When you turn south from Scotland’s busy A82 highway to give your car its head down the eastern side of Loch Fyne, there’s a stirring combination of high-speed corners and varying surfaces which, taken fast enough, can test any car’s stability, body control, steering accuracy and noise suppression. Why noise suppression? Because a well-known characteristic of Scotland’s lesser rural roads is the coarseness of their surfaces. The noise they generate can make driving unpleasant, even in good cars. These were my thoughts as I turned south in the Evora, the first all-new Lotus in 13 years.
Within a few minutes the matter was decided. I’m not saying how fast we went, but I saw the three change-up lights on the tach a few times in high gears, and we encountered plenty of those characteristic patches of worn-out bitumen that, at speed in the wrong car, sound like a controlled explosion under your wheels. The Evora rode them as if developed for no other purpose, supremely in touch with the road’s topography but shielded from the effects of its scabrous surface.
For a new Lotus, especially a $76,000 model, this matters. We’ve known for half a century that Hethel can do class-leading road-holding and brilliant steering, and combine such things with perfect body control in soft-riding cars. But what they’ve not managed is refinement – and to this day it prevents many a Lotus owner from using the car for long journeys. The Evora changes everything. It has the traditional Lotus driving virtues, but now it stands ready to take you, a passenger and all the luggage you need in comfort.
Lotus makes much of the car’s status as the world’s only mid-engined two-plus-two, believing that the Evora’s ability to carry a pair of 10-year-olds in the rear will make a big difference to sales. Actually, much larger adults can squeeze in there for short rides, too, which strikes us as the real advantage. But for the most part the rear compartment will probably provide easy space for jackets and briefcases, a big problem for less spacious cars with mid-mounted engines.
The Evora is a car Lotus engineers have wanted to build for years, because it answers one burning question: how the Elise’s pioneering bonded aluminum “tub” chassis, emulated nowadays by the likes of Aston Martin and Morgan, can progress to even greater things. The Evora uses those principles, but it now has a three-part chassis assembly, with detachable “sacrificial” sections at the front (in aluminum) and rear (in steel) that both protect the central tub in a collision and make repair easier. It works so well that when Lotus earmarked six Evora prototypes for crash testing they found they only needed four, because the central structure was usually undamaged. Improved design has made the Evora’s total load-bearing structure more than two and a half times stiffer than the Elise’s. You feel the benefit of this rigidity with every mile you drive.
All of the Evora’s running gear is from the top drawer. It uses new forged aluminum double wishbones front and rear, much stronger than the Elise’s steel units but no heavier. The dampers are by Bilstein, springs by Eibach, hydraulically power-assisted steering rack by TRW and custom four-pot brake calipers by AP Racing. All components get careful Lotus tuning; although the Evora has taken only 27 months to produce, from drawing board to production, it has been more thoroughly tested than any Lotus in history.
Lightweight components are used all over the car (even the flat-bottomed steering wheel has magnesium innards to prevent it from acting like a flywheel during quick maneuvers), but the claimed curb weight of 2928 lbs no better than Porsche’s steel-chassis Boxster S. That just shows how hard it is to contain weight in cars that must offer plush trim, lots of chassis electronics, sat-nav and a premium hi-fi.
Lotus makes much of its closeness to Toyota, once its owner and now the provider of the Evora’s all-aluminum 3.5-liter V6 engine. The Japanese giant has again been remarkably amenable to Lotus’s modifications to its components; Hethel receives the V6 in a crate, but proceeds to fit its own 32-bit engine management processor, change its outputs and rev limits, fit a custom exhaust system and mate it to a six-speed manual gearbox (also by Toyota) which the maker doesn’t even use with this engine. The result is stunning, and does much to underscore the Evora’s efficiency. It gains 30mpg in real-world use, yet it can hit 162mph flat out and sprint from 0-60mph in a stunning 4.9sec.
There’s no clear evidence that the Evora is a two-plus-two in its styling, which looks considerably more exotic than its rivals. In fact, the car seems impossibly compact for a four-seater, and the “visor” screen reminds you of the Lancia Stratos.
