of the real thing,) but also by its body control and astoundingly good ride quality. Where the ultra-lightweight Elise handles brilliantly, it is easily caught out by potholes and bumps, its low-profile tires jarring fillings and compacting spines in ways that will never satisfy those who expect their sports cars to be comfortable. Ditto entry and exit possibilities that demand body contortions so unnatural that they tax my teenage children. By contrast, the Evora is a relative breeze to get in and out of. Better yet, it is now incredibly quick,

At approximately $90,000, the Evora S is a good $15,000 more expensive than the base model I tested in 2009, but worth every penny extra. As you would expect, the 3.5-liter Toyota V6 with variable valve timing benefits from the bump in supercharged horsepower up from 276-hp. and 258 ft.-lbs. of torque, to 345 hp and 295 ft.-lbs., to offer a blistering performance. Pop the very agreeable six-speed manual into first and stand on the accelerator pedal; sixty will be up in 4.3 seconds, yet relaxed highway driving will result in 26 miles per highway gallon, according to the EPA. Thanks to a new sports exhaust, a thoroughly intoxicating soundtrack is there for the asking.

In practice, the new Evora S has all the power any sane person — with which phrase I mean to include many people who are not sane — will ever need. Allied to one of the great chassises of our time and a pricetag that undercuts many Porsches while offering something even they don't achieve, it's a winner.  It may not be enough to save the company on its own, but now that Bahar is gone, who is going to sing its praises?

Jamie Lincoln Kitman is an award-winning writer whose work appears in Automobile magazine, GQ, The Nation and the "Car Talk" website, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @jamiekitman