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km : First Drive

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17 August 2010

British sports cars have always been a love-hate thing. In the end, most people hate them, but the ones who truly love them have created solid justifications for their, um, character flaws: Sketchy build quality — er, we call that craftsmanship; Body panels that rust in the desert — right, well you see, the car actually gets lighter as it ages; Comically unreliable electrical systems — sure, but at least they don’t leak. You can’t really blame the blokes who built them; after all, the English value their traditions, and if that’s the way it’s always been, then that’s the way it always will be. Let’s just call it BSCT — British Sports Car Tradition. As the last scion of the British sports car invasion that included Triumph, Austin-Healey, and MG (and Jaguar too, but they don’t really build sports cars any more), we had our concerns about Lotus’s decision to build a more grown up sports car called the Evora.



Lotus, of course, has always been a bit different. While the other Brits were busy hammering out sexy bodywork to cover up economy-sedan frames and tractor engines, Lotus co-founder Colin Chapman was building trophy winners, moderately powered but lightweight and well-mannered race cars. He was a minimalist, a firm believer in the “less-is-more” philosophy, and a brilliant chassis man who knew that maintaining speed was just as important as making it in the first place. The first real road-worthy Lotus, the 1958 Elite, featured a fiberglass monocoque, weighed in at just 1208 pounds, and was powered by a 75-horsepower all-aluminum four-cylinder. Clearly it was worlds apart from the steel-body-on-frame roadsters riding the same boats across the big pond.



The Evora continues many of these Lotus traditions, wearing lightweight body materials (aluminum and fiberglass), sporting an outsourced all-aluminum engine (this one from Toyota), and maintaining a tight focus on chassis dynamics. But where the Elise and Exige are road-legal track toys, the Evora is meant to go head to head with Stuttgart’s finest. It comes with a fully trimmed cockpit, air conditioning and a radio. There’s even a back seat. Kind of. We got our first look at this more refined Lotus one year ago at the Monterey classic car weekend, and now we’ve actually had some seat time of our own to find out if is it more of the same, or whether it will start a whole new tradition. Here’s the good, the bad and the beautiful of the Evora.



The Good

It’s a Lotus, so let’s start with the chassis. Despite wearing 225/40-18 front and 255/35-19 rear tires, the Evora manages to soak up bumps that would rock other sports cars to their cores while still carving NASA-precise corners. Better still, it can do both at once, which is just amazing. Lotus chalks it up to a solid foundation on which fairly compliant suspension hardware is mounted. This car is proof that a bit of suspension travel is a good thing, absorbing the vertical disruptions while its wishbones maintain proper geometry to keep the tires tracking correctly.



The same rigid chassis that lets the suspension work so well also pays dividends in the steering department. The front wheels are only burdened with carrying 39.6 percent of the Evora’s roughly 3000 pounds, freeing them up for their primary duty as directional control. Steering effort is light but exceptionally precise and well communicated, thanks to a relatively mild boost from the power steering pump. The small-diameter steering wheel compensates for the power assist, requiring just the right amount of muscle from the driver. Few cars offer the pure, simple pleasure of turning corners as the Evora.



Brakes are likewise superb, satisfying the driver with a solid, linear pedal that telegraphs every action at the rotors. There’s nothing soft or vague in the Evora’s stopping abilities; the hardware is track-ready equipment from AP Racing, right down to the hard pads that expect a firm foot and actually sing just a bit when only light pressure is applied. Everywhere you look at the Evora’s chassis, you see evidence of years of racing experience that’s been wrapped in a pretty package for the street. Mr. Chapman would be pleased indeed.



The driver’s environment is blessedly simple as well. That small, simple steering wheel, uncluttered by the near absence of buttons — only cruise control switches mar its surface — sits between the driver and an equally simple instrument cluster. An analog tach and speedo are the main attraction, with fuel level and coolant temps reading out in digital displays within the cluster. To be honest, the dash looks like it could have been swiped from a high-end motorcycle. Regardless, all the information a driver should need — except perhaps oil temperature and pressure — can be seen through the opening in the steering wheel.



The front seats are very fine pieces from none other than Recaro, and they’re perfect for the duty of grand touring. The rest of the cockpit isn’t much for spectators, though it’s trimmed out nicely in full cowhides that are very obviously — and very Britishly — stitched and applied by hand. The other materials found inside are minimal and appropriate for a Lotus: wool carpet delivers a sense of refinement while offering some very real sound insulation, and brushed aluminum graces the mechanical workings and other surfaces that aren’t covered by leather or wool. Plastic is kept to bare minimum.





The Bad

We didn’t mention the engine above, which suggests that it’s not good; but to be honest, it’s not really all that bad either. It’s just not that memorable of an engine in an otherwise entertaining sports car. A lot of this sentiment comes from its lack of outright power (it makes 276 horses at 6400 rpm) and its less than symphonic noises. Essentially a 3.5-liter V6 with the block and heads from Toyota’s venerable Camry, but fine-tuned by Lotus specifically for the Evora, including bespoke intake and exhaust plumbing, the engine is lightweight and durable but a bit flat in its delivery. Below 3000 rpm, for instance, the engine is about as eager to stir as a teenager on a Sunday morning. Between 3000 and 4500, it starts to wake up, but still can’t shake the hangover. Only beyond 4500 does it really feel like it’s fully awake, and it’s a quick blast from there to its 6600-rpm redline (or 7000 if you order the Sport Package with its optional “sport” throttle mapping). Either way, the 9000-rpm tach teases like a Mormon girl in a bikini.