Open the door and you’ll find none of the difficulty an Elise presents to entry. There’s still a sill, but it’s 20mm lower, while the hip point is a little higher. You just lead with your left foot, slide your leg under the wheel, aim your backside at the cushion of the thin but delicately contoured Recaro bucket and pull your right leg in last. The seat is perfectly shaped, and there’s plenty of head room above and elbow space on either side. The wheel is adjustable for reach and rake but the natural position is quite high, so you get a perfect view of the twin instrument dials (with supporting “eared” electronic displays to the left and right of the wheel rim). The clarity of the instruments makes the reflections in the screen regrettable. Likewise, you can see the main switches logically grouped on the lower right of the wheel, but you can’t see the couple on the left at all.
The interior is leather-trimmed and the good quality of its materials is instantly obvious, though it lacks the perfection of Porsche in the fit of its panels and straightness of its edges. These are early cars, says Lotus. There are a lot of options and various dress-up packs available that can build the sub-$75,000 price to $90k-plus if you insist, but we probably wouldn’t. The car’s core attributes are its essence – such as a high-set gearlever so handsome that it dominates the cabin like a piece of sculpture (ours had a two-tone leather gear knob above a beautifully turned shaft and reverse lock-out collar, in aluminum). Its neat movements, with subtle spring loading across a compact gate, are entirely worthy of the looks.
There’s none of the find-the-button routine of other cars: you just twist the key and it fires. There’s a zing in the engine that is instantly un-Toyota, and a promising bark from behind. The gearlever slides into first with a sweet mechanical movement. The clutch isn’t heavy, but it bites with precision and the Evora moves away with the alacrity of an Elise. You have an instant impression of mid-range torque.
As the engine warms, you rapidly learn how easily the lever moves, how closely the six “sports” ratios are stacked, and how the induction rasp gets more serious above 4000rpm as the inlet tracts change length in favor of top-end power. The optional Sport button on the dash sharpens throttle response, lets you use an extra 400rpm (7000rpm against 6600) and tames intervention from the electronic diff and traction control, but the truth is that if you thumb it, even in the wet, all you’ll feel are the engine effects. Riding on 18 and 19-inch Pirelli P-Zeros, the Evora has reserves few drivers will fully explore.
Most owners will never need the standard chassis electronics (ABS, traction control, brake-force distribution, electronic diff), let alone the full ESP that is coming with the U.S.-market Evora next year. Lotus set out to create a chassis so capable and intuitive that it just doesn’t need help in any but the most extraordinary situations. The sweetly weighted steering has razor sensitivity, especially at the straight-ahead, which takes it to the top of the class.
How does the Evora behave at the limit? Well, as our pictures show, its party trick is neat power oversteer in tighter curves, provided you remove all electronic aids (although you can’t cut the ABS). But the truth is, it just goes where you point it. You might taste a hint of understeer if you arrive hamfistedly fast and brake too late into a tight bend, but even then the wonderful brakes, bristling with feel and power, will probably wash away your excessive speed.
Despite the Evora’s storming 0-60mph time, the performance doesn’t really come across as explosive. Perhaps the seat support is too good and the feeling of control too absolute. But it does seem relentless. The engine, which is as loud as legislation allows, builds thrust in partnership with a well-bred yowl from around 2800rpm, until it is giving its best beyond 4500rpm. There’s a trio of change-up lights that show progessively across the tacho. The Sport button allows you 7200rpm momentarily, then 7000 thereafter. Without Sport, it cuts out 400rpm lower.
Bottom line? The Evora is instantly impressive. There’s more to come, of course, in many versions. And they’ll get better at trimming the car, too.
On our Scottish test, once the car’s superb driving qualities had been established, I found myself thinking suddenly of Jim Clark, the late double F1 World Champion whose legendary smoothness and speed set so many of the driving parameters that have guided Lotus since the 1960s.
I still love those stories of Clark invariably qualifying his F1 car faster than any teammate, while leaving more fuel in the tank and more meat on the tires. The Evora is for that kind of driver. It’s extremely quick, but it rewards smoothness and accuracy.
New and different the Evora may be, but one immutable fact reigns above all. It’s a real Lotus.Words: Steve Cropley/AutocarPhotos: Charlie Magee/Autocar