Had an S2 and an SE at the same time, they overlapped by around 4 years from memory so I could drive them back to back for long periods. I'm still a huge fan so please take following in context of an ex owner that would get another tomorrow if the conditions were right!
SE benefited from the GM 100K mile shakedown tests that GM insisted the SE went through. NVH was reduced drastically for the investment from GM.
The car also took the step here from being a sports car to more of a GT / Supercar in my opinion also. The SE looked amazing just stood still. I did a lot of work on mine but never sorted the suspension (I switched to better wheels and tyres which transformed the car though). When the real Lotus show happened every year at Donnington (remember that?) the SE is the car you wanted to take for the journey.
I bought the SE to replace the S2 I'd had for five years. That never worked out because the logic of replacing an older Esprit with a newer one didn't fly. The cars were totally separate in terms of characteristic and handling. The s2 was a jewel of a car with kart like handling. I think a PO has spent some time and cash really sorting the suspension and even for a 40 year old car, it just felt so right. I expected the SE to be an extension of this but although much faster, the dynamic feedback from the earlier car was missing.
This was before classic cars jumped in price and the S2 probably owed me less than £4K, which meant I would use it in snow and ice just to get a feel of how it would operate in those conditions.
Id originally set out to buy an S1, but was warned off by everyone, now they are the the next big thing (except for Graham Arnold who maintained that an S1 would always be trouble (RIP Graham)). I joined club Lotus and one of the first mags had a beautiful S1 in red outside Canary Wharf on the cover and I fell in love again after the bond films.
I turned down a couple of £1K S1's based on advice and went with a sorted S2! I had planned to play with the looks of the S2 a little to make it more of an S1 in appearance but this would have been wrong. There were also aspects of an S2 that are better than the S1 such as instrumentation that I came to appreciate with a decade of ownership.
I suppose I'll never know regarding an S1 now but still would love to own one and it remains a huge regret I never owned a tatty S1 as I would probably never have sold it.
In the end, it was the maintenance schedule that got to me, I'd switched a lot on the SE like fuel tanks and charge cooler components / gear shift stuff and been through big cycles of large bills for the S2 and wasn't really reaping the £ per mile benefit after nearly a decade so got into air cooled porsche by blind luck around 6 years ago before their boom.
I'd owned 944/924 before but the 911 was just a league apart, especially as it was pitched as direct competition to the SE /S4 series. I'd been under the skin on the SE / S2 maybe more than most during ownership and still beleive self tapping screws have no place on such cars! I saw a post on here recently with the consensus that porsches were not in the same league as the esprit in terms of how they behaved on the road, but even Colin Chapman used to drive to work in a Mercedes and bemoaned how they could make the door close with such solidity as opposed to an esprit sounding like a cheap suitcase being thrown down the stairs! The porsche may come accross as less charming but its a different experience again to the esprit and not really some thing that can be compared. You have to accept certain things with esprit ownership that other classic car owners, let alone modern Lotus owners, would find bizarre. Hence the inate appeal some may say. I've been through a number of older 911's now as daily cars over 10's of thousands of miles but still just my opinion of course!
It's true that a sorted porsche will just keep going whereas an esprit needs the loving comfort all the time (but still may bite you back) . As well as maintanance I also needed 2 extra seats if I was going to get any use from a sports car with a growing family so hence the tangent and my excuse for exiting ownership.
The S2 for under £5K made huge sense as running costs can be accepted at this level for a hobby car. Seeing S1's hit the level they have done turns me a little cold as simple people like me can't experience the joys and lows of ownership anymore by making small sacrifices in life to own a Lotus, which was always a big deal.
Outside of the immaculate restorations that I envy on the threads for S1 and S2, I expect the hot models of the Esprit world have once again come back round to a sorted S3 or maybe an X180. They were never cheap cars new of course and may now just be finding the level they deserve.
No huge power, simple and dynamically capable, with reasonable running costs, maybe more suited than ever to the road conditions of today where absolute top speed is now wasted.
Good ones from £20K and once sorted no issues such as suspension design or later engine complexities to worry about, plus great spares back up via specialists.
I'd still like to find the now mythical S1 barn find at a reasonable price though and restore just enough to use all year round without concern for its value. Its bitter sweet that values have risen beyond reach but I'm glad that more are saved as a result and subsequently driven as an S1 is still such a sculpture of a car, I expect like the S2 a great deal of ownership satisfaction is just looking at it parked in your garage.
I've driven a fair few S3's in my years as an owner and it probably combines the best of the old and the new. The Stevens cars probably saved Lotus and the month they switched from S3 to X180 at the factory must have been brilliant as the old made way for the new. However, if I couldn't own both, it would be a late S3 or the GT3 oval dash for me this time unless I find an S1 about to be scrapped as 'too far gone' and bring it back to life!