Beyond the slim powerband, the engine lacks its own distinct mechanical song, an essential element in a sports car. After all, you can probably tell a Ferrari V8 from a Lambo V10 from a Porsche flat-six (distinguishing between air- and water-cooled versions even) without ever laying eyes on them, but the Evora is generic by comparison. Perhaps it’s the 90-degree V6 architecture, but it sounds like it could be any number of daily drivers, especially below 4000 rpm. In fact, from the cockpit the noises border on agricultural at the lower engine speeds. Above 4000, it sings a huskier, livelier note that at times resembles the metallic song of a water-cooled 911.



In all, it’s not a bad motor; it’s just not all that special compared to the rest of the car. At least it should function flawlessly. So should the transmission, for that matter, as it comes out of a European-spec Toyota diesel. And while the box may be stout enough to deal with boatloads of torque and severe abuse, it isn’t well suited to the demands of sports car shifting duty. Specifically, our 4800-mile example absolutely refused to accept a quick 1-2 shift, instead demanding slow, precise, delicate movements from first to second gear. The 2-3 upshift was nearly as troublesome. It’s entirely possible our press tester was limping along on a poorly adjusted clutch or was suffering worn synchros from numerous hard drives, but our experience didn’t bode well for a modern sports car.



The rest of the Evora’s demons we’ll have to chalk up to BSCT. And to be honest, most of them live in the cockpit. Take that beautiful leather-trimmed dash, for example, no doubt stitched by the gifted hands of an artisan and glued to the structural aluminum panels by the same. Well, perhaps a little more glue is in order, as ours was lifting and peeling away in several spots. The hand-cut nature of the leatherwork also occasionally reveals itself in the form of visible relief notches cut just a bit too deep where the hide wraps a corner. Flaws like that are a mixed blessing, at once aggravating for their lack of perfection while also serving as humble reminders that perfection is usually not achieved by humans alone.



Other details are victims of form following function, such as the mail slot for a rear window, or the deep side sills that make entry and exit into the car a slightly acrobatic act, especially to avoid scuffing their leather trim. That’s all understandable, given the nature of the Evora, but it seems unforgivable not to figure in a dead pedal for the driver’s left foot, especially given this Lotus’s position as a grand tourer, a car for the open road more than the track. Likewise, the Evora’s storage capacity is limited to one modestly sized compartment behind the engine; the front end doesn’t even open, let alone accommodate luggage. There’s always the back seat area, of course, which is really better suited to hauling duffel bags than people anyway.



Little details, like power windows without any form of one-touch functionality or the power mirror switch that’s’ buried in a nearly unreachable cove within the driver’s door panel, are minor inconveniences that still detract from the pleasure of daily driving. So too do the climate controls, which have no actual tactile feedback; instead, they are backlit when engaged, though the backlighting is entirely washed out by daylight (though perhaps not in England). Numerous efforts to confirm the functioning of the air conditioner by shielding the aluminum A/C button with a cupped hand led to sheer frustration and burned hands on one 90-degree day.



The entertainment/navigation system is in a league of its own, however. It’s essentially an aftermarket unit from Alpine, the same kind you can probably pick up from Crutchfield. If you’ve owned an aftermarket Alpine recently, it might not drive you crazy, but it’s far from intuitive on the fly. Even shutting the damn thing down requires the illogical action of holding down the “Source” button for several seconds. We would have preferred an extra storage cubby.





As a grand touring car, the Evora could be a bit better at accommodating its driver and passenger. Modern creature comforts are certainly present, but their execution is far behind the competition in the sub-$100K sports car market. While on the topic of price, though, we come to our final point.



The Beautiful

From every angle, the Evora looks completely unlike anything else. Those in the know will certainly see hints of older Lotuses in the general shape and proportions, with cars like the Europa and Esprit probably drawing the closest comparisons. But the Evora is in no way a retro design, instead achieving its appearance from modern shapes and lines wrapped around a serious mechanical package. Its beauty comes as much from its function as the pure emotional expressiveness of its shape.



Most observers won’t even know what the Evora is, they’ll just know instantly that it’s special. And they’ll assume it’s fast. Interestingly, almost everyone expects the Evora to cost considerably more than its as-tested $83,770 price. Most figure it’s worth $125,000 to $150,000 based on looks alone, and that’s not always such a bad thing.



The bad electronics and sketchy craftsmanship all mean very little once you arrive somewhere in the Evora. Wherever you stop, people will take notice. The car’s shape is so dead sexy, it forces people to ask questions. Valets will volunteer a front spot, and it’s not uncommon to see other drivers working their way through traffic just to catch a glimpse and maybe even an impromptu camera-phone picture to show their friends.



In some ways the Lotus Evora is truly the last bastion of the British Sports Car Tradition. It certainly has its share of quirks and craftsmanship issues. But in an era where just about everything else is robotically perfect, it serves as a reminder that a little bit of human imperfection makes for a more interesting experience. The Evora is bursting with personality, and we love it so much we just might make excuses for it.


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