Relax, it's a Lotus

Not only is the Lotus Evora quick and sharp, it’s also smooth – just don’t stress over the details
By Andrew Frankel

It might seem a surprising thing to say about a low-volume sports car manufacturer in these awkward times, but right now the mood at Lotus is buoyant. While others struggle to sell cars, the naturally diversified nature of Lotus’s business combined with perhaps an unparalleled ability to react to changing circumstances has brought a level of confidence to Hethel you’ll do well to find elsewhere in the industry. Indeed, while others lay off staff by the thousand, Lotus is recruiting.

Business is flooding in from the Far East in general and China in particular, while long-established marques that either have or are about to be let loose by their parents are turning to Lotus to help provide a cost-effective way of reinventing their brands as independents.

And if you look around the factory, there’s clearly good business to be done building battery-powered Tesla Roadsters, and that’s without mentioning money earned from Lotus one-make race series.

But what’s really spreading the smiles across Norfolk is its new Evora coupé. Priced to split the difference between a Porsche Cayman S and a basic 911, the Evora has enjoyed a generally rapturous reception from press and public alike, one group helping ensure the other place sufficient orders for Lotus to be sold out until the end of the year. At times like these, that’s a nice problem to have.

It is, however, a conceptually strange car, not least because it’s the only mid-engined 2+2 on sale. This configuration has been tried before by the Italians (Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati have made them in their time) but all have been unsatisfactory as only tiny rear seats have proven possible, usually at the price of seriously compromised styling.

The rear seats of the Evora are still tiny. I was unable to measure Lotus’ claim that there’s more room in the back than you’ll find in a 911, Aston Martin DB9 or even Audi TT, but if there is, it can only be millimetres. What you need to know is that if you’re tall no one will sit behind you, and if you’re not I suspect only unusually well schooled children will tolerate them, and then for short bursts. Otherwise they’re for emergencies.

Behind these seats sits a 3.5-litre V6 more usually found under the bonnet of a Toyota Camry. It gives 280bhp, which finds its way to the rear wheels via a six-speed gearbox sourced from a diesel Toyota Avensis. The chassis is naturally all Lotus’s own work and once more uses the bonded, extruded aluminium technology pioneered by the Elise 13 years ago but boasting more than double the torsional rigidity. Suspension comes from beautiful forged aluminium wishbones at each corner with Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs, as well as – unusually for a Lotus – anti-roll bars at both ends. The differential is not limited-slip because the chassis engineers decided the car was good enough without that and didn’t want to corrupt its steering feel or affect its handling balance.

Lotus charges £49,875 for the Evora (or £47,500 without the rear seats), which is near double what it asks for an Elise S even before you’ve played fast and loose on the extensive options list. And with one eye on that figure and another on what else you could buy for that kind of cash (the Nissan GT-R and BMW M3 are in the ballpark), early impressions of the Evora are disappointing. If it is possible to put the badly-fitted driver’s door, poorly adjusted handbrake, slack gear linkage, mediocre air-conditioning and intermittent remote central locking down to the test car’s early build, the scruffy instruments, high sills, small boot and offset driving position are all things customers will have to tolerate. And whatever else you do, avoid the optional Alpine sat-nav/entertainment system like a pint of time-expired prawns.

Is it an excuse that this is a Lotus? Will the tolerance threshold of a putative Evora customer be higher than that of someone on the point of buying a Porsche because they know they’re buying a genuinely hand-built product from a company that in its 60-year history has made fewer cars than did Porsche in 2008 alone? Perhaps. More likely they will be on the point of premature termination of the test drive when the road will open up, their right leg will stretch out and in the first minute they will have forgiven the Evora’s every flaw, and in the next forgotten them entirely.

On the right road, the Evora is a wonder.

Not even a Cayman, hitherto the best-handling mainstream production car on sale, can devour a British B-road with the fluency shown by the Evora. It feels a couple of hundred kilos lighter than its 1400kg kerb weight, has power-assisted steering rivalled only by the Porsche 911 GT3 for accuracy and feel, and when its ridiculously high limits are finally broached, yaw angles develop in such a slow, linear fashion that the car’s inherent agility is something to be exploited, not feared. As for the brakes, I’m not sure I’ve ever driven a car so over-specified in this area – the AP Racing disc set-up is clearly designed for an altogether more powerful application, so expect no changes to be made when the still secret but dead certain 400bhp supercharged Evora appears next year.

Even in normally aspirated form the Toyota engine, which I had feared would have only a supporting role, plays a full part in generating a fabulous driving experience. With Lotus-designed electronics and flywheel, it has a sharp and sweet sound, smooth power delivery and first-class throttle response. A shame, then, that the gearbox is slow and sloppy, its ratios a touch wide for the engine despite the test car being fitted with £1500 of optional short ratios. Bear in mind too that the apparently impressive CO2 and fuel consumption figures are quoted using standard Avensis gears, which will clearly be too long for the Evora. Even so, they don’t stop the Evora hitting 60mph in 4.9sec and carrying on to a top speed of 162mph.

Yet arguably the most tempting facet of the Evora’s character is that despite a voracious appetite for good roads, at its heart it is a relaxed and a relaxing car. That it rides exceptionally well will be no surprise to anyone who knows Lotus, but the fact that it’s also extremely refined probably will. A long driving holiday, two up and using the rear seat for luggage, would be a joyous experience.

I was surprised and disappointed by how hard the Lotus Evora tried to put me off. Its many faults mean that it still carries some of that cottage industry feel rather than proving to be something with talents as rounded as required to take on Porsche.

But when it matters, the Evora has no problem redeeming itself. Even its looks grow on you, which is more than I can say for the Cayman. It’s a car that it is possible to love and hate in alternating minutes, inspired in design and fundamental execution, but tripped up in the detailing that matters so much at this kind of money. Lotus fans will need no persuasion, but those Lotus is expecting to poach from elsewhere may take convincing. In the end, those who love driving will, like me, find it in their hearts to forgive all; those who don’t will walk away. It was ever thus at Lotus.