I'm not an expert on V8 Esprits (I'm into the earlier 4-pot ones), but I have a few gearhead friends with V8 Esprits, and hang around on the Lotus Esprit Forum enough to have a reasonably good understanding. I'm pretty sure about most of the below, but you may want to verify with an expert.
V8 Esprits were made from 1996-2004, with US models being 1997-2004. If you want to get a V8 Esprit, get a 2000 or newer model year, and get the most unmolested one you can find.
There are two main issues with V8 Esprits:
1) The early V8 engines had a defective or incorrect sealant on the cylinder liners, resulting in coolant and oil mixing . . . necessitating a full rebuild. I believe these were cars up through 1999, but it may have been up to 2000 -- I'm not sure. Many have been rebuilt by Lotus under recall/warranty, but many have not. Beware of the low mile early V8 Esprit with no record and proof of having had the cylinder liner problem fixed; it is a time bomb. Don't pay more than $20,000 USD (in North America) for an early, non-rebuilt car; factor having to rebuild the engine (over $10,000 USD) into the purchase price. The later ones are fine.
2) The transaxle used in the V8 Esprits is pretty much the same Renault unit they had been using since 1987/88. It was suitable for the job in the 4-cylinder cars, but the V8 Esprit starts at 350bhp and ??? (lotsa) torque, and in stock form, a V8 Esprit is nearing the limits of what the transaxle can take. People talk about how easy it is to get 450-500+hp from the Esprit V8; well, of course; Lotus could have done that from the factory, but they kept it down in part because of the transaxle. People LOVE to modify the V8 Esprits; a simple chip that changes the engine management system gives you a lot more instant power, and people like to change out the turbos, injectors and exhausts. The transaxles just can't take the repeated beating from 500hp, and they go boom. I think it's usually the diff or ring and pinion, but I may be mistaken here. The transaxles are definitely the car's weak spot, but the broken ones tend to usually be on the modified cars.
Beyond that, they have the occasional wheel bearing failure and such, and I think one year or two of the early cars may have had some timing belt or tensioner issues, or just maybe need it to be changed frequently -- or I may be thinking of another car . . . . Check on that with an expert.
Some people will say that the best Esprit ever made was the 1994-1995 S4S, an upgrade of the 1994 (maybe late 93) S4. The S4S is the fastest and most reliable version of the 4-cylinder Esprit, and the last version (except in the UK and a few other markets, where they offered a 2-liter for a few more years). The S4S is sometimes called "the Toyota of Esprits" by Lotus fans. I forget what most of the details are, but IIRC there are revisions to the engine internals and structure, engine management system, . . . I forget what else. Well, they're fast, and they're reliable, and the only complaint people ever had about them is that it still didn't have a V8!
The current "best value" in Esprits -- i.e., best performance + reliability per dollar -- is in the 1989-1991 Turbo SE models. These have 264 hp, the liquid intercooler ("Chargecooler"), the bulletproof GM fuel injection and engine management, blistering acceleration, and a top speed around 163-165mph. There were [comparatively] a lot of them made, and they can be bought in the range of $18,000 - $25,000 USD in North America. If you don't need to go quite as fast, the non-SE version is a few grand cheaper, with only 220 hp.
There are some great points to consider about any of these later Esprits:
- The bodies are reinforced with Kevlar; they stay nice and only rarely develop the traditional gel coat cracks, etc..
- Frames on all 1980 and newer Esprits are galvanized, and hold up very well against the elements.
- The Esprit had reached a higher level of refinement by the time the Peter Stevens-designed cars were made
- Cross-reference parts are well-documented, and many Lotus-specific parts are not that expensive compared to Ferrari parts.
- The late 4-cylinder cars have a long-life timing belt. With any 4-cylinder Esprit, you have half as many valves, pistons, tensioners, etc. to deal with when it comes to servicing (and service cost . . .)
- They are fairly simple cars, made of far fewer pars than most other cars; they are not a complicated mess like many Italian cars . .
- Lotus offers top-shelf support for Esprits of all ages. For example, they recently went through a "programme" of track testing (at Hethel) the various generations of Esprits and redeveloping the suspension using the best of today's components. They offer newly engineered spring/damper kits, bushings, and make tire recommendations for each version of Esprit. In general, parts availability for any Esprit is excellent, the only exceptions being with some of the outsourced parts (such as some transaxle parts for early cars with Citroen units). For any year Esprit, there really isn't much that you could possibly need that you can't get.
Well . . . if you have read this far . . . I hope is has been helpful